Steve Andreas’ NLP Blog

NLP Articles, News, and Tidbits about Psychotherapy and Personal Development

Small-Scope Synesthesia

In response to my previous blog post on synesthesia, Gary Skaleski (MA, LPC, currently working as an EAP case manager) wrote the following:


“About 1976-77 John Grinder was teaching about modalities, and at one point came up with a technique which I had not heard anyone else talk about, not written up as far as I know, but which I found helpful. We started talking about synesthesia, and while discussing overlap, John suggested we spend time every day mapping from one modality to another, but at such a small level that we would never get overwhelmed.  Example: take a sound.  Not a word (big scope: “Amen”) but part of that word (‘Ah’) and turn that into a feeling (not emotion, but how and where that sound feels physically in or on your body), then take that feeling and turn it into a visual image (again, not a scene but a simple shape, color, etc.).

“The order is not important, and could start with a feeling, to visual to auditory, etc.  Just keep overlapping at this small level.  After a few weeks of doing this, I noticed a significant drop in my general anxiety — things that might have ‘gotten under my skin’ did not elicit as large a response as before.

“It’s an interesting and effective technique, and in this age of mindfulness and meditation, it’s also a way someone could take any experience, chunk it down, and use the small elements of that experience to remap at an equivalent level in all systems, so going back to thinking about the original experience is not as overwhelming as before.”


I wrote back: “Gary, thanks for your note. I remember Grinder presenting this ‘small chunk overlap’ as a way to work with schizophrenia about 1978 (and it may be mentioned in Frogs into Princes) as a gentle and non-threatening way to integrate modalities. I don’t know anyone (other than you) who has tried it, but it certainly sounds right, and I can’t see how it could possibly hurt. Boredom would probably keep me from spending enough time doing it to be worthwhile, but others might not be so encumbered.


Gary replied: “This was early NLP, so submodalities and spinning feelings were still in the distant future.  I would probably spend about 20-30 minutes a day doing this, and it was fascinating to concentrate on the smallest detail (a line, different parts of words with different sounds, pitches, volume, and feelings here and there (equivalent to the est technique of asking, ‘What color is your headache?  Where is it located?  What shape is it,’ asking this over and over until it changed or disappeared).  Anyway, we were still green in those days and John could have told me to put my head in a garbage can and yell to cure something and I probably would have done it.”


Steve wrote to John Grinder, asking him to look over the above to see if it accurately represented his memory and understanding, and/or suggest changes or additions; his reply is below:


John Grinder replied: “Your account strikes me as entirely plausible. I have no idea about the dates involved — it sounds close to when the period when we were exploring synesthesia. I have had good success in cases of clients who get triggered by X; if you elicit a reasonably well-specified description of the triggering stimuli, you can decompose them into their submodality components, and use small pieces of those components mapped onto other submodalities of other representational systems through synesthesia circuitry (e.g. swatches of color, small sounds, any of the submodalities kinesthetically) and either have the client’s unconscious (ideally) or in some cases, have the client deliberately present to him/herself these small chunk elements (and therefore meaningless and ineffective as a trigger), the triggers lose their ability to access the states that they have been historically associated with. In my experience, this has worked with the full range of clients, from chronic schizophrenics to off-the-street clients.

“I have used the small chunk approach with synesthesia mapping with many clients over the years — it works very well (for me, at least) with things like pain control. I remember taking a fall climbing and breaking a bone in my ankle. I had about one and a half miles to get back to my pickup truck. Because of my fascination with, and playing around with, such synesthesia mapping, I mapped the pain (important to maintain a sensing of the pain to avoid doing things that would exacerbate the injury) onto pressure and heat. By so doing, it was able to carefully return to my truck without further damaging my ankle.

“I have used it with women who want to be fully conscious during childbirth but not feel the pain. One striking example was a woman who has strong K > V circuitry. I had her practice for some weeks during her pregnancy. When she went into labor, the professional medical types wired her for contractions as well as the baby for heartbeat, breathing. She was walking around the room talking to her mom and friends, and the nurses were looking worried and constantly checking the instruments. Fortunately they were intelligent enough not to mention that according to the instruments, the woman should be in severe pain. The baby was born premature and was kept in a critical care unit because the brainstem breathing was not mature enough to safely maintain the breathing patterns. The mother decided to stay in the hospital to be close to her baby. Two or three days after the birth, she, the head nurse, and her mother walked in the room where she had been in labor. She stepped through the door, stopped abruptly and exclaimed, ‘They have painted the room!’ What had happened was that practicing the synesthesia patterning (K >V) kicked in unconsciously, and she had succeeded in remaining conscious and mobile by changing the colors in the room to one that served as a measurement of the pain without the requirement of experiencing the pain.

