L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
You Know About
The “Neuro-Logical Levels”
The model of the “Neuro-Logical” Levels of Robert Dilts has so fully entered into the very fabric of NLP that most of us think about them when we think of “NLP” or “logical levels.” And rightly so. So, in spite of the various critical reviews and reassessments in the past year of that model (in Anchor Point, NLP World, and Rapport) by Woodsmall, McNab, and even myself, the Neuro-Logical Levels provides a very valuable and important model to NLP. The model was the first structure to begin to tie together many of the diverse domains of NLP: values, beliefs, identity, etc.
Even though the model is not strictly a logical level system, and has some flawed aspects, it provides the structural heart of many very powerful NLP Patterns that facilitates positive transformations in people’s lives. In this respect, it offers a good example of how a map about the territory doesn’t have to be perfectly accurate in order to lead us to new and exciting places. In spite of its flaws, when used in various patterns, it still can turn a person around and empower him or her to navigate life in an entirely new way. We can appreciate the creativity of Robert Dilts for that.
During the last couple years, we have used the Neuro-Logical Levels as a starting point in building many new Meta-State Patterns. The levels in that model provide us a great beginning place for thinking about the mental/emotional phenomena that occur at meta-levels and raises several questions. So, beginning with those levels, I will raise these questions in this article:
“Are there other levels?”
“What are some of the other higher logical levels?”
“What relationship exists between these levels?”
“Is there a rigid hierarchy between them?”
The Other Logical Levels
Let’s begin by operationalizing what we mean by “logical levels.” Robert Dilts has provided the following definition of a “logical level.”
“In our brain structure, language, and perceptual systems there are natural hierarchies or levels of experiences. The effect of each level is to organize and control the information on the level below it. Changing something on an upper level would necessarily change things on the lower levels; changing something on a lower level could but would not necessarily affect the upper levels.” (Dilts, Epstein, Dilts, 1991, p. 26, emphasis added).
“Logical Levels: an internal hierarchy in which each level is progressively more psychologically encompassing and impactful” (1990: 217, emphasis added).
John Grinder (1987) has added:
“an organizational structure is an example of logical levels. In any context of talking about the human being in a society, the family, the affinity group, and finally, the tribe, are logical levels of organization. So … relationships define logical levels.” (p. 75).
To have “logical levels,” we need a series of levels (two or more), wherein the items operate in a certain prescribed order with regard to each other (a hierarchical system). We have “logical” levels when the level above “inevitably and predictably” (“logically”) drives, affects, modulates, organizes, and controls the level below it. In true logical levels, the higher levels always and inevitably drive the lower levels.
This gives us two primary ways to create logical levels:
1) The inductive approach. Any “thought” that we can take and use as a classification or category about another generates, by definition, what we mean by a “logical level.” In “chunking up” in inductive thinking we have an easy route to generating logical levels.
2) The meta-relational approach. Any “thought” that we can put into a meta-relationship to another so that it stands in an “about-ness” relationship to another, that is, so that the thought relates to another thought as being about that thought, generates a “logical level.”
How “Logical Levels” Emerge in Human Development
Logical levels emerge over time. We create them … and we do so in the process of living, mapping, and being culturalized. We all start life with an incredibly complex bio-computer, equipped with a great many hard-disk programs already installed for running our autonomic nervous system that keeps us breathing, growing, self-healing, etc., but no guideline booklet. How do we run this brain? How do we run the set of highly advanced self-programming functions that it enables us to map and then to map our maps?
Our self-reflexive self-programming operations gives us the power to immediately adopt any of thousands of languages as our basic programming language. With this we begin the process of setting internal frames of references. The infant and young child, loaded with self-programming bio-computer that can engage in millions of computations per minute– the ultimate modeling mechanism, the map-making and map-engineering device par excellence begins his or her adventure in making a Model of the World.
Of course, we do not start with a fully developed brain. We have one that continues to grow over the years. It matures through numerous developmental stages, learning to engage in increasingly more complex levels of abstraction. First we have to model the given language of our culture. Then we have to use that language as the initial programming language for all later programs. Our hard-wired language acquisition devices only need to be activated by some symbol system.
