Roots Of Neuro-Semantics

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

∙    Where does Neuro-Semantics come from?

∙    What are the theoretical foundations of Neuro-Semantics?

∙     What contributing forces influence the development of Neuro-Semantics as a model and field?

∙    How does Neuro-Semantics differ from NLP as a model?

∙    What is Neuro-Semantics not?

What is it?

Do you to know what it is?   Neuro-Semantics is a model that describes how we humans get meaning (semantics) so incorporated into our body (neurology) that we feel meanings and do so in terms of our emotions and states.  Neuro-Semantics is an inter-disciplinary field that explores the structure of meaning and how those meanings become embodied within us.  In Neuro-Semantics we approach the mind-body-emotion system in several ways.  From the mental dimension, we explore how language works inside of us, how we attribute meaning, create meaning by words, associations, framing, metaphors, etc.  From the neurological dimension, we explore how our body works with ideas to “realize” or “actualize” them and how what we do influences what we believe.

Neuro-Semantics, as a field of study and as a model, arises from many sources.  Much of it comes from psychology, linguistics, semantics, anthropology, systems, etc.  In this article, I will sketch out a brief history of the key sources that have come together to create the foundation of this inter-disciplinary study.

Why do this?  First I want to locate and position Neuro-Semantics as a field and to distinguish it from those disciplines that gave it birth.  And why is this important?  I want to do that to set the boundaries and parameters of the field.  As a new emergent field, this is important (especially here at the beginning) in order to make clear what Neuro-Semantics is and its focus of attention.  And why do that?  Mostly because there are many who are entering this field as trainers, coaches, and researches who keep asking me about this!   And so for those enter the field as well as those already in this field, and for those who are just now discovering this field and examining it to see if it fits with their interests, I want to provide a clear sense of what Neuro-Semantics is and what is not.

From General Semantics to NLP

To give credit where credit is due, it was an engineer, Alfred Korzybski, who first gave voice to the terminology of neuro-linguistics and neuro-semantics as he founded the field of General Semantics with his classic work, Science and Sanity (1933/ 1994).  By these terms he referred to the human mind-body system as a holistic system of many interactive parts.  It was his way of re-uniting the fragmented elements of “mind,” “body,” “emotion,” “beliefs,” etc.

In thinking structurally about a living human mind-body system in interaction with the world “out there” beyond the human nervous system, he looked at it in terms of information coming into the protoplasm of the human nervous system and how the nerve impulses from sense receptors to the internal processing structures of the brain and how we abstract from one level to another level to create our inner “sense” of the world.  We map the world into ourselves and we feel that map (or layers of mappings) as feelings, emotions, and intuitions.

To understand this dynamic communication process, Korzybski used a metaphor, that of mapping a territory. What we humans do in and with our neurons, nerves, nervous energy, and nervous systems is create a map, so to speak, about what we are encountering and interacting with.   Out there in the world there are energies —energies that we recognize as the electromagnetic spectrum.  We translate and interpret these energies as light, sound, sensation, smell, taste, and balance.  We do that by the protoplasm of our body which we experience as our sense receptors.  At the end of our nervous system we have eyes, ears, skin, olfactory and taste buds, and inner ear hairs and structures that enable us to “sense” the world.  We then use these senses (the sensory modalities) to “make sense” of the world.

Our first maps about what is “out there” are strictly neurological and occur a long time prior to awareness or consciousness.  The energy “out there” impacts and stimulates our sense receptors and we “sense” things in terms of the sense receptors.  We see objects, hear sounds, feel textures, pressures, moisture, temperature (sensations), we smell smells and taste tastes and have a sense of balance or dizziness.  These sensory systems interpret the energies in these terms.

But close your eyes and press on your eyelids and you will see colors and shapes.  Pressure on the end- receptors of eyes is translated and interpreted as light. Each end-receptor funnels, channels, and interprets “energy manifestations” out there according to what it is designed to pick up and interpret.  Each sense maps the world according to its own design.  Even at that level, it’s just a perception.

From this Richard Bandler and John Grinder created the components of NLP in the 1970s.  They specified the “languages” of thought in terms of the sensory systems— the Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic, etc. systems.  We re-present to ourselves in our mind what we have seen, heard, and felt.  This gave rise to the VAK.  We think in terms of pictures, sounds, and sensations.  We make a movie in our mind.  We also say words about our movie, and so the meta-representation system is language.  This was the genius of NLP.