“I was amused by Gary’s statement about yelling into a garbage can — it is certainly accurate that congruency on the part of the agent of change is a powerful aspect of doing change work.”

What is Synesthesia?

One problem that crops up repeatedly in NLP is imprecision in the meaning of a word, creating an ambiguity about what kind of sensory experience a word refers to. Since most NLP works directly with changing sensory experience, it’s crucial to know what that is. The word “synesthesia” has been used in NLP for two very different kinds of experience, and this often causes confusion — whether or not that confusion is noticed. Below is an online definition of what the wider world means by the word synesthesia:

Synesthesia is a condition in which one sense (for example, hearing) is simultaneously perceived as if by one or more additional senses such as sight. Another form of synesthesia joins objects such as letters, shapes, numbers or people’s names with a sensory perception such as smell, color or flavor. The word synesthesia comes from two Greek words, syn (together) and aisthesis (perception). Therefore, synesthesia literally means ‘joined perception.’ ”

I want to point out three crucial criteria embedded in this quote: two (or more) sensory perceptions are joined simultaneously, in the same location in space and time. When someone sees a number in a particular color, they see a colored number — they don’t see a number adjacent to a swatch of color, or a number followed by a color, or a color followed by a number.

Synesthesia is often described as something rare and unusual, and it’s true that seeing letters or numbers in color is uncommon. Years ago when Connirae and I were investigating different spelling strategies in great detail, we found one woman who saw each letter of the alphabet in a specific individual color. When she spelled a word, she knew it was correct if all the letters changed to one color! Although this was a complex way of spelling words, and I wouldn’t recommend it over the “good spelling strategy” discovered in the early days of NLP, it did work for her.

Another aspect of synesthesia is that while it may seem unusual to those who don’t experience it, I have never heard of it being a problem for those who do. It is fairly common among “autistic savants” but it isn’t a cause of their limitations. Rather it is always a useful part of some amazing skills that are far beyond what most of us can do, such as quickly noticing if a large number is prime or not, or multiplying two large numbers. I have never heard of anyone for whom a synesthesia was a significant problem; rather it is an interesting embellishment of experience, and it is often credited with contributing to creativity. Here is a short TED talk by a synesthete; search online for “synesthesia savant” for other descriptions.

Actually we all experience synesthesia in ways that are so commonplace that it’s easy to overlook, and not realize that it is fundamentally the same process. As I type these words, the feeling in my fingers occurs at the same time — and in the same location — as the sight of my fingers moving on the keys, and the clicking sound of the keys. The same is true if I close my eyes and imagine typing — I see and feel my fingers moving on the keys, and hear the clicking sound that the keys make.

This is only an example of how our brains integrate the information coming from the different senses into a single coherent experience.

Imagine how weird and disconcerting it would be if those three different perceptions occurred in different locations and at different times! The feedback information from each sense would be out of synchrony with the others, making it difficult to learn even the simplest of motions, like bringing a glass to my lips to take a drink.



When someone has a representation in only one modality, an early basic NLP intervention is to overlap from that modality to others, in order to add information from other senses. “When you hear those words in that tonality, what image comes to your mind?” “When you see that image, what sounds can you hear?” That kind of question is a deliberate instruction to elicit synesthesia in order to enrich someone’s experience by accessing relevant useful information that they may be ignoring. An image of a future event may look wonderful, but when you add in sounds and/or tactile kinesthetic feelings, it may be much less desirable. With more information, we always make decisions that are more accurate and balanced predictors of future satisfaction.

In everyday conversation we often speak of a sharp sound, a sour smell, a sweet spot, a flat color, or a loud shirt. While some of these expressions may be only metaphoric, often they indicate synesthesia that is below awareness, or on the edge of what we usually notice in our internal experience. For instance, when I hear music or voices, I always have a visual experience of abstract transparent 3-D shapes moving from left to right. Like any other skill, it has advantages and drawbacks. I have always preferred simpler melodies or small ensembles, because it is easier to visualize a smaller number of sounds. When there are too many sounds, as with a large orchestra or a big band, my images become cluttered, tangled and unpleasant. I also have trouble understanding conversations in noisy rooms, and if I’m looking for an address in unfamiliar territory, I need to turn the car radio off or I begin to have symptoms of ADHD.

To summarize, the widely accepted meaning of synesthesia is to experience two or more sensory perceptions simultaneously in the same location in space. This is an enrichment of experience that is generally useful, and only very rarely a problem.