Nor is this computational bio-computer located just in the head. It’s located, and operates from, the entire mind-body system. At the peripheral edges of the mind-body we find end sensory receptors that gathers data from the environment beyond the skin– the energy manifestations that involve electro-magnetic waves, sound waves, chemical, radiant energy, etc. From these input systems, our nervous systems (neurological computing) encodes the energy forms “out there” into a neurological map that we experience as “perception.”
We experience visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, and gustatory phenomena as our first contact with the world. Our experience is not “real” in an absolute sense. “Out there,” apart from our abstracting nervous system, there are not sights, sounds, sensations. There are only energy manifestations– forces, structured movements, processes, etc. occurring. We make sense of such, given the nature of our sense-receptors and the kinds of bodies that we have, via our “senses.”
Watch the blades on a propeller plane sometime. At first you see 3 to 20 blades depending on the size and construction. Then the blades begin to move. At first you can continue to “see” four blades or whatever. But then as they move faster, the blades become blurred, and seem to run together. Then they disappear as something new appears to your eyes– a disk. At least that’s what we “see.” Our eyes summarize, delete, generalize, and distort the image of a disk. Even a camera records and registers a disk. Yet when the blades turn even faster, the disk disappears– and you see through where the disk was. The blades disappear. They vanish. They are yet there– but we can’t see fast enough to collect the data. So there exist many other forces and energies out there– that we cannot see or hear or feel or register as well.
From this level of abstracting (i.e., summarizing, concluding, evaluating, deleting, generalizing, distorting, etc.) or our neurological mapping of the world we create another map. We construct a map of a map. This appears to us as a representational map that presents to ourselves again the sensory based information that we constructed from our perceptions. Our representational mapping takes us one more level away from the stimuli to which we first mapped things. Now we have a phenomenological sense of things– of sights, sounds, sensations, smells, etc. That is, it seems to us that we inward “see,” “hear,” “feel,” “smell,” etc. on the inside– in our mind. The term phenomenological alerts us to the fact that this occurs conceptually, representationally, and mentally. It is not “real” in any external way. We only experience it as “real” internally.
And, given the nature and functioning of this self-referential bio-computer, we do not stop there. We then make a map of that map-of-a-map. All of this takes us into the world of concepts and conceptual mapping.
We then begin creating the higher frames that can govern the very way we think, learn, create, etc. We participate in our own evolution.
Modeling these Mind-Body Brain “Levels”
Korzybski (1933/ 1994), using his scientific and engineering orientation, modeled this very understanding of the interaction of our nervous system with the world using his now famous Map/Territory metaphor. From that modeling, he developed a model well-known in General Semantics and much-less known in NLP, called The Levels of Abstracting. He did this to provide a way for sorting and separating the various levels of mind and communication that we develop in responding to the world.
To simplify his Structural Differential model that he used as the basis and source for “Science and Sanity,” we can distinguish these levels of neuro-linguistic mapping.
1) Perception– Perceptual Mapping: “Awareness” of the world in terms of our sense receptors (eyes, ears, skin, etc.)
2) Sensory Representations– Representational Mapping: Remembered, retrieved and imagined or constructed “awareness” of what we have seen, heard, felt, or could imagine seeing, hearing, feeling.
3) Symbolic Representations– Language Mapping: Symbols and symbolic systems that we use to “stand for” and represent our sensory representations (language, words, mathematics, music, blueprints, diagrams, metaphors, etc.)
4) Concepts– Conceptual Mapping: Symbols about symbols, meta-symbolic terms, words, language, etc. referencing other symbols.
5) Etc.– An ongoing process that never ends… The recursiveness of the feedback and feed forward loops makes it so that we can always say something about whatever we think or feel.
“Thoughts” at Ever Higher Levels
When we apply these Levels of Abstraction to the process of “thinking” itself, and to the products of that process (“thoughts”), we discover a way to operationalize our “mental” and “conceptual” terms. This fits the Meta-Model objective of de-nominalizing our terms so that we can more precisely and accurately specify what we mean.
Now we can speak more precisely about all of the mental phenomena that occurs at meta-levels. Starting at the bottom of the chart (see Figure 1), we have the following levels, each one reflecting back to become the frame-of-reference for the previous one. This feedback loop generates a system of embedded layers– each higher layer about the lower layer. As such, the higher feedback loop or frame governs and controls the lower levels. Each orders and organizes the lower and so operates as an attractor in a self-organizing system.