NLP began with the presupposition that Korzybski specified, “The map is not the territory.”  This means we do not deal with reality directly, but indirectly.  We deal with it through our maps.  If our world seems impoverished and we feel unresourceful, the problem lies in our maps.  Do we have a rich enough map to go places, do things, understand things, etc.?  If not, the problem isn’t ourselves or th world, it’s in enriching our map.  Successful and effective people have rich and empowering maps in their heads.

What does this mean?  It means that NLP is primarily a Communication Model. It’s a model about how we use the languages of the mind to construct our maps and how to enrich those maps.  It’s also about identify and modeling the maps of experts to streamline the learning process.  NLP modeled three world-class therapists from three different fields to create a model of how language works (the Meta-Model) and how to use language for more precision or for more artful mapping (the Milton Model).  From Family Systems they modeled Virginia Satir; from Gestalt Therapy they modeled Fritz Perls; and from Ericksonian Hypnosis they modeled Milton H. Erickson.

NLP provides powerful models and technology for “running one’s own brain” and thereby changing our states and experiences.  As a model, NLP is not about any particular field, but is a meta-discipline. It’s a model about the structure of experience and so has practical applications for business, negotiating, selling, parenting, therapy, education, training, influence, marketing, writing— in a word, for anything that involves communication, relationship, and people skills.  That some people have taken the model and misused it speaks about the power of this cutting-edge communication model.

Neuro-Semantics began here.  What NLP did not have was a model about self-reflexive consciousness and how to model, take into account, or use reflexivity in communication, relationship, or modeling.  With the Meta-States model I provided those structures and so created another meta-domain of NLP— Meta-States.

From “General” Semantics to “Neuro” Semantics

Where did Meta-States come from?  From two key sources—Korzybski and Gregory Bateson.  It was in Korzybski’s “levels of abstraction” (his Structural Differential) and his theory of multi-ordinality that I found much of the structure of Meta-States.  Having immersed myself in Korzybski’s work for many years, when I “stumbled” upon Meta-States while modeling the structure of resilience, I found myself referring mostly to many of the features in General Semantics.

So after I first introduced Meta-States in England under the sponsorship of Denis Bridoux and Dr. Philip Nolan (Post Graduate Professional Education), for three years we followed that up with a series of workshop on GS and NLP.  These trainings in England were first entitled “The Merging of the Models: General Semantics and NLP” and later Advanced Flexibility.  It was during that time that I was able to more fully develop and articulate the structures, processes, guidelines, and patterns in Neuro-Semantics.

We were able to translate abstract ideas and concepts in Science and Sanity that informed General Semantics into practical Neuro-Semantic tools—extending the Meta-Model, developing the first meta-level questions to deal with human psycho-logics (“logical levels”), use mathematics for modeling (finding variables in an experience and identifying those variables as functions of some multi-ordinal concept).  What has and remains abstract and obtuse in General Semantics became dynamic processes in Neuro-Semantics.

For more on this, see Chapter 8 in NLP: Going Meta: Advanced Modeling Using Meta-Levels (2001). It is entitled, “Levels of Abstraction: Alfred Korzybski’s Neurological Meta-Levels.”  Also, Communication Magic (2001).

From Bateson’s Frames and Meta-Function to Neuro-Semantics

Another crucial source in the Roots of Neuro-Semantics is anthropologist Gregory Bateson.  It was his fabulous work, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) and his treatise Mind and Nature (1979) that completely captured my attention on several accounts.

First there was his use of the meta-function (his phrase) regarding the structure of complex experiences from schizophrenia to national personality traits (cultural phenomena), to wisdom, art, change, learning, and so on that enabled me to see the systemic nature of meta-states.  Once I had constructed the first tentative Meta-States model, I began testing it with numerous experiences that had layers of thoughts and feelings like proactivity, forgiveness, self-esteem, etc.  With each of these, I kept revisiting Bateson’s way of thinking to borrow more and more of his formulations about frames and making a move to a  meta-position.

In Neuro-Semantics Bateson led us to move beyond modeling the individual to working on cultural models, cultural modeling, anthropology, and cybernetics.  It was from Bateson that I build systems thinking and systems dynamics into the feedback and feed forward loops of the Matrix.

To see how much Bateson’s thinking, terminology, and conceptions inform Neuro-Semantics, see Chatper 7 in NLP: Going Meta: Advanced Modeling Using Meta-Levels (2001).  That chapter is entitled, “Bateson’s Logical Levels of Learning.”  Also, see The Bateson Report (2003) which contains more than a dozen articles on Bateson and our use of his work in Neuro-Semantics.  Also, the training manual, Cultural Modeling using Neuro-Semantics.