What is the other definition of synesthesia?

In Robert Dilts’ Encyclopedia of NLP the entry titled Synesthesia states:

“Sometimes various sensations become connected and overlapped so completely that it is not possible to easily distinguish one from the other in a causal relationship. Feeling deeply moved by a piece of music would be an example of this. The feeling cannot really be distinguished or separated from the sound of the music. The same could be said for the sense of fear or pleasure that people experience when they see certain types of images.”

These “hear-feel” or “see-feel” causal linkages were called “fuzzy functions” in the early days of NLP. They are very important to us — sometimes problematic; sometimes very useful — but they are radically different from the previous definition of synesthesia in several ways:

  1. The causal relationship mentioned by Dilts presupposes a passage of time between the cause and effect, so the joining of the two sensations is sequential rather than simultaneous — even if it is very rapid.
  2. The two sensations are in different locations in space. The sound or image causing the feeling is typically heard or seen in a location outside the body, while the feeling is felt inside the body, mostly along the midline of the chest and/or belly. Even when the sound is heard in the ears, or the image is seen inside the head, that is still a very different location than the emotional feeling of “feeling moved,” “pleasure,” or “fear.”
  3. Finally, the emotional feeling in response to the sound or image is an evaluative feeling that is very different from a perceptual tactile feeling in the skin or fingers. Tactile feelings provide information about what is touched — its size, temperature, pressure, texture, etc. In contrast, emotional feelings provide information about the values of the person having the feelings.

This distinction between tactile and evaluative feelings is clearest when we have an evaluative feeling in response to a tactile feeling. If you are enjoying a loving touch, you experience both tactile feelings in the skin and underlying tissue (pressure, temperature, etc.) and also your emotional experience of enjoyment along the midline. But if someone unwelcome touched you in exactly the same way, you would have a very different emotional response to the same set of tactile sensations.

These three differences point out how very different this second definition of synesthesia is from the more widely accepted one. When a NLPer says that a client has a “synesthesia,” they are almost always using this second meaning of the word. They are also usually talking about a synesthesia that a client complains about because the resulting feeling is unpleasant, or has problematic consequences.


Does this distinction matter?

Since any ambiguity can lead to confusion, it’s always useful to be very clear what a word means, especially when the wider world has a different meaning for it. One way to avoid the ambiguity of the word “synesthesia” is to simply not use it at all, which is what Connirae and I have done for many years. Most clients who seek personal change do so because of unpleasant evaluative feelings. Since usually they have little or no awareness of how those feelings are generated by mostly unconscious visual images, auditory sounds, tactile feelings — and/or less often, smell or taste — we don’t find any advantage in using a special word for it. Furthermore the word “synesthesia” is a nominalization that turns a process into a noun, and tends to distract and obscure the specific sensory experience it refers to. Keeping in mind that the emotional feeling is in response to a perception or memory in one or more of the sensory modalities helps us focus on adjusting those in order to change the resulting feeling.

But before making any such adjustments, it’s important to think about the “problem” feeling in a wider context of space and time, to be sure that a change is “ecological.” A “bad” feeling of shame or guilt may be very useful in motivating us to make apologies or amends to repair a relationship that was damaged by something we did, or failed to do. If this positive function is not incorporated into any change, it will be very difficult to make any change, and it isn’t likely to last.

The flip side of this is that some “good” feelings lead to destructive consequences, such as overeating, drug use, or other compulsive behavior. In those cases it can be useful to make adjustments that result in “bad” feelings that are more useful in the larger context of space and time.

25 April 2017: Also see the followup to this blog post, Small Scope Synesthesia.

Sometimes an intervention doesn’t work because something else needs to happen first. Putting on your pants before putting on underpants just doesn’t work very well, unless you just want to get attention at a party. Other times a “great” intervention might not quite fit the circumstances. You may see a nice-looking shirt in a store window, but when you try it on, you may find that it just doesn’t fit your body.

There is a widespread misunderstanding that a particular experience will be a resource for any problem or outcome, in any context. However an experience that is a wonderful resource in one situation can be a disaster in another. A “resource” experience may not fit at all, or it may be a close fit, but not close enough. Sometimes a “resource” experience is inappropriate because it’s too specific.

Recently a therapist sent me a detailed description of her work with a friend, asking me some questions about what she did. The exceptional detail in her description gave me some confidence that my responses will be relevant. (This definitely wasn’t a case of, “I tried X method but it didn’t work; what should I do?”) Her letter provided a rich opportunity to point out examples of a number of different “fine points” in NLP work. My responses are interspersed in brown italics.


