An Almost Inventor of NLP
Parts I, II,  and III
Published in Anchor Point, 1997

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 person thinking-emoting) when he highlighted the fact that feelings and thoughts do not 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).

“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)


Yes, he almost stumbled onto the model of neuro-linguistic habits— but not quite.  In the next parts, I’ll reference facets in James’ writings where he spoke about the sensory representational systems, submodalities, meta-programs, “time,” and much more.

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 sub-modalities 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.

Self-Reflexive Consciousness

With Bateson’s bequeathal of “going meta” and Korzybski’s distinction about abstracting to second and third, etc. levels, we have in NLP the concept of self-reflexive consciousness (Hall, 1995, 1996). James spoke about such in the following words.

“Whatever I may be thinking of, I am always the same time more or less aware of myself, of my personal existence. At the same time it is I who am aware; so that the total self of me, being as it were duplex, partly known and partly knower, partly object and partly subject, must have two aspects discriminated in it … Me and… I. … The self as known, or the me, the empirical ego… [a primary state], and the self as knower or I, the pure ego [a meta-level state of consciousness].” (p. 43)

With his separating these levels into a “Me” and “I,” James specified that “a man’s Me is the sum total of all that he can call his” –body, psychic powers, clothes, house, wife, children, ancestors, friends, reputation, work, lands, horses, yacht, and bank-account.  He divided the constituents of “the Me” into the material me, the social me, and the spiritual me (p. 44).  He spoke of our social me as arising from the recognition that we get from our mates and that we have as many social selves as we have individuals who recognize us. The spiritual me arises when we think of ourselves as thinkers.  For James, self as knower (a meta-state) raises many ontological questions.

“The pure ego is a very much more difficult subject of inquiry than the Me. (62).   What is the thinker?  Is it the passing state of consciousness itself or something deeper and less mutable?  The passing state is the very embodiment of change.  Yet each of us spontaneously considers that by “I,” he means something always the same.  This has led most philosophers to postulate behind the passing state of consciousness a permanent Substance or Agent whose modification or act it is.” (pp. 62-63)

In speaking about states of consciousness, James talked about the process of ‘singling out’ the elements in a compound much the way we pull apart a strategy and identify its component parts in terms of representational systems.

“It is safe to lay it down as a fundamental principle that any total impression made on the mind must be unanalyzable so long as its elements have never been experienced apart or in other combinations elsewhere.” (p. 115)

“Analysis of a thing means separate attention to each of its parts.” (117)

James recognized that we use consciousness to both discriminate between things in order to pull associations apart (find and specifying the strategies of experiences) and then we associate things to create new constructions (inductively move up the scale of abstraction to generalize new constructions).  Thus he speaks about deductive and inductive thinking to deal with large chunks and small chunks.

“All advance in knowledge must consist of both operations; objects at first appearing as wholes are analyzed into parts, and objects appearing separately are brought together and appear as new compound wholes to the mind.” (p. 120)

James also distinguished between levels of thought.  At the primary level of thinking about something beyond the nervous system, he noted that such a thought may induce various thoughts, but then when we later think about that thought (a thought-about a thought, a feeling about a feeling) we may experience even more of a state.

“One may even get angrier in thinking over one’s insult than one was in receiving it; and melt more over a mother who is dead than one ever did when she was living.” (p. 240)

Ah, re-induction of a state— and then an amplification of the state recalled!  James noted the innumerable varieties of emotion at various levels.  He designated the primary level as where we experience “the coarser emotions,” in distinction from meta-levels where we experience “the subtler emotions.”

Anger, fear, love, hate, joy, grief, shame, pride, and their varieties, may be called the coarser emotions, being coupled as they are with relatively strong bodily reverberations.  The subtler emotions are the moral, intellectual, and aesthetic feelings, mere description of the objects, circumstances, and varieties of the different species of emotion may go to any length.  Their internal shadings merge endless into each  other, and have been partly commemorated in language, as, for example, by such synonyms as hatred, antipathy, animosity, resentment, dislike, aversion, malice, spite, revenge, abhorrence, etc.” (p. 241)

The Identity Level

James wrote that the problem with a man “… is less what act he shall now resolve to do than what being he shall now become.”  As he made this distinction in logical levels (Dilt’s Identity over Behavior), he suggested that we keep a selected ideal uppermost in mind and that to do so operates as a “greater importance than the performance of a specific act.” (p. xv).

