Massive Inexplicable Violence and Neuro-Semantics

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

Littleton Colorado: school massacre, outrageous
violence, hatred, alienation, rejection, despair, bullied
by jocks, outcast kids, pipe bombs built in basements,
subcultures, black trench coats, Hitler’s birthday,
propane-tank bombs, Harris and Klebold, etc.

If You Don’t Know the Meanings & Frames
that Drive the States–
You’ll Never Understand the Behaviors
or the People who Produced Them

  • Why did it happen?
  • What were the causes, contributing factors, influences, and triggering events that brought it about?
  • Who is to blame for it?
  • What constructive, effective action can we take to prevent it from repeating?
  • What does it all mean?

What happened in the Colorado school on April 20, 1999 was no fluke. Nor was it “senseless.” Actually, when we think about it from the perspective of those who initiated it, it made plenty of sense. To Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, what they did made all the sense in the world, that is, in their world.

In writing this, I do not by any means validate or approve of their horrendous behaviors or of the havoc they generated. I do not write any of this validate their hatred, despair, stupidity, or cruel violence. Not at all.

I write instead to highlight the ultimate role that meaning (our human neuro-semantics) plays in our lives. The boys had given themselves to a way of thinking and therefore a way of emoting, valuing, believing, speaking, and acting that accorded to the violence that eventually erupted. The Frames they played with in their head inevitably lead to the Games of Violence that they played out in their behaviors at Columbine that dread day in April.

Playing With “Neuro-Semantic Fire”

Even to this day, most people seemly continue to take language and ideas and concepts for granted.

  • “It’s just language.”
  • “It’s just ideas, that’s all.”
  • “Let them read what they want, it’s just literature.”

This cavalier and disdainful way of treating symbolism thereby prevents us from really understanding the dangers that confront us in “mere” words and ideas. On the surface, the newspapers we use to feed our mind, the movies we watch, the novels we read, the conversations we engage in seem like neutral and passive things in our lives. They are not.

To think of the media in all of its forms as “just for fun,” as “just entertainment,” as having no real influence over our minds-and-emotions is to forget what class of life we are. It indicates that we don’t know or have forgotten that we are, by our nature, a semantic class of life ( Korzybski, 1994). Forgetting this leads us to fail to reckon with these subtly powerful influences. As a semantic class of life, we live on symbols. We fight for symbols. We go to war for symbols. We marry, divorce, sue, risk life and limb, invest, etc. for symbols.

Symbols are that important to us. Even our very consciousness is a result of the symbols that we feed it. That’s why humans in different cultures, learning to value different experiences, feel very different emotions about things. What excites one, disgusts another. What rattles one person’s cage and incites him to go into an outrage, evokes a sly smile in another.

We are a class of life that incorporates ideas into our neurology. That’s what we mean by “neuro-semantics.” And when concepts get into our muscles, they activate our motor programs and responses in the real world. And when you know that, you have some clues about what drove Harris and Klebold in their reign of terror on their high school.

The Power of Meaning

Would it be extreme to say that most people under-estimate the power of ideas in our lives? I don’t think so.

As a psychologist, I worked for years in the field of psychotherapy and I was constantly surprised by how little people seemed pay attention to the things they fed their minds. I would listen to a client talkthe way they talked (and hence thought) with their ongoing life problems. and, given the things I heard streaming forth from their mouth, I could easily see why they felt as they did, what was causing them pain and distress, etc. And yet many (if not most) of the folks never connected up

On many occasions I would ask,

“Do you hear what you’re saying?”
“When you talk that way; use those kinds of words– does that make your life any better?”

Not only did a great many people lack the intra-psychic awareness of their own automatic self-talk, but typically most of them didn’t seem to appreciate that if they made a constant diet of the evening news, or horror movies, or violence and gore, or whatever– they it might affect their states, their feelings, their physical wellness, etc. Dah!