Hi Steve:

I was using your Resolving Grief technique from Heart of the Mind on a friend recently. I had some questions regarding the process. I was wondering if I could get your take on this?

My friend expressed a loss of a friendship; it wasn’t a death, but a termination without any closure. So she had mixed feelings — anger, anxiety and sadness — since the loss of friendship wasn’t on her own terms.

Interestingly, when I had her access the presence of this person, she created an entire scenario in her head that has never happened. She said it’s the scenario she generally creates about this friend, which causes anxiety. The friend (who is in color/moving) is sitting down in a chair that my friend normally sits in during class, and she’s located 2-4 feet in front of my friend. My friend is standing and the ex-friend is to the right of her sitting in the chair. The ex-friend then says some snarky comment to my friend. My friend says she hears her ex-friend’s voice first, then sees her, and then panics.



It’s useful to disentangle your friend’s three different feelings. Her sadness is in response to the loss of the relationship, and anger indicates that there is some “unfinished business” that needs to be resolved using the forgiveness process before doing the grief process. You’ll find more detail on resolving grief than we put in Heart of the Mind in a later article.

I assume that her scenario elicits panic because she anticipates having a difficult talk with the lost friend, so she’s anxious about how that might turn out.

For those interested in such things, the sadness and anger are at the same logical level (the relationship), but the anxiety is at a higher logical level because it is in response to how she imagines the discussion of the sadness and anger with her friend might turn out (about the relationship).


I contemplated doing the phobia cure, but I wanted to see how changes in the submodalities would affect her.


Since the scenario your friend is imaging “never happened,” it’s a future forecast, in contrast to a past memory. This means the phobia method isn’t likely to work. The phobia method is great for a response elicited by a past memory. However, panic and anxiety are in response to a future event, not a past one, so different methods are appropriate for that.


I then asked her to think of someone who is no longer in her life but who she thinks fondly of.


This is an example of asking for a resource counterexample that is too specific. When you’re doing the grief process, the instruction is to “Think of someone who is no longer a part of your daily life, but when you think of them, you experience them as a resource.” This lets her choose from many different kinds of “resource” and doesn’t box her in to a specific one.

I’m nearly certain that “fondness” is an inappropriate resource for your client, because her anger hasn’t yet been resolved — fondness and anger are opposites. It might (or might not) be appropriate for her to be fond of her ex-friend after forgiving her, but it’s certainly a mismatch when she’s still angry.

For another example of the importance of choosing an appropriate counterexample resource, check out the following article. In the example in this article, even though I was careful to ask for a general outcome, “Think of someone she had hated in the past, but now felt OK about; she no longer hated him,” she chose an example of someone she now felt that “she had come to care for him and trust,” which was inappropriate for her. Here is the relevant part of the article:


“When I asked her how she felt with this image moved to this new position, she said it was somewhat better, but her feelings of anger ‘dragged along with the image,’ a strong indication that this was not an appropriate change for her. I thought there might be something about her resource experience that didn’t quite fit, and that probably if I had stopped here, or insisted that she continue, it would not have been good for her.

“So I gathered information, asking her about the person whom she had once felt anger toward, but now felt OK about. ‘What was it about that person that allowed you to let go of your anger?’ She said that she had come to care for him and trust him. I said, ‘It certainly wouldn’t be appropriate to care for and trust the man you still hate, would it?’ to which she heartily agreed. This told me that we needed to find a somewhat different resource experience, someone whom she had forgiven, but still didn’t care for or trust.” For more detail about this kind of careful resource selection, read this article.


The submodalities of the image of this person were really similar to that of her ex-friend. This fond person (color/moving) was sitting to the right of her. Both were seated on a couch. And the first thing my friend noticed was, again, the voice, but this time it was laughter. The only differences I noticed was that this person was very close in distance (nearly touching) and the quality of tonality was laughter (and not snarkiness). Another difference was the position of my friend. This time she was seated next to her friend in this representation.

When the submodalities are that close in comparison what would you do to create a pleasing shift?


Since both images are of friends, it’s not surprising that they are quite similar. However, you have described two very significant differences in location; in the resource experience they are both sitting, and they are much closer (“nearly touching”). Either one of these differences by themselves could easily elicit the different sound (laughter instead of snarkiness). There is a similar example in my transcript of a shame session, in which unpleasant cackling turned to the pleasant sound of a merry-go-round in response to changing location.