Level One: “Thoughts” as Sensory-based Representations. We “think” by using the language of thought, namely, the VAK Sensory Representational Systems. We encode and thereby construct our internal sense of reality by mapping the territory in terms of sights, sounds, sensations, smells, tastes, etc. (Senses, awareness, intuition, knowing, feeling, etc.)
Level Two: “Thoughts” as Words– Symbols of the VAK. We move up a level as we make a meta-move and encode our level one “thoughts” using words. Now the word “strawberry” stands for and refers to the sights, sounds, sensations, smells, and tastes that make up a strawberry. This meta-representational system is a secondary experience, a “thought” of a “thought.” It generates a domain that we describe as Sensory-based Terms (behavioral, empirical terms). (Ideas, knowing, understanding, representations, etc.)
Level Three: “Words” about “Words”– Generalized Terms of Sensory-based Terms. We can put the term strawberry into numerous higher level abstract categories (classes, concepts): fruit, food, plant, nourishment, organic life, red objects, cultivated plants, things that weigh less than a pound, squashable items, etc. The abstract category that we use, invent, or discover gives us additional ways to think about the item. As such, we map our previous map and generalize, delete, distort, conceptualize, etc. Common terms for “thoughts” at the level include: beliefs, meanings, understandings, knowledge, concepts, conceptualizations, abstractions, values, decisions, etc.
Belief: believing, thinking a thought of confirmation about a thought, a confirmed, a validated, “true,” accurate, or “real” thought.
Value: valuing, thinking thoughts of importance and significance about a thought. A valued thought.
Decision: deciding, thinking thoughts that choose, separate away choices, “cuts off” alternatives about a thought. Choosing to accept a thought, refusing to accept another thought.
Understand: understanding, a way of representing and thinking about something that conceptually stands under a frame of reference that offers a construct or way of thinking about something.
Idea: “seeing” (literally), a way to think about something.
Map: mapping, the constructing, formatting, framing, representing of one thing in terms of another.
Meaning: to give meaning, to link or associate one thing with another; to use one thing as a form (or format) for another (contextual meaning).
Level Four: Abstractions about Abstractions, Etc. Nor does this abstraction ever stop with humans. This leads to ever increasing levels of abstraction and complexity.
Convictions: beliefs about beliefs
Domains of Understanding: understandings of understandings.
Paradigms: models of models.
Model of the world: larger level conceptual structures.
Belief Systems: interconnected beliefs about beliefs
Frame of reference: conceptually referencing something and using as your benchmark or frame, framing a thought, belief, value, etc. using some format or construction.
Identification: identifying, personalizing thoughts about other thoughts, representations, and beliefs.
Figure 1 The Meta-Levels of Mind
Model of the world (Frames of Frames)
Frames-of-References (Paradigms of Paradigms)
Identifications (Identifying With Thoughts @ Rep.)
Paradigms (Belief Systems: Beliefs @ Beliefs)
Understanding (Formatting Thoughts about Thoughts)
Decisions (choosing Thoughts about Thoughts)
Valuing (Thoughts of Importance about Thoughts)
Believing (Confirmed thoughts about Thoughts)
Using powers of representational thinking –> Events in the World
How to Avoid Linear Thinking about Non-Linear Processes
Within each level of “thought” we have each of these meta-phenomena. This means that
within every belief, we have “values,” i.e., we value something
within every decision, we find beliefs (explicit and implicit) and things we value as important
within ever understanding we have beliefs, values, and intentions
within every belief we have intentions, motivations, agendas
In other words, we have to be careful as we use such terms as we find in the “Neuro-Logical” Levels. This is just a way to talk about subjectivity. The actual referent, the dynamic, fluid, and ever-changing reality of mind processes at various levels, layering thoughts-and-feelings upon each other is far too alive and systemic to be reduced by such terms. Plus, each term only gives us one perspective about each layer. We can legitimately say that–
It’s beliefs all the way up
It’s frames all the way up
It’s values all the way up
It’s expectations all the way up
It’s intentions all the way up
This gives us a picture of the greater flexibility that our mind experiences at the higher levels. As dynamic patterning, knowing that logical levels gives us a way to map the referencing nature of mind expands our own flexibility. The Logical Levels are not “things” at all and certainly not static representations in spite of our nominalized language about “beliefs, values, etc.”