From his construct of “Me” and “I” James suggested that as we seek out our truest, strongest, deepest self we review our list of traits and values and pick out the one/s on which we “stake our salvation.”  “All other selves thereupon become unreal, but the fortunes of this self are real.” (p. 53).  From this he developed his strategy for “self-esteem.”

Figure 1

Self-esteem = Success

“Everything added to the Self is a burden as well as a pride.  Neither threats nor pleading can move a man unless they touch some one of his potential or actual selves. Find out a person’s strong principle of self-regard.  If a man has given up those things which are subject to foreign fate, and ceased to regard them as parts of himself at all, we are well-nigh powerless over him.  The Stoic receipt for contentment was to dispossess yourself in advance of all that was out of your own power —then fortune’s shocks might rain down unfelt.”

Epictetus exhorts us, by thus narrowing and at the same time solidifying our Self to make it invulnerable: ‘I must die; well, but must I die groaning too?  I will speak what appears to be right, and if the despot says, ‘Then I will put you to death,’ I will reply, ‘When did I ever tell you that I was immortal?  You will do your part, and I mine; it is yours to kill, and mine to die intrepid; yours to banish, mine to depart untroubled.’

How do we act in a voyage?  We choose the pilot, the sailors, the hour.  Afterwards comes a storm.  What have I to care for?  My part is performed.  This matter belongs to the pilot.  But the ship is sinking; what then have it to do?  That which alone I can do–submit to being drowned without fear, without clamor or accusing of God, but as one who knows that what is born must likewise die.” (p. 55)

In this presentation on James, let me end with what I find a humorous note.  James spoke about the marvel of how we always wake up in our own body with our thoughts intact!

“The I appropriates the Me.  Just such objects are the past experiences which I now call mine.  Other men’s experiences never bear this vivid, this peculiar brand. This is why Peter, awakening in the same bed with Paul, and recalling what both had in mind before they went to sleep, reidentifies and appropriates the ‘warm’ ideas as his, and is never tempted to confuse them with those cold and pale-appearing ones which he ascribes to Paul.  Each of us when he awakens says, Here’s the same old Me again, just as he says, Here’s the same old bed, the same old room, the same old world. (71)

So thank God that when you woke up this morning, you easily found your own warm thoughts— those that belong to you, to your consciousness!  Imagine the confusion, strangeness, and difficulties that would arise if the thoughts that you found rushing into your mind when you “come to consciousness” as you awaken depended on the proximity of someone who slept close by!

Part III
Almost Inventor of NLP — Part III

He almost did it— William James almost formulated many of the distinctions that we today find in NLP: sensory-based representational systems, submodalities, meta-programs, states of consciousness, levels (primary and meta) of consciousness, etc.  In this article, I want to continue this exploration of James’ formulations and relate them to NLP today.  Here we will look at his emphasis on will or choice, the plasticity of memory and representation, language, anchoring, “time” and time-lines, learning, and the physiology of thought.

An Empowering Decision

If you read the story of William James and the struggle that he had early in life with depression, then you will remember that classic Jamesian empowerment decision.  This goes back to the moment that he decided to subscribe to the doctrine of freedom.  To that decision, he dated his recover from a depression with which he had struggled.  In other words, he swished himself from a limiting belief to an empowering one.  In this case, he decided to run his own brain!

“I think yesterday was a crisis in my life.  I finished the first part of Renouvier’s second Essais and see no reason why his definition of free will–“the sustaining of a thought because I choose to when I might have other thoughts” –need be the definition of an illusion.  At any rate, I will assume… that it is no illusion.  My first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” (p. xix).  From, The thought and Character of William James, Ralph Barton Perry, diary, April, 1870.

Yet because James put so much emphasis upon will, choice, decision, etc., he failed to recognize the technology that we have today in NLP, like swishing consciousness to referents so that we don’t have to constantly use “will” power in keeping ourselves oriented according to our values and desired outcomes.

“Volitional effort is effort of attention.  We thus find that we reach the heart of our inquiry into volition when we ask by what process it is that the thought of any given actions comes to prevail stably in the mind. We see that attention with effort is all that any case of volition implies. The essential achievement of the will, in short, when it is most ‘voluntary,’ is to attend to a difficult object and hold it fast before the mind. Effort of attention is thus the essential phenomenon of will.” (p. 317)

“To sum it all up in a word, the terminus of the psychological process in volition, the point to which the will is directly applied, is always an idea. (p. 322)

The question of fact in the free-will controversy is thus extremely simple.  It relates solely to the amount of effort of attention which we can at any time put forth.