I had her take the ex-friend and replicate the exact motions, laughter, position of her fond friend who’s no longer in her life. She said it felt a little better, but that she still missed her ex-friend. She appeared sad and affected by the loss. Did I neglect to do something here? Or were the representations of the two losses just too similar?


As I’ve already mentioned, the representations are significantly different, so that’s not the problem. It would be better to start with shifting position alone, and find out what difference that process change makes. Asking her to replicate motions and laughter include changes in content, so those generally won’t be as useful. The key thing is that her anger needs to be resolved first in order for the grief process to work, so she’s still stuck in her two responses of sadness and anger. Very few people spontaneously think of forgiving as a resolution. (Many will think of expressing their anger or revenge instead.) Also very few are initially “ready” to forgive someone else. A major part of the forgiveness process is to satisfy (not “overcome”) the objections that most people have to reaching forgiveness — and some people have a lot of them!


I followed through with getting the values of that friendship, and she placed those values in an image in a location (as quotes on her wall in her bedroom.)

I then asked her to give those values form, whether abstract or vague. She wanted to use a person she knew, who she said embodies all of those qualities. What are your thoughts on that?


I think that is fine, as long as you go on to make that image more symbolic/abstract, which you do. However, proceeding with the grief resolution process won’t be very productive until the anger is first transformed into forgiveness.


Instead I asked her what form those values would take if symbolic or a visual representation. (I didn’t think it was prudent to have those values represented in a person in case this person ever left her life in the future; then there disappears the values.)


I agree. The main reason for making the values symbolic/abstract is to separate them from the image of the specific person in her past, so that they can be found in other people in her future life.


She then said the values were now inside a book she was the author of.


Her seeing the values inside a book that she is the author of is a nice metaphoric indication that your friend’s unconscious mind is participating fully. And her being the author of the book implies taking an active part in satisfying her values.


I then had her multiply the book, stack them, change each book a tad different from the previous one, and scatter them into her future, allowing each to drop at different locations. I explained how those values would be represented by friendships and experiences in her future, etc.


I realize that you may have done it, and just not mentioned it, but making the books glow is an important part of the process. When they glow, they are like lights beckoning the client, drawing her into the future (in contrast to the loss in the past). Instructing her to “change the story a little” in each book would have been a nice additional touch, preventing her from just changing the color of the cover or binding of the book, which wouldn’t be as useful. Later on you could utilize her metaphor by casually mentioning that some people are an “open book,” or that it’s useful to “close the book” on some past events.


Since she felt marginally better, but a tad underwhelmed, I asked her to play more with the submodalities.


I’m glad that you noticed that she was “underwhelmed,” so that you could go on to offer her more choices.


She made the ex-friend into a still black and white photo that was placed on the ground and any voice that emanated from her was a cartoon-like voice. In an instant all of her anger, sadness and anxiety dissipated. I even had her picture the friend sitting and saying the snarky comment, then pushing that image way back into the distance and the image that would come to the forefront was the one of the black and white still photo. Obviously this is not a visual squash, but I don’t know what to call it.


No, it’s not a visual squash; you asked her to chain two images together sequentially. The visual squash integrates two images into a simultaneous image — after finding a common outcome, or a joint outcome. (Heart of the Mind, chapter 13.)


but I had her play with rotating the images in quick succession. This alone made her crack up. She made the black and white photo really absurd, which seemed to shift her entire experience of the loss.


The kind of submodality shifts you explored with your friend (in the previous two paragraphs) to shift her experience are all fine, and got nice responses. However, without knowing her outcome/intention, so that you can satisfy it, it is really unlikely that they would be effective or lasting. In this case, her outcome is her need to resolve her anger, and none of the submodality changes you offered her accomplished that.


She said when she thinks of her friend now she can feel her presence, but the image of her face is obscured and vague, which she says she prefers because it has decreased the unpleasant feelings. Any value judgment on the fact she no longer sees the ex-friend’s face upon recalling her? She said when she tried to see the ex-friend’s face in her mind her feelings began to regress so she preferred not to.


That is a pretty clear message that she can’t “face” her friend without feeling the unpleasant feelings of anger and sadness, which are both still unresolved.


Sorry for the long email peppered with all of these questions! Though my friend seems ecstatic with the results, I’m not. LOL!


I applaud your noticing the difference between your experience and your client’s report. You did help her have a new and more satisfying response to her ex-friend. And I agree with you that those results are not complete. Using the forgiveness process will complete it — though you might have to repeat the grief resolution process after you do.


I feel like I took numerous missteps with the Resolving Grief process. I’m constantly trying to examine the feedback I receive, and the areas I went wrong, to improve what I can do in the future.