Mental Phenomena at Many Levels of Mind
With all of the terms available for mental phenomena, we now have a way to sort through them to more specifically understand the dynamic structure. Most of these are multiordinal in nature. Such terms mean nothing specifically, we have to specify the level of abstraction at which the word occurs to determine its meaning. Multiordinal refers to a linguistic distinction of Korzybski that helps us handle a special kind of nominalization (See The Secrets of Magic, Hall, 1998). With regard to the kinds and qualities of mental phenomena that we can use in mapping the territory, we can think, believe, value, know, understand, map, identify, decide, etc.
These mental or conceptual powers enable us to build thoughts at many different levels. Yet to not notice the levels, to confuse the levels, and/or to wish the levels would just go away– creates confusion and all sorts of category errors. All thoughts are not equal. They do not occur at the same level. “Thought” occurs at many different levels and we label such thought by different terms. This generates differences in emotions–
- primary level emotion (driven, determined, encoded, and structured by primary level thinking)
- meta-feelings (determined and controlled by meta-level thinking).
We can also discover and sort out meta meta-feelings.
This means that in running our own brain and in coaching someone else in running his or her brain, we need to take into consider both mind and meta-mind levels. They differ. And they operate by different set of principles.
Appreciating and Working with all of the Other Logical Levels
So what? What difference does any of this make? And how can we use this understanding of the dynamic levels of mind?
Appreciating the dynamic nature of these systemic processes first of all helps us to avoid the mistake of solidifying the levels and turning them into nominalized entities. In NLP, we already know about the ill-formedness of such nominalizations as “values, beliefs, identity, mission,” etc. We already know that we speak with much more accuracy as we map the territory using verbs: valuing, believing, identifying, planning directions, etc.
Such appreciation now opens us up to a new level of flexibility. If we become stuck within our own mind or in working with another person, we can use these terms to expand our perceptions. If we’re working with a belief, we can explore the intentions, values, and/or identifications within it. If we’re working on an identification, we can explore the importance, meaning, beliefs, and frames within it. This greatly increases flexibility in working with the higher levels of mind about anything.
And this more dynamic understanding of mind enables us to play with our self-reflexive consciousness. As we reflect back on previous thoughts and generate layers of thoughts in a hierarchy (holoarchy) that gives birth to meta-level phenomena, we know that the higher levels will always dominate. The higher levels always govern, modulate, and control the lower levels. And since meaning involves context, we know that a person’s conceptual context (or frame-of-reference) will determine his or her neuro-semantics.
As we can use the Neuro-Logical Levels to understand the meaning of a system, so we can also use the other logical levels to extend this understanding. This gives us an expanded understanding of the meanings or semantic system that a person operates from. It describes a person’s meaning system which, in turn, explains functioning, behavior, skills, etc.
The other logical levels enable us to also think more broadly about the emergent meanings and properties that arise as systemic properties in a system. This cues us in to the mind-body system and its feed back and feed forward loops. Now we can look for the self-organizing attractors in the system, namely, the higher frames and beliefs. This allows us to trace back a force to the “idea” that attracts to itself events, reasons, understandings, etc. to support it.
L. Michael Hall, Ph.D., researcher and modeler, international trainer and entrepreneur (P.O. Box 9231; Grand Jct. CO. 81501; 970 523_7877), developer of the Meta-States Model, co-founder of Neuro-Semantics®www.learninstitute.com], currently involved in several modeling projects: wealth building, selling/persuasion excellence, accelerated learning, etc.
Bandler, Richard. (1985). Ed. by Steve Andreas. Using your brain for a change. Moab, UT: Real People Press.
Hall, L. Michael (1995). Meta-States: Reflexivity in human states of consciousness. Grand Jct. CO: E.T. Publications.
Hall, L. Michael; Bodenhamer, Bobby (1999). The structure of excellence: Unmasking the meta-levels of submodalities. Grand Jct. CO: E.T. Publications.