Cognitive Psychology’s Contribution to Neuro-Semantics

Even though neither Bandler nor Grinder were psychologists, psychotherapists, or had any extensive training in therapy, they model three therapies (i.e., Family Systems, Gestalt Therapy, and Ericksonian Hypnosis) and so constructed a model that is now recognized as a Cognitive-Behavioral model.  In psychology textbooks, NLP is classified in this way and has for more than 15 years.  Why is that?  How did that come about?

Possibly for two reasons.  First, Korzybski’s presupposition is that we operate by the mapping and maps we create in our heads about things—a cognitive premise.  Second, Noam Chomsky who created the Transformational Grammar model for linguistics, in which field John Grinder was an expert and contributor, was a key person in the founding of the Cognitive Movement.  In fact, it was he more than anyone else who single-handedly defeated Behaviorism in 1956 with his paradigm changing book, Aspects of Grammar. For more about this, see Howard Gardner’s book that documents the history of, The Cognitive Movement.

There’s a third reason, Bandler and Grinder also relied on and quoted George Miller for his classic 1956 paper “The Magic Number Seven Plus or Minus Two” that launched the Cognitive movement as well as relied on him with Gallanter and Pribram for Plans for the Structure of Behavior (1960).  From this book came the T.O.T.E. model that NLP turned into the Strategy Model (see NLP: The Structure of Subjective Experience, Volume I, 1980, Dilts, et al.).

In addition to this, my training, first as a psychotherapist and then as a psychologist was in Cognitive Psychology, specifically in Albert Ellis’ RET (later REBT) model, Aaron Beck’s work, and William Glasser’s models of Reality Therapy and Control Theory. These and other cognitive models were the guiding models and principles that guided my thinking and so became intimately incorporated in Neuro-Semantics.

Minor contributions, still within this general area included the field of Meta-Cognition.  This field arose in 1977 and focuses mostly on the study of memory and meta-memory devices.  Key thinkers, theorists, and researchers in this area work on how feedback loops govern feedback loops at a higher or meta-level.  For more on this, see chapters in Meta-States Magic (2003).

Logotherapy, a cognitive psychology/philosophy, also contributed to the early development of Meta-States and hence to Neuro-Semantics.  Neuro-Semantics takes from Viktor Frankl’s work on the therapy of meaning (logo-therapy) a focus on meaning and meaningfulness in a philosophical sense.  It is, after all, the search for meaning and the use of our powers to create meaning that fill our neurology with the most intense and powerful emotions.

Cognitive Linguistics and Neuro-Semantics

While studying the linguistic distinctions that Korzybski highlighted in General Semantics, I continued reading in the field of linguistics.  I did that, in part, as one of my natural interests and, in part, as part of my degree in psycho-linguistics. What I found was fantastic—at least to me.  It seems that the linguistic foundations of NLP, Transformational Grammar, was rejected by its founder Noam Chomsky in 1976, one year after the appearance of The Structure of Magic by Bandler and Grinder.

What did this mean?  What was the significance of Chomsky throwing out Deep Structure (D-structure) and declaring that the Transformational Grammar approach was untenable and unworkable?  How did this relate to all of the information in NLP books about the Surface and Deep Structure?  As I began searching I found out that the field of Linguistic had shifted emphasis over the years and that by the 1990s Cognitive Linguistic has taken over.  Transformational rules had given way to thinking about grammar in terms of “space” (hence the book, Space Grammar) and the use of our “representational screen” to posit objects (nouns), trajectories of movements (verbs) to objects.  See Harris, The Linguistic Wars for more on this as well as works by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

Philosophy of Mind, Neurology, and Neuro-Semantics

There are many thinkers who write on what is called “philosophy of mind.”  These writers and theorists offer numerous conceptualizations for how to think about “mind.”  These frameworks provide the presuppositions that we begin with.  Among them, I continually return to Bateson (Mind and Nature) for insights.  Among others who I have found influence and whose influence on my thinking is incorporated in Neuro-Semantics are Daniel Dennett (Kinds of Minds, Consciousness Explained, Intentional Stance), Stephen Kosslyn and Olivier Koenig (Wet Mind), Julian Jaynes (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind), etc.

Neuro-Semantics is also based in Neurology, the levels of the brain-body structures that make up our neurological structures is detailed in Korzybski who also specified things about the representational systems that I’ve never seen reproduced in NLP.

