NLP and Science? Scientific Support for Aspects of NLP

Dec 11, 2013 | High Performance, Modeling Excellence, NLP in Media, Therapy/Coaching | 0 comments

There’s been a rash of recent studies and publications that directly support NLP with Science, accidentally!

Since NLP’s early days in the mid-1970’s, its development has been haunted by a lack of properly funded or carried-out research to back NLP with Science.

This is not because (as some academics have suggested) NLP is just a pseudo-science.

It’s partly because NLP has never claimed to be a science.  Ideally, the use of NLP is a methodology or skill-set that blends assumptions, facts, artistic style, and a sense of experimentation.  The assumptions and facts come from a wide range of fields.  The artistic style comes from an attraction to elegance and commitment to excellence.  The sense of experimentation and exploration come from an assumption that the definition of insanity is the act of repeating an unsuccessful activity over and over again, hoping to get a different result.

All of these factors have led to hordes of NLP-trained Practitioners and Master Practitioners in every major country in the world, who anecdotally believe NLP has helped them become more successful.

People have achieved extensive success using NLP across a wide array of fields

Initially NLP Practitioners focused on therapy, but they have increasingly explored coaching, business, sales, politics, teaching, marketing, medicine, law, and more.

Yet nearly all scientific funding goes to grant writers.  Most grant writers work for universities and research facilities, in established, traditional fields.  NLP is not a traditional and academically established field, at least, not yet.  The field of NLP is squarely to blame for this!  We have failed to make it more traditional, by running training businesses instead of heavily lobbying for it in schools.  The problem with teaching it in schools has to do with classification.  NLP is best taught as an art, with a partial basis in science.  Lectures are a dry and dead way to learn NLP.  Yet, NLP is a full body active sport requiring mentorship and feedback loops to help tune behavior, language and style.

Great NLP Practitioners were taught NLP much like someone is taught a martial art, through practice and refinement.  Poor NLP Practitioners were taught NLP through the delivery of dry information.  You cannot become good at NLP through the transfer of information.  You have to get it into the muscle memory, and practice extensively, until you find flexibility and creativity.

Most scientific grants do not go towards studying an art.  But… we can find ways to do better.

Direct scientific proof validating specific NLP techniques has not been easily found or funded.  But we have in recent years seen research that now directly supports many of the early central tenets of NLP.  Here’s just a small sampling.

Mirroring… Works.

NLP has suggested for many years that mirroring another person’s behavior causes mirroring, and that rapport can be strengthened by mirroring other people. This was laughed at initially. Yet thanks to the scientific discovery of mirror neurons, we now have a scientific basis for understanding how and why most people are more comfortable when mirroring occurs. Mirroring creates a sense of recognition, and recognition creates increased comfort in most people.  According to the following article, published at,

Mirror Neurons Allow Us to Understand Each Other

As per the above linked article, “Mirroring is believed to be the way in which the brain automatically interprets the actions, intentions and emotions of other people. Mirror neurons, the cells in the brain that activate when we perform a particular action or watch someone else perform that same action, were up until recently only a theory. Scientists knew that they existed deep in our minds and were responsible for making us empathize with others, but had no hard proof to show for it – until now.”

Telling you mirroring works, and having you become great at it, are two entirely different things.  You might read this and other sources on mirroring, put it into practice, and think you’re doing it well.  You might also not know that you’re off in your rhythms, or may only be mirroring above your neck, or mirroring in one way and mismatching in many others.  In short, you don’t know what you’re not noticing.  To do this elegantly, you need training and honest, positive feedback loops from people who have spent years training themselves to see, hear, and feel more of what most people have learned to ignore.  And then you need a lot of practice.

Also, mirroring directly is now well known in many business circles.  And ridiculously, direct mirroring is now often made fun of or ‘toyed with’ by those who know it.   What is far more elegant than direct mirroring, and very difficult to catch — is cross-mirroring or cross-matching.  That’s the next level of excellence with creating rapport without being “caught.”  And to get good at that, you also need training and honest, positive feedback loops, and a lot of practice.

And to draw your attention to a massively important nuance:  We don’t just mirror postures or expressions…


This next linked article from the DNA Learning Center, states:

Terms of Empathy: Your Pain is My Pain – If You Play a Fair Game

The most important point in this article, from our perspective, is that mirror neurons aren’t only about posture and physiological mirroring. We mirror STATES.  This has enormous implications for how we teach people to lead via state, first.  NLP has a presupposition called “You Go First” and it’s never more important than with respect to this lesson, right here.  You need to be able to choose an emotional state, and start feeling it right now, at will — and feeling it powerfully enough to radiate it.  This is EASY, after you’ll have finished taking powerfully effective, and sufficient-duration NLP training.  Not hard, not challenging, but EASY.

Science Backs NLP for “Act As If” and for “You Go First”:

NLP includes another presupposition that if you “Act As If” something is true, it becomes true.  We use this in multiple ways, including with our emotions. If you put a smile on your face, it causes a physiological shift that makes you happier.  We now know and have proof that it causes a neurological shift; it changes the blend of neurotransmitters in our brains.