The heroic mind does differently.  To it, too, the objects are sinister and dreadful, unwelcome, incompatible with wished-for things.  But it can face them if necessary, without for that losing its hold upon the rest of life.  The world thus find sin the heroic man its worthy match and mate.” (p. 326)

“‘Will you or won’t you have it so?‘ is the most probing question we are every asked; we are asked it every hour of the day and about the largest as well as the smallest, the most theoretical as well as the most practical, things.”  (p. 327)

This comprised, for James, his decision destroyer process.  He simply ran the meta-level question about his decisions, beliefs, thoughts— “Will you or won’t you have it so?”

Memory as Constructs that Inevitably Change and Grow

James frequently spoke about the very nature of memories and, in fact, made his exploration into memory one of his central themes in his search for understanding consciousness.  In the following quotation, James speaks about the plasticity of memory, of the inherent constructive nature of our representations.  Before Constructivism as a psychological paradigm became known, James assumed it.

“False memories are by no means rare occurrences, and whenever they occur they distort our consciousness of our Me.  The most frequent source of a false memory is the accounts we give to others of our experiences.  We quote what we should have said or done… and in the first telling we may be fully aware of the distinction.  But ere long the fiction expels the reality from memory and reigns in its stead alone.  This is one great source of the fallibility of testimony mean to be quite honest.” (p. 73)


James viewed language as part of our conceptual system.  He noted that the letters of words do not typically enter our consciousness separately, as they do when we apprehended them alone.  But rather a sentence flashed at once upon the eye functions as a system relative to its words.  A conceptual system works to elicit in us sensible objects.  In other words, a gestalt arises via words and language system so that while it begins by anchoring sensory-based representations, we then generate higher level concepts about such, and then higher concepts about that, etc.

Thus we bring conceptual understandings to lower level information and when we have disconnected data “with no conception which embraces them together, it is much harder to apprehend several of them at once, and the mind tends to let go of one whilst it attends to another.” (p. 86).  In other words, “mind” naturally operates and seeks to operate a meta-mind levels.


Noting the patterns that “mind” takes in its “movements,” James talked about the principles of connection (or association), namely, coexistence, suggestion, resemblance, contrast, contradiction, cause-and-effect, means and end, genus and species, part and whole, substance and property, early and late, large and small, landlord and tenant, master and servant, etc. (p. 121).

“When two elementary brain-processes have been active together or in immediate succession, one of them, on re-occurring, tends to propagate its excitement into the other.” (p. 123, emphasis added)

He also recognized the importance of vividness in an original experience in terms of re-anchoring it later, although James talked in terms of “tracing the course of reproduction between an idea and our mood.”  Here he speaks about one-time learnings that get strongly anchored.

“If we have once witnessed an execution, any subsequent conversation or reading about capital punishment will almost certainly suggest images of that particular scene. Thus it is that events lived through only once, and in youth, may come in after-years, by reason of their exciting quality or emotional intensity, to serve as types or instances used by our mind to illustrate any and every occurring topic whose interest is most remotely pertinent to theirs.” (p. 133)

James knew that our anchored referents not only create the categories for our thinking, he knew that they also control our states.  Today in NLP we recognize that importance of “state” and state dependent learning, memory, communication, perception and behavior.  In the following, we see James noting such, using the old term “temperament” for state.

“The same objects do not recall the same associates when we are cheerful as when we are melancholy.  Nothing is more striking than our ability to keep up trains of joyous imagery when we are depressed in spirits.  Storm, darkness, war, images of disease, poverty, perishing, and dread afflict unremittingly the imaginations of melancholiacs.  And those of sanguine temperament, when their spirits are high, find it impossible to give any permanence to evil forebodings or to gloomy thoughts.  In an instant the train of association dances off to flowers and sunshine and images of spring and hope.” (p. 133)

“Time” and Time-Lines

As James explored “time” he noted that it did not exist as an external referent, but an internal one–as a concept.  In the following quotations, he labors to identify the submodality qualify of duration in “time.”