Your ability to notice when your work isn’t fully satisfying, and your willingness to ask for and receive feedback, is wonderful — and all too rare!


Anyway, if you read this entire email, I salute you! And appreciate it.


Thanks; it was a pleasure to respond.

When I sent this article to the therapist to look over for accuracy, she wrote back:

“Thanks again! This was excellent. It assuaged many of my concerns and answered so many questions. Beyond appreciative.”

  • Comments Off on Choosing Counterexample Resources, Sequencing Interventions, and other Distinctions

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.

A Response to Shawn Carlson’s blog post Patterns Within Patterns


I’d like to start by completely agreeing with Shawn’s description of a lovely piece of reorienting in time that can be used to consolidate any change, however made: An additional temporal step is added by inviting the client to step into the future and, looking back, see the changes she has made within the ‘past-future’ visible from the farther future, “step into the future, and looking back toward now, realize how far this change has taken you.”       

However, this great process doesn’t appear to me to fit the steps of the Meta Pattern, which assumes integration (“collapsing”) anchors, rather than some other way of combining experiences, such as chaining. The beginning state is a solution state, rather than a problem state, so when you ask a client to “step into the future,” that dissociates from a solution, and associates into a “farther future” that is a resource in itself, (rather than simply a “break state” from which to choose a resource state). While associated into this farther future, the client views scenarios from the intervening time (the past from the point of view of being associated into the farther future).

This process is an example of a general pattern that Erickson called “reorientation in time.” It is also an example of nesting one experience inside another one, rather than integrating two experiences, or chaining them together sequentially in time. It is structurally identical to the phobia cure, in which the client associates into the movie theater, and nested within that dissociates from the past phobic memory. It’s also an example of utilization. If someone has a phobia, we know that they are skilled at associating into a memory, so we ask them to associate into the movie theater visualization to provide a context for dissociating from the troubling memory. This nesting of experiences is a different experiential process (there are others) that doesn’t fit the steps of the Meta Pattern.


I’m getting a little tired of playing “whac-a-mole” responding to misrepresentations of what I have written. For instance, Shawn writes, This is exactly a formulation of the HNLP Meta Pattern (so I am a little surprised that Steve is arguing there is no such thing!).”

I never said there is “no such thing”; if that were true, we wouldn’t be able to talk about it! What I said was that this meta-pattern was a useful, but somewhat crude early generalization, with a lot of exceptions. Connirae’s and my statement from Change Your Mind (1987) starts with. “One very broad general formulation of change work . . .” The word “One” clearly implies that there are others, and stating that it was “very broad and general” indicates that it lacks a lot of detail, and likely has exceptions or counterexamples. It was also written 30 years ago; luckily we know more now than we knew then.

What I disagree with is Shawn’s statement that, “Perhaps if I demonstrate how the Meta Pattern is the basis of all change work enough times, the universal truth of the Meta Pattern will become unarguable!”

         There are a number of problems with this statement. First, it’s not possible to prove universality by providing “enough examples.” [just as Finding 100,000 apples, or even a million apples, wouldn’t “prove” that other types of fruit don’t exist — and I have already provided some oranges and bananas. The Meta Pattern is useful, but there are many significant examples of change work that don’t fit the Meta-Pattern.

Setting aside the question of whether or not there is any such thing as “universal truth,” let’s take a look at Shawn’s description of the visual squash, which he presents as an example of the Meta Pattern:

“Similarly, in the visual squash, you separate and externalize the parts that are creating the inner conflict. You place one as an image on the client’s left hand and the other on their right. We are now at step 2 of the Meta Pattern, we have dissociated the client from their problem (the internal conflict).” I agree with Shawn fully up to this point.

Shawn goes on to write: “On to step three of the Meta Pattern, associating into the resource. First let’s help your client to find the appropriate resource. We do this by chunking up on the ‘intentions’ of each part until we find a shared value, or at least values that sufficiently overlap. This shared valued is the resource. At the same time we build rapport between the parts by asking what each can learn from the other.”

It’s important to realize that the intention of each part — as well as any shared intention — is still dissociated, not associated. The two parts (and their intentions) are still represented as separate images in the two hands, and also separate from the client.

Shawn follows with, “We then associate the client into this resource, typically by internalizing it “bring that back inside your body.” Shawn has omitted a very crucial step, namely bringing the two hands, and their associated images together to “collapse” them, before bringing the resulting integrated image into the body. The Meta Pattern specifies “collapsing” two associated states (problem and resource). But in the visual squash, two dissociated images are “collapsed,” followed by association.

