William James and the NLP Model

Another Almost Inventor of NLP
Parts I, II, and III

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

Just how close did William James come to inventing NLP? When you read his classic work (1892/1961), Psychology: The Briefer Course, he seemed to come very close to many of the formulations that we now recognize as part of the NLP model of human functioning and consciousness.

After all, he described the sensory systems in great detail, de-nominalized vague terms in order to make them more precise and operational, offered narrative descriptions about “states of consiousness,” explored the subjective structure of various experiences, recognized submodalities, played around with reflexivity, made distinctions in the identity realm between “I” and “me,” wrote about memory, language, “programs” (habits), anchoring, “time,” etc.

Actually, James’s The Briefer Course condensed his original two volumes. In it he emphasized the human senses and the representational systems as the essence of consciousness. Upon identifying several nominalizations (including the word “emotions” as well as several specific emotions), James de-nominalize them to bring more clarity of thinking into the process. He provided interesting refinements about the kind of learners–visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc. that I think you will find most fascinating. James further modelled a most engaging writing style in his presentations.

Neuro-linguistic “Habits” (NLH?)

You don’t have to read into James far to realize that he wrote a lot about “habits”– his term for the neuro-linguistic “programs.” A statement frequently quoted from him goes, “Habits are not merely second nature; they are ‘ten times nature.'” (p.9). And as such, they therefore comprise the structural unit of mental life. Here he speaks of the interface of habits and neurology.

“Habits are due to pathways through the nerve-centres. Habit simplifies our movements, makes them accurate, and diminishes fatigue. If practice did not make perfect, nor habit economize the expense of nervous and muscular energy, he would be in a sorry plight.”

“Without habit a man might be occupied all day in dressing and undressing himself; the attitude of his body would absorb all his attention and energy; the washing of his hands or the fastening of a button would be as difficult to him on each occasion as to the child on its first trial; and he would furthermore, be completely exhausted by his exertions. Think of the pains necessary to teach a child to stand.” (p. 5).

“Habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed. We all have routine manner of performing daily offices… our higher thought centres know hardly anything about these matters!” (p. 7).

James proposed that the great thing in all education involves making our nervous system our ally rather than our enemy. To capitalize on the acquisitions of skills, we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, and regarding as many useful actions as we can. James recommended that we also “guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us” (11). Sounds like the “Ecology Question and Check” that we use in NLP!

As we work to acquire new habits we should “launch ourselves assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way and make engagements incompatible with the old.” Doing this gives new beginnings the kind of momentum so that we won’t feel tempted to break down so soon as we otherwise might. Reading that reminds me of the emphasis Robbins (1991) puts on attaching “massive pain” or “massive pleasure” to the beginning of a new program. In setting such anchors or programs, James wrote:

“Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right. (p. 12).

“Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspiration communicate the new ‘set’ to the brain. (p. 14)

James warned that without programming ourselves for effectiveness, we might end up as “the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed.” (p. 15). To remedy that–we should never suffer ourselves to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way.

“Let the expression be the least thing in the world–speaking genially to one’s grandmother, or giving up one’s seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers–but let it not fail to take place.” (p. 15).

Why? Because if we let our emotions evaporate, then they will get into the habit of evaporating. Then, that becomes our “program.” Conversely, we should keep the faculty of effort alive in us by a little gratuitous exercise every day.

“Be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.” (p. 16).

States of Consciousness

James invented, or at least introduced and popularized, the term “the stream of consciousness.” Within each personal consciousness, we experience thinking as “sensibly continuous.” Consciousness does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. It flows. So we use the metaphors of it flowing like a river or a stream (p. 26). He noted (1892) that states of mind succeed each other and that every state operates as part of a personal consciousness. (As an aside, most writers and thinkers in NLP generally utilize this definition of a state of consciousness, not as a static and non-moving “thing,” but as a ongoing flow of consciousness.)

“Each of these minds keeps its own thoughts to itself. There is no giving or bartering between them. No thought ever comes into direct sight of a thought in another personal consciousness than its own. Absolute insulation, irreducible pluralism, is the law. It seems as if the elementary psychic fact were not thought or this thought or that thought, but my thought, every thought being owned.” (p. 20).

In his de-nominalizing of “thoughts” and feelings, James both put the pseudo-noun (“emotions” and “thoughts”) back in verb form (thinking, feeling) and added the Lost Performative (the personnot exist… they do not exist apart from a person. He noted that each person exists as a thinker-feeler. Hence, “‘I think’ and ‘I feel'” exists, but not detached “thoughts” and “feelings.” And true to Korzybski’s basic tenet of non-identity, James noted the constant change of consciousness and that “No state once gone can recur and be identical with what it was before.” (p. 21). thinking-emoting) when he highlighted the fact that feelings and thoughts do

“Our state of mind is never precisely the same. Every thought we have of a given fact, is strictly speaking, unique and only bears a resemblance of kind with our other thoughts of the same fact. When the identical fact recurs, we must think of it in a fresh manner. Often we are ourselves struck at the strange differences in our successive views of the same thing.” (p. 23).