Eventually I got into the habit of asking people to give me a fuller account of the kinds, numbers, and quality of their mental diet in terms of novels, movies, conversations, web sites, etc. Frequently, the biggest part of my prescription for their mental hygiene was to stop feeding their brain the unbalanced diet they had been using.


Because the quality of the things we feed our minds cannot but help affect our emotions and behaviors. Go on a constant diet of romance novels and guess what emotional states that will induce in you. Go on a constant diet of violent action movies, horror flicks, etc.

Of course, there is a difference between our stomachs and our brains. Our stomachs can vomit. When you feed on garbage, the stomach at least has the sense to throw it back up. The brain isn’t so smart. It just processes and “digests” whatever we feed it. If there’s going to be any quality control in the things you think, feel, and experience– you have to take charge of Quality Controlling the content of what we feed our eyes, ears, senses, etc.

If ideas were not ideo-dynamic in nature, inducing us into states (of mind and body), sending signals and commands to our autonomic and central nervous systems– then hypnosis would not work, nor would suggestions, marketing, selling, advertising, education, training, workshops, books, etc. Neuro-Linguistics (NLP) began with this simple idea from Cognitive Psychology.

How we represent things programs our mind and body and installs an internal mental map about the world.

This represents no new idea or philosophy. Dr. Albert Ellis founded Rational Emotive Therapy (RET) in the 1960s on the very premise that our minds control and govern our emotions and subsequently, our behaviors.

“Human thinking and emoting are not radically different processes; but at points significantly overlap. Emotions almost always stem directly from ideas, thoughts, attitudes, beliefs … and can usually be radically changed by modifying the thinking processes that keep creating them.”

And much further back than that, Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome and a philosopher in the second century AD put it succinctly in his writings.

“If you are pained by an external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you– but your judgment about it.” (The Meditations, 121-180 A.D.)

David Burns (The New Mood Therapy, 1980) has formulated these ideas as the basic principles of Cognitive Therapy.

“The first principle of Cognitive therapy is that all your moods are created by your cognitions or thoughts. A cognition refers to the way you look at things, your perceptions, mental attitudes and beliefs. It includes the way you interpret things, what you say about something or someone to yourself. You feel the way you do right now because of the thoughts you are thinking at this moment.” (pp. 11-12)

And even further back, an old Hebrew proverb asserted that “as a man thinks in his heart (soul), so he is…” (Proverbs 23:7). That asserts that we participate in creating our experienced ontology (sense of Being and beingness). As we represent, conceptualize, and set frames of reference (the meaning-making processes), so those ideas then begin to make us in their image.

The Structure of both White and Black “Magic”

NLP began with the book, The Structure of Magic (1975). This book articulated the fact that there is “structure” to the “magic” of saying some words and creating powerful and lasting change in the lives of other people. The marvelous magic of Virginia Satir, Fritz Perls, and Milton Erickson arose from the form and use of certain expressions.

The opposite is also true. There’s structure to the magic of inducing negative trances, hate, prejudice, stupidity, powerlessness, hexes, etc.

In spite of this knowledge, our culture generally seems to not recognize the programming power of ideas in the form of literature, movies, slogans, labels, music, videos, etc. Perhaps we discount them and not believe that they can matter that much because ideas and words do not operate externally as in utterances of Abracadabra.

In the weeks that have followed the Columbine massacre, we’ve heard a multitude of voices arguing that the music, the video-games, and the ideology of hatred could not have made Harris and Klebold do what they did. Those Frames could not have created those Games! “No way.” Voices have said that to think that would be an assault on the first amendment of free speech.

And indeed it may. I don’t know. Nor would I want to squelch anyone’s first amendment right.

And yet, given the ideas and the frames-of-references that filled the minds of those boys and that governed their feelings and actions, what they ultimately did makes perfect sense given their Model of the World. So while their behavior, at the surface level, seems totally irrational and psychotic, the expression of personality disordering and “mental illness,” if we look a little deeper, they simply acted out their beliefs. They acted congruently and in alignment with their states and their meta-states. That they planned the massacre for over a year indicates they the frame of mind that they had gotten into and feed and nurtured was a mind-set that they chose.