Furthermore, neither image in the visual squash is either a problem state or a resource state. Neither one is a problem in itself, the problem is the conflict between the two. The resource is the result of combining them.

         In the discussion above, and in previous posts, I have set forth my understanding of the Meta Pattern, and Shawn has set forth his. Readers will need to come to their own conclusions.


Shawn writes, “In collapsing anchors, as Steve rightly says, there have to be two states or two anchors to collapse. Steve then for some reason says that this requirement is not included in the Meta Pattern; this is incorrect.”

In the Meta Pattern diagram there is no mention of any anchoring — none whatsoever. There is also no mention of a cue for the problem state, or the context of the problem state. This kind of omission is inevitable in any vague general outline that purports to be universal. I prefer more detail and specific steps, to be sure that nothing essential is left out.

One of the sources of much of my disagreements with Shawn is that we are describing very different levels of detail. This can be illustrated by different responses to the question, “Where is Times Square?” One answer is, “It’s in North America.” Another is, “It’s in Midtown Manhattan, New York City, at the junction of Broadway and Seventh Avenue.” Both answers are true, but the second provides much more specific and detailed information.

A car that is running poorly could be described as being in a very bad “state,” but that wouldn’t indicate much about how to fix the problem. A good mechanic might be able to listen to it and determine that it only needs a small adjustment in timing. Likewise, someone’s “problem state” is a very general description, while “see a movie of yourself in that situation” is a very specific small intervention — a change in point of view that leaves all the other aspects of a “problem state” (content, sounds, context, etc.) undisturbed.

When talking about general states it is easy to ignore differences, and see similarities. I keep making distinctions, and Shawn keeps saying they aren’t important, and that they all fit the Meta Pattern, which is based on integration of a resource with a problem state.


One principle that I have found very useful in making changes (whether in NLP or in other contexts) is to make the smallest change necessary to get the desired outcome. There are at least two important reasons for this. One is that it is much easier to make a small adjustment, such as point of view, the location of an image, or in some other submodality. As Milton Erickson said, “Your task is that of adjusting, not abolishing.” The other reason is that a small adjustment is much less likely to interfere with the rest of the client’s functioning than a large one — what is usually called “ecology” but which would be more accurately called congruence.

For instance, imagine that you notice some irregularities and palpitations in the beating of your heart, so you consult a doctor. After she listens to your heart, takes an EKG, and asks a few questions, she says, “Well, some simple life-style changes will resolve those symptoms, but a heart transplant would also work.” I hope it’s obvious that a heart transplant would be a lot more difficult, and have significantly more risk of problematic consequences. Unfortunately working with “states” (especially ones like “awesomely confident”) is a lot more like a heart transplant, changing much more than is necessary or useful.


         Shawn writes that, “The problem and resource then ‘duke it out’ within the client’s physiology. This is repeated until the resource state (or a resource state) emerges the winner.” That is a description of what happens if you integrate two very different “large chunk” states, an indication of trying to make a “heart transplant” type of change, in contrast to a small adjustment. Unfortunately a client’s responses to a “heart transplant” change is often quite intense, leading both client and therapist to be unduly impressed, rather than realize it’s only a result of sloppy work. Years ago, a boss I had frequently said, “Do not confuse motion with progress.” The best changes don’t usually involve pyrotechnics; they are usually exemplified by the classic, “Hmn, I never thought about it that way.”

The idea that states have to “duke it out” until one “emerges a winner” usually results from thinking about the emotional intensity of a state, rather than its appropriateness for the problem. This leads to an assumption that I have called a “the mathematical fallacy of states”: that if you have a negative state rated at a 7, you need a positive state rated at least 7 or 8 to “overcome” it.

This is obviously false in the case of the phobia process. A phobia is a very emotionally intense state, let’s say somewhere in the range of 7-10; Dissociation is a much less intense state, perhaps somewhere in the range of 1-3. There is no “duking it out,” nor any “winner” when using the phobia process; there is no conflict at all. The change in point of view is a specific and precise adjustment that is makes it easy to view a troubling memory comfortably.


Shawn follows with, “The Meta Pattern is then repeated on an iterative basis by running the client through other triggers, and other contexts, until the client is not able to identify any more examples of the problem. This is typically fairly quick as the brain is an amazing generalization-machine!”