“It is logically impossible that the same thing should be known as the same by two successive copies of the same thought. The thoughts by which we know what we mean the same thing are apt to be very different indeed from each other. We think the thought now substantively, now transitively; now in a direct image, now in one symbol, now in another symbol.” (p. 110)

James also noted the speed of consciousness as Bandler and Grinder did when they created several of the initial NLP patterns that depended upon doing a piece quickly.

“When we take a general view of the wonderful stream of our consciousness, what strikes us first is the different pace of its parts. Let us call the resting-places the ‘substantive parts,’ and the places of flight the ‘transitive parts,’ of the stream of thought. It then appears that our thinking tends at all times toward some other substantive part than the one from which it has just been dislodged. The rush of the thought is so headlong that it almost always brings us up at the conclusion before we can rest it.” (p. 27, emphasis added).

Today in NLP we recognize “the different pace” of parts of our pictures and sounds when we do contrastive analysis between “fast time” and “slow time.” Different parts of our represnetations will move at different speeds. You can detect this by thinking about some time when you zoomed along an interstate and then came off on an off-ramp and creeped along. The distortion of your sense of “time” almost inevitably involves some facets of your visual representations moving at a different pace than other parts.

James intuitively recognized these things–although he didn’t know what to do about them or how to use them. As with the “rush of thought” as representations swish off to other places–he didn’t know how to use that very mechanism to continue the swishing!

In his writing James frequently commented on one state namely, the one he designated as the tip-of-the-tongue state. This state arises when you see someone you know but can’t recall his or her name, or when you have a word on the tip of your tongue, but can’t quite get to it. At such times, we experience “a gap” in our mind,

“…but no mere gap. It is a gap that is intensely active. A sort of wraith of the name is in it, beckoning us in a given direction, making us at moments tingle with the sense of our closeness and then letting us sink back without the longed-for term.” (p. 30).

How close to Bandler’s comment that “the tip-of-the-tongue” phenomenon involves a kinesthetic feel! As James explored the phenomenology of this experience, he noted that it involves the intention of saying a thing before saying it. We have an entirely definite intention that comes to our mind, we feel an anticipatory intention, but then can’t quite access it.

“Try to symbolize what goes on in a man who is racking his brains to remember a thought which occurred to him last week. The associates of the thought are there, many of them at least, but they refuse to awaken the thought itself. We cannot suppose that they do not irradiate at all into its brain-tract, because his mind quivers on the very edge of its recovery. Its actual rhythm sounds in his ears; the words seem on the imminent point of following, but fail. Now the only difference between the effort to recall things forgotten and the search after the means to a given end is that the latter have not, whilst the former have, already formed a part of our experience.” (p. 138)

At a meta-level, he noted that knowledge about a thing involves knowledge of its relations. Because mind naturally wonders, it bounces about between referents–it goes places.

“The natural tendency of attention when left to itself is to wander to ever new things [it swishes to new referents!]; and so soon as the interest of its object is over, so soon as nothing new is to be noticed there, it passes, in spite of our will, to something else. If we wish to keep it upon one and the same object, we must seek constantly to find out something new about the latter, especially if other powerful impressions are attracting us away.” (p. 94, emphasis added).

“The manner in which trains of imagery and consideration follow each other through our thinking the restless flight of one idea before the next, the transitions our minds make between things wide as the poles asunder, transitions which at first startle us by their abruptness, but which, when scrutinized closely, often reveal intermediating links of perfect naturalness and propriety–all this magical, imponderable streaming has from time immemorial excited the admiration of all whose attention happened to be caught by its omnipresent mystery.” (p. 120).

“The train of imagery wanders at its own sweet will, now trudging in sober grooves of habit, now with a hop, skip, and jump, darting across the whole field of time and space. This is revery, or musing; but great segments of the flux of our ideas consist of something very different from this. They are guided by a distinct purpose or conscious interest; and the course of our ideas is then called voluntary.” (p. 138)

I like to think of these “hops, skips, and jumps” of consciousness as thought-balls that bounce around in consciousness. Regarding states of consciousness, James also noted the effect that a state can have upon a person’s thinking, emoting, behaving. He noted what we today call “state dependency.”

“The difficulty is mental; it is that of getting the idea of the wise action to stay before our mind at all. When any strong emotional state whatever is upon us, the tendency is for no images but such as are congruous with it to come up.” (p. 318).

Part II
Almost NLP Inventor (Part II)

In the first article on William James as an almost inventor of NLP, I highlighted his descriptions of human “programs”–which he called habits and his description of states of consciousness–and how “mind” flows as a stream, every jumping, hopping, and skipping about between referents. He knew that the brain goes places, and noted many of the places that brains typically go– he just didn’t know how to tap into these mental-emotional mechanisms as NLP has taught us.