In April of 1999, Harris and Klebold simply played out the last scene of a Game at Columbine. They had been playing the Game for a long time.

  • “We are such victims. We’re not among the jocks or the cool kids.”
  • “Aryan Supremacy means we’re superior to you.”
  • “Violence is the way to solve differences; Blow them away.”
  • Etc.

Intoxicated on Violence

The disastrous shoot-out at the high school struck many people as a great mystery. Yet to those informed about the neuro-linguistic nature of mind, it all made perfect sense. When you indulge yourself on hate literature, violence games, taking offense from the unresourcefulness of others, interpreting oneself as “being on the outside,” “weird,” and “not cool” as a major offense to the ego, a belief in revenge, giving way to acting out a Rambo like retaliation, etc. __it makes perfect sense that as the mind feeds on poison, so the behaviors will act out that sickness.

In the end, Harris and Klebold simply programmed themselves to do what they did. The torment they received from the school bullies, the insult they took from not being in the in-crowd, the reinforcement of violence and revenge they practiced in the video-games, along with the higher frames of Nazi propaganda that validated their own supposed “superiority,” all of these things programmed their thinking and emoting so that the resulting behaviors perfectly congruent and aligned with their highest frames.

These frames supported and defined the Games that they had to play. And, like any frames, once set, they take on a life of their own and become “self-organizing.” Once set, we see the world through our frames as if perceptual filters and so we become increasingly convinced of their validity. We constantly receive more and more validation for them.

The problem at Columbine was the sick frames that the boys gave themselves to. Once the Game got started, once the Game was reinforced, it became more and more difficult to interrupt it or stop it. The longer the game, the more secretive they became.

And so it is with all of us. Our speech and behavior– our two public expressions of our neuro-linguistic powers arise from and are nurtured by our thinking and emoting. These are our States or our Games. And those states are supported by yet higher states of mind-and-emotion, our Frames. These give definition, structure, meaning, etc. to the games.

“The Victims Will Never Get Over This Tragedy”

If you’ve followed the news reports and the in depth news magazines from 20/20 to Primetime, Fox News, to CNN, etc., then you’ve heard counselors, psychologists, “violence” experts, “trauma” experts, and “victims” of other tragedies present over and over another toxic idea, namely, that “once a victim of such an event, always a victim.”

That’s just another Frame Game that people play.

They speak as if those who saw the blood, the shootings, or whatever traumatic event has to represent such over and over just the way it happened forever and ever. And, of course, if they did–  they would effectively reinforce their representations and run their neuro-pathways and brain so as to make it stronger and stronger. And typically, the person who would do such would also reinforce the generalizations (in the form of beliefs, understandings, etc.) they make about the events. And that’s what does the damage.

The truth is, as every practitioner of NLP and Neuro-Semanticist knows, that the trauma can be effectively and completely reframed, re-represented, and dealt with so that it does not have to bother those involved in it. The traumatic event was one thing. It is not now occurring. If it occurs inside of someone’s mind by how that person is coding it, then that mental action is what is continuing the sense and feeling of trauma. This separates the Event from the Map that we construct about the event. And once we make that distinction, we can take control of whether we create the feelings of trauma.

New Frames for New Games

What we think in that inner theater of our minds does make a difference. How we represent our thoughts also make a difference. So does the meanings that we give to our representations– and the frames that we set.

When you know this– you have the key to emotional liberation, to mental and emotional sanity, and the ability to exercise executive choice and control over your own life. Then you can “drive our own bus.”

We can only play a new and more resourceful Game in life when we change our Frames– the meanings (semantics) that we attribute to events. And that’s something we have total control over. May you use your symbols to set the kind of frames that will support resourceful games.

Author: L. Michael Hall, Psychologist, Colorado LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor), International NLP Trainer, Co-Developer of Neuro-Semantics.