Yes, the brain is an amazing generalization machine, and you can do change work by repeating the same change on different contents and contexts to help it generalize, a Shawn describes. However, it is far easier and simpler to begin by asking the client to choose the most intense example of a problem response. This is identifying what cognitive linguists call a “prototype” experience that represents the entire category of problem experiences. If you do this before intervening, a change in the prototype will automatically generalize to all the other examples, in a kind of “domino” effect, so you only have to do the change once, which is more efficient. Of course it’s important to check other examples to make sure that generalization has occurred, but you don’t have to keep repeating the change work. Checking three different past examples, followed by three future examples, is usually sufficient to confirm generalization.


Shawn goes on to write, “By the way, when this happens the Meta-Pattern-TOTE-strategy ends (to quickly address another of Steve’s objections).” I assume that is how Shawn works; my objection (yet again) is that there is no mention in the Meta Pattern diagram of a TOTE, an exit, or a criterion for stopping. The arrows go around clockwise between the four circles, and Shawn has emphasized that you can start anywhere on the circle.


Shawn writes, “I agree with Steve that dissociation is part of the resource state for a phobia.” Again that is not what I wrote; I wrote that dissociation is the resource state (not “part” of it). The “laughter; and ‘safe-to-safe’ experience” that Shawn mentions are embellishments (and there are many others) that be used to support dissociation, but they aren’t usually required.


Finally, I completely disagree with Shawn’s statement that, “Steve’s modal collapse, ‘How is it possible that you should be able to do something you can’t do?’ is an example of what Robert Dilts calls ‘apply to self.’ ” I’m pretty sure Robert would agree with me, and I would think that John Overdurf might also agree. Can you send this section to John and ask him if he would be willing to comment?

The sentences, “I can’t do it” and “I should do it” both apply to the self of the person speaking, but neither refers to the sentence itself, which is what the phrase “apply to self” refers to.

A trivial, but instructive, example of “apply to self” is “This sentence is true,” because the sentence describes itself. A more useful example is, “Everything I do is stupid.” Since saying that sentence is one of the things that someone does, the sentence refers to itself, and therefore the sentence must also be stupid. Pointing this out can weaken or break the problematic generalization.

What happens in what Shawn is calling a “modal collapse” is that an unrecognized contradiction becomes apparent. “I should do it” presupposes that I can do it, while “I can’t do it” presupposes the opposite. By juxtaposing these two statements, the contradiction (“speak against”) becomes apparent, and something has to give. If there is good evidence that the “it” is not something I can actually do, the “should” vanishes. If the evidence is less robust, the contradiction can be resolved by reconsidering the “can’t” and exploring alternatives that I might actually be able to do.

I think the explanation above is a lot simpler and clearer than Shawn’s description: “The modals ‘can’t’ and ‘should’ exist in different ‘modal spaces’ (we will call them ‘frames’): ‘can’t’ generally inhabits either the epistemic (personal knowledge) frame, or the doxastic (personal beliefs, without knowledge) frame. ‘Should’ generally inhabits either the deontic (duty), or axiologic (cultural) frames. In any case for brevity I will only address the can’t modal here using the doxastic (belief) space.”

In volume II of my book, Six Blind Elephants, chapters 4, 5, & 6 go into much more detail about modal operators, self-reference, and self-contradiction and how to change them in useful ways.

Notice that Shawn uses the same word “collapse” to “apply to self” and “modal collapse (contradiction), ignoring the distinctions I have made above — and he also uses the same word to nesting experience (discussed in the first paragraph of this post). In earlier posts he uses “collapse” for both integration and chaining. There is a further possible alternative, combining two experiences into a hierarchy of relative importance.

Using the same word “collapse” for all these very different experiences, is like saying that Times Square is in North America. It’s not false, but failing to recognize the different kinds of “collapse” makes it impossible to do really elegant work that makes the smallest change necessary in order to get the client’s outcome.


P.S. I was pleased to see Shawn describe discussion of dopamine as a “red herring,” and then disappointed that he went on to discuss it as if it weren’t.

I think the finding that news of a loss results in a dopamine spike may be a result of the “gambler’s fallacy” in which a gambler believes (erroneously) that a loss on one round signals a greater probability of a win on the next one. If the news of a loss is immediately followed by an image of a future win, the latter, not the former, would be what actually elicits the dopamine spike. That would fit better with the overall finding that dopamine is released in response to an expectation of reward. Does anyone know a compulsive gambler they could model to explore this possibility? Even if it’s irrelevant to NLP change work, it’s an interesting puzzle.

Since Shawn describes the “Tree of life” process as not NLP, I won’t comment on that, except to respond to Shawn’s statement, “I find it to be the simplest model that captures any and all human experience.” It seems extremely unlikely to me that any simple model could do that.