Now look at his almost discovery of sensory systems, submodalities, self-reflexivity, and identity.

The Sensory Representational Systems

James described the senses as organs of selection and noted that each sense-organ picks out those which fall within certain limits of velocity, and ignores the rest. He noted that each of our senses generalizes, deletes, and distorts to create its representations.

“We do far more than emphasize things [distortion], and unite some [generalization], and keep others apart. We actually ignore [deletion] most of the things before us.” (p. 37).

“Out of what is in itself an undistinguishable, swarming continuum, devoid of distinction or emphasis [the Territory], our senses make for us, by attending to this motion and ignoring that, a world full of contrasts, of sharp accents, of abrupt changes, of picturesque light and shade. It chooses certain of the sensations to represent the thing most truly.” (p. 38).

So via our senses, we create our represented map of the territory! Then, as we continue to create our internal representation or “experience,” we do so using our “habits of attention” or what in NLP we call Meta-Programs.

“In a world of objects thus individualized by our mind’s selective industry, what is called our ‘experience,’ is almost entirely determined by our habits of attention.” (p 39).

In the area of memory, James noted that all improvement of memory consists in the improvement of one’s habitual methods of recording facts (p. 165). He became highly impressed by the fourfold channel of eye, ear, voice, and hand (VAAtK) as an improved method of memorizing! Notice just how close he came here to the NLP sense modalities! He also noted the effect of the sense modalities on the nervous system.

“Sensations, once experienced, modify the nervous organisms, so that copies of them arise again in the mind after the original outward stimulus is gone.”

Noting how people differed in visual imagination, he quoted the statistical inquiry that Mr. Galton (1880) collected from one of the first recorded psychological experiments.

“He addressed a circular to large numbers of persons asking them to describe the image in their mind’s eye of their breakfast-table on a given morning. The variations were found to be enormous; and, strange to say, it appeared that eminent scientific men on the average had less visualizing power than younger and more insignificant persons.” (p. 170, from “Inquiries into Human Faculty, by Galton, p. 83-114).

James noted some differences between good and poor visualizer. He said that

“…some people undoubtedly have no visual images at all worthy of the name, and instead of seeing their breakfast-table, they tell you that they remember it or know what was on it. The ‘mind-stuff’ of which this ‘knowing’ is made seems to be verbal images exclusively.” (p. 172).

Regarding the modality of words and language, James noted that “The scheme of relationship and the conclusion” function as the essential things in that kind of thinking.

“Now words, uttered or unexpressed, are the handiest mental elements we have.”

They provide us a rapidly revivable anchor to the referents, “coffee,” “bacon,” “muffins,” “eggs,” etc. But both James and Galton drew (what to us in NLP seems like) a very strange conclusion. They believed that

“The older men are and the more effective as thinkers [use language], the more, as a rule, they have lost their visualizing power.” (p. 173).

Regarding those who favor the modality of auditory-tonal (At), James described those who think by preference in auditory images as audiles (after Galton). This type “appears to be rarer than the visual.”

“Persons of this type imagine what they think of in the language of sound.” (p. 173).

“It is clear that the pure audile, seeking to develop only a single one of his faculties, may, like the pure visualizer, perform astounding feats of memory–Mozart, for example, noting from memory the Miserere of the Sistine Chapel after two hearings; the deaf Beethoven, composing and inwardly repeating his enormous symphonies.”

For kinesthetic, James talked about people using “images of muscular sensations, a ‘motile’ form of imagination.”

“The movements of articulate speech play a predominant pat of his mental life. Most peoples on being asked in what sort of terms they imagine words, will say, ‘In terms of hearing.’ It is not until their attention is expressly drawn to the point that they find it difficult to say whether auditory images or motor images connected with the organs of articulation predominate.” (174).


James even anticipated submodalities as he talked about the distinguishing differences between things. In describing the conditions which favor discrimination, he treated several different kinds.

“First… the things to be discriminated must be different either in time, place, or quality. In other words, and physiologically speaking, they must awaken neural processes which are distinct. The sensations excited by the differing objects must not fall simultaneously but must fall in immediate succession upon the same organ.

It is one of those transitive feelings or feelings of relation. When once arouses, its object lingers in the memory along with the substantive terms which precede and follow, and enables our judgments of comparison to be made.” (pp. 112-113).

He also noted that the longer the interval of time between the sensations, the more uncertain would become our discrimination of them. Regarding differences inferred he said that we must not confound those entirely unlike cases [from direct perceptions of differences] in which we infer that two things must differ because we know enough about each to warrant our classing them under distinct heads. We constantly compare feelings with those qualities our imagination has no sort of acquaintance at the time–pleasures/ pains for example.