“The sensible present has duration.  Notice, attend to, the present moment of time. Where is it, this present?  It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.  An ideal abstraction, not only never realized in sense.   The only fact of our immediate experience is what has been called ‘the specious’ present, a sort of saddle-back of time with a certain length of its own, on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time.” (p. 147)

“The moment we pass beyond a very few seconds our consciousness of duration ceases to be an immediate perception and becomes a construction more or less symbolic.  To realize even an hour, we must count ‘now! now! now! now!’ indefinitely.  Each ‘now’ is the feeling of a separate  bit of time, and the exact sum of the bits never makes a clear impression on our mind. The longest bit of duration which we can apprehend at once so as to discriminate it from longer or shorter bits of time would seem to be about 12 seconds.” (p. 148)

“Thus we can no more actually perceive a duration than we can perceive an extension, devoid of all sensible content.  We are inwardly immersed in what Wundt has somewhere called the twilight of our general consciousness.  Our heart-beats, our breathing, the pulses of our attention, fragments of words, or sentences that pass through our imagination, are what people this dim habitat.” (p. 149)

James, in this next quote, writes about the kinesthetic aspect of our “time” representation.

“Empty our minds as we may, some form of changing process remains for us to feel, and cannot be expelled.  Awareness of change is thus the condition on which our perception of time’s flow depends; but there exists no reason to suppose that empty time’s own changes are sufficient for the awareness of change to be aroused.”

Next, James reflects on the kinesthetic “feel” of time and relates it to our “time” constructs of past, present, and future.  From this he even talks about a time-line–“a horizontal line” to represent the “time” concept.

“The feeling of past time is a present feeling.  In reflecting on the modus operandi of our consciousness of time, we are at first tempted to suppose it the easiest thing in the world to understand.  Our inner states succeed each other.  They know themselves as they are.  But this philosophy is too crude, for between the minds’ own changes being successive, and knowing their own succession, lies as broad a chasm as between the object and subject of any case of cognition in the world.”

“A succession of feelings, in and of itself, it not a feeling of succession.  And since, to our successive feelings, a feeling of time succession is added, this must be treated as an additional fact requiring its own special elucidation.  If we represent the actual time-stream or of any segment of its length by a horizontal line, the thought of the stream or of any segment of its length, past, present, or to come, might be figured in a perpendicular raised upon the horizontal at a certain point.” (p. 152)

“Our intuition or immediate consciousness of pastness hardly carries us more than a few second backward of the present instant of time.  Remoter dates are conceived, not perceived; known symbolically by names, such as ‘last week,’ 1850, or thought of by events when happened in them.”

James recognized and wrote about the hypnotic phenomenon that in NLP we describe as “fast” and “slow” time.

“A time filled with varied and interesting experiences seems short in passing, but long as we look back.  On the other hand, a tract of time empty of experiences seems long in passing, but in retrospect short.” (p. 150)

“The length in retrospect depends obviously on the multitudinousness of the memories which the time affords.  Many objects, events, changes, many subdivisions, immediately widen the view as we look back.  Emptiness, monotony, familiarity, make it shrivel up.” (p. 151)

“The same space of time seems shorter as we grow older.  The earlier events get forgotten, the result being that no greater multitude of distinct objects remains in the memory.  A day full of excitement, with no pause, is said to pass ‘ere we know it.’  A day full of waiting, of unsatisfied desire for change, will seem a small eternity [the structure of boredom].  It comes about whenever, from the relative emptiness of content of a tract of time, we grow attentive to the passage of the time itself.  Close your eyes and simply wait to hear someone tell you that a minute has elapsed, and the full length of your leisure with it seems incredible.” (p. 151)

Learning and Memory

For James, a good learning strategy involved utilizing all of the resources from all of the sense modalities, as well as setting up associations for linking things together.

“The ‘secret of a good memory’ is thus the secret of forming diverse and multiple associations with every fact we care to retain. …The one who thinks over his experiences most, or weaves them into systematic relations with each other, will be the one with the best memory.” (p. 161).

Why? Because he constantly goes over those items in his mind, compares them, and make a series of them.  They will form for him, not so many odd facts, but a concept-system.  This explains why the memory items “stick.”  James then applied this to effective studying versus “cramming.”

“Let a man early in life set himself the ask of verifying such a theory… and facts will soon cluster and cling to him like grapes on their stem.  In a system, every fact is connected with every other by some thought-relation.  The reason why cramming is such a bad mode of study is now made clear.  Things learned in a few hours, on one occasion, for one purpose, cannot possibly