Back to the Swish—research article

Steve’s Response to Shawn’s blog post, Neuroscience, Metaphors and Coaching


Shawn writes:

         “I briefly mention a few of the other sillier objections Steve raises.”  I think the word “sillier” is an evaluative judgment that goes far beyond a respectful exchange of different opinions, and has no place in this discussion.

I nearly got pulled in to respond to a further discussion of neuroscience. Yes, there is such a thing as an electrical synapse (I didn’t know that) in which ions carry charge from one neuron to another. However ions are not the same as “sparks of electricity” bridging a gap, and electrical synapses don’t use neurotransmitters. Wikipedia says, “Without a qualifier, ‘synapse’ commonly means chemical synapse.” Chemical synapses are far more common, they do use neurotransmitters, and the neurotransmitters are not charged ions (much less “sparks of electricity”), they are neutral. (Shawn didn’t know that.)


More to the point, all this discussion about synapses (and which of us knows less about neuroscience, different kinds of conditioning, and nuclear physics) is so distant from the discussion of the swish pattern that it is totally irrelevant to the use of NLP with a particular client (or one who isn’t particular).


My challenge to Shawn in a previous post was:

“Please provide a specific example of how a specific ‘principle of neuroscience’ can be used to choose a direction for ‘experimentation with clients’ in a way that goes beyond what we already know and can predict from NLP principles or practice.”

         Shawn has not provided such an example. He mentioned a “fusiform swish,” but without any details, and he offered a definition of “working memory,” but without any indication of how that “goes beyond what we already know and can predict from NLP principles or practice.”

         This dialogue started with my reviewing YouTube demonstrations of the swish pattern, which is a very specific experiential NLP process with clear and specific instructions about how to do it. Our discussion then veered off into neuroscience, conditioning, nuclear physics, and other theoretical topics that have little or nothing to do with how to do a swish. I’m quite willing to discuss any experiential aspects of the swish, but I’ve completely lost interest in any further discussion of neuroscience, conditioning, nuclear physics or other theoretical matters.


Back to the swish pattern:

A 2011 Pubmed article reports the results of 3 studies on the feeling response to moving images as follows (from the abstract):

         “We found that negative scenes generally elicited less negative responses and lower levels of arousal when imagined moving away from participants and shrinking, and more negative responses and higher levels of arousal when imagined moving toward participants and growing, as compared to the responses elicited by negative scenes when imagined unchanged. Patterns in responses to neutral scenes undergoing the same imagined transformations were similar on ratings of emotional arousal, but differed on valence-generally eliciting greater positivity when imagined moving toward participants and growing, and less positivity when imagined moving away from participants and shrinking.”

         These findings are experiential, unequivocal, and could hardly be more directly relevant to the mechanics of the swish pattern. Furthermore, they are consistent with my understanding of the swish (detailed in a previous post) namely that the negative feeling elicited by the cue image decreases as the cue image moves away and shrinks, while the positive feeling in response to the desired self-image increases as the image moves closer and becomes larger.

These findings are not consistent with Shawn’s understanding that the feeling in response to the cue image is “maintained,” and (somehow) “applied” to the self-image. Here is what Shawn wrote:

“. . . the client has a desire for the cigarette, and the classical swish is intended to maintain the state of desire but to then apply that desire to the self-image. The client maintains the state of ‘I want’ but changes from “I want to smoke’ to ‘I want to be her’; meaning her ideal future self.”

Firstly, note that Shawn writes, “ideal future self,” which is not correct, and can lead to problems if the client has an unrealistic perfectionistic idea of what “ideal” means. The desired self-image can be described in a variety of ways—“evolved,” “more capable,” “someone for whom the problem behavior is no longer an issue,” “the more capable you of the future.” etc. That may seem like hair-splitting, but it is not. The “linguistic” in NLP indicates the importance of precision in the use of words in doing change work—sloppy language results in sloppy (and more difficult) work.

As I wrote in a previous post, the desire for the cigarette” has to be an ambivalent feeling, because the client wants to change the behavior that elicits the feeling. If that feeling were “maintained,” and “applied” to the desired self-image, the result would also be ambivalent, indicating a sloppy process and result.

Even more important, if it were true that the state of desire elicited by the cue image is simply transferred and applied to the desired self-image, there would be absolutely no need to be sure in advance that the desired self-image is strongly attractive in itself, which is a key element in the process when done correctly, and as originally presented by Bandler.