If we want to say the above most simply… state doesn’t just cause a shift in posture… posture also causes a shift in state.  These two factors are linked bidirectionally.  State begets physiology, and physiology begets state.

Amy Cuddy, of Harvard Business School, studied and confirmed that “posing in high-power nonverbal displays (as opposed to low-power) would cause neuroendocrine and behavioral changes for both male and female participants”.

Power Posing:  Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance

In this case, we believe Harvard Business School is getting press for things observed and taught through NLP from the late 1970’s onward.  Just don’t get blinded by their limited focus on Power Poses.  Here’s how to apply the above MYOPIC study, more widely in business:

  • If you spend 2-3 minutes physically adopting a more conciliatory posture, you will close negotiations more quickly.
  • If you put a curious expression on your face and lean forward, you will color any environment or subject as more interesting for yourself.
  • If you physically shift an aggressive posture to a more relaxed posture, you’ll become less aggressive, and put others more at ease.

Remember, State begets physiology, and physiology begets state.  And you have NLP to thank for that, though you can thank Amy Cuddy’s research for helping us to demonstrate that we weren’t just spouting nonsense.  We were observing, and sharing, human behavior patterns we (as a field) noticed — decades ago.

Psychology Today published what we would say is a new version of NLP’s “Visual-Kinesthetic Dissociation” technique from 1980, without any attribution. (Updated* 1/9/2014, see bottom of section)

Guy Winch, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and author of The Squeaky Wheel: Complaining the Right Way to Get Results, Improve Your Relationships and Enhance Self-Esteem.  In that book, there’s a passage which is published at the Psychology Today website, entitled “A Simple Mind Trick that Reduces Emotional Pain; How to reduce the pain associated with distressing experiences”

We increasingly commonly read articles in psychology recommending a technique that’s been a truly basic part of NLP for decades.  The field of Psychology has actively resisted NLP as not-Psychology… for those same decades.

NLP practitioners may approach reducing emotional pain using these sorts of techniques:

(1) simple dissociation, seeing oneself in the picture dealing with the original emotional trigger, instead of seeing the whole experience from our own eyes. Or, (2) using multiple perspectives, seeing an event from our own eyes (p1), from another person’s eyes (p2), or from a fly-on-the-wall perspective (p3).  We call these the three perceptual positions.

I appreciate the brilliant Eric Robbie sharing this with me through Facebook:

  • The first mention *in print* of the Visual-Kinesthetic Dissociation technique is on pp117-124 of ‘They Lived Happily Ever After’ by Leslie Cameron-Bandler, published by Meta Publicatons, Cupertino, CA. in July, 1978. Library of Congress card number LC 78-71281. Near the start of that passage, Cameron-Bandler gives credit to her “colleagues” – by which she meant primarily: Richard Bandler, Judith DeLozier, David Gordon, and John Grinder.   Pay special attention to pp118-119 where there is a detailed discussion of two-place dissociation – or “distancing” – and then three-place dissociation, before the transcript of the treatment of a rape victim begins.

UPDATE, 1/9/2014:  A wide array of NLP Practitioners and trainers contacted Guy Winch, and as a result, he has just published another follow-up article on the Psychology Today website, acknowledging a similar technique from NLP coming decades earlier.  In the interests of ‘equal time’, he published a handful of techniques submitted by NLP contributors.  You can find his follow-up article, here:  NLP Experts Speak Out.  Very kind of you, Dr. Winch!

Don’t Blame the Traditional Worlds of Psychology and Business for their Myopia.

They can’t help it.  These fields are entrenched.  People mired in these fields often have preferred ways of doing things.  They’ve established channels of vetting information and knowledge, and NLP has flown above those channels, expanding and exploring in its own less traditional way.  Yet millions of NLP students and enthusiasts have still been learning it (not all of which are learning it well, of course, which isn’t helping matters).

Many people prefer to pursue “business as usual.”  If they’re not willing to look outside the established rules of their field to discover advances already made elsewhere, that’s their prerogative.  Metaphorical myopia is an unfortunate and unnecessary condition!  Its easily treated with a little open-mindedness and a sense of exploration.

If you’re in Business and Are Considering Learning or Using NLP in Some Way

Decide on your desired outcomes, and then interview a few consultants or trainers.  Jump in with a small pilot program, or sign up for short seminars with several trainers.  Find out for yourself!

Is your reason for hesitating because there aren’t a lot of scientific studies to rely on yet? Hopefully this post provides a new and more empowered perspective about the field of NLP.  Some people have written scientific studies that are relevant, valuable and supportive.  They’re simply often distorted and misinterpreted, because of who paid for the studies and why.

We don’t claim NLP and Science are equivalent;  we claim to pursue the art of reproducing achievement and excellence, in accelerated ways.

author: Jonathan Altfeld