It is to John Searle (The Construction of Social Reality) as well as other writers in anthropology, cultural studies, social psychology, etc. that Neuro-Semantics owes a debt.

What Neuro-Semantics is Not

With these fields and sources of Neuro-Semantics, I hope it is clear that Neuro-Semantics is a meta-discipline about the structure and form of things, not another psychology or philosophy.  Neuro-Semantics is the study of how we translate data into information and then into communication to create our inner worlds of reality, our inner Matrix of frames within frames within frames.

And as Neuro-Semantics is neither a psychology, nor is it a psychotherapy.  It is not primarily about the healing of human hurts, although it certainly has powerful applications to therapy.  Neuro-Semantics studies the structure of how people get hurt, find healing, and move on to actualize their greatest potentials.  In this Neuro-Semantics transcends any particular psychotherapy as it is looking for the structure that makes such therapies effective.  Nor is Neuro-Semantics a theology or religion.  Undoubtedly people will use Neuro-Semantics to model various spiritual experiences and perhaps to explore various theologies, but that is not what Neuro-Semantics is.  It is only an application.  Neuro-Semantics holds no allegiance with any particular religion whether Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, etc.  It is not related to any New Age ideology or to any alternative healing modality.

From Practical Down-to-Earth Pragmatic Applications

Neuro-Semantics also arose from another source.   While the original model of Meta-States was the brain-child of L. Michael Hall, very early I looked to others to help me explore what we could use it for and where we could go with the model.  It was in this way that Dr. Bob Bodenhamer and I began having conversations.  At first we worked on some books together, but it soon became evident that Bob’s skills at the clinical level of working with clients would become a source of credibility for the new patterns and ideas.  So it was with Bob’s clients and students that we “tried out” and experimented with many of our new ideas and models.

This moved Neuro-Semantics from the conceptual level to the practical level of everyday life.  What we worked through conceptually on paper, we then had Bob put to the test in working with people who had come to him for assistance.  It was in this way that the Meta-Yes Belief Change pattern emerged as well as many others.  In the development of various patterns we would give it a go, adjust the steps of a pattern to create a more streamlined sequence, add or subtract steps, put in new preframes, etc.

We then began transferring the same to our trainings.  I came up with the Mind-to-Muscle pattern while doing a training in Wealth Building because I felt the need to transfer the great ideas that were already in the minds of participants (they knew good and well what to do), they just were not actually doing them.  This came about in a training when I just so happened to ask if anyone knew any principle about finances, financial intelligence, building wealth, etc.  Hands went up all over the place.  I inquired about what they knew.  After 30 minutes of that I had discovered something very important.  I did not need to share anything else about the content of building wealth.  Everybody already knew plenty.  If I were to keep adding other “great ideas” they would just be even more overwhelmed and have more to feel bad about since they were not doing the most simple of things like the principle “Spend less than you make.”

For me that was an “Ah ha!” moment.  The problem wasn’t knowing, it was doing.  The problem wasn’t lacking great concepts, wonderful principles, or inspiring ideas.  No.  They knew.  The gap was between knowing-and-doing, between the head and the legs.  It was at this point that I began asking myself many questions, questions that would stimulate the creation of a new pattern:

∙      How can we close this knowing-doing gap and get what they know in their heads into their muscles?

∙      Can ideas or concepts move from “the head” into “the body,” into muscle memory?

∙      What is muscle memory anyway?

∙      How do ideas get into muscle memory?  What are the mechanisms involved?

∙     How can we take ideas about wealth building and translate them so that people actually act on what they know and learn?

Everyday practical life and challenges—this is one of the ongoing sources of Neuro-Semantics.  Today we have lots of people doing this very thing.  That is they have eyes to look for gaps, for problems, for needs.  That’s why Neuro-Semantics has gone the way of creating dozens of Gateway Trainings and using the hard questions we find in those fields—the places where other fields and disciplines are stuck to stimulate creativity.  Bob Bodenhamer has done this with people who block and/or stutter.  I have done this with Defusing Hotheads and other Cranky and Stressed-out People.  We have people now doing this in criminal justice departments, with weight management, fitness, stress management, resilience for times of change, leadership, etc.  This also is the focus for the Neuro-Semantics Developers group that we are now developing.

Author: L. Michael Hall, Ph.D. was first a psychotherapist, then psychologist, then NLP Trainer, then discover of Meta-States, then co-founder of Neuro-Semantics, now an entrepreneur, prolific writer, researcher, modeler, and explorer of things of the mind-body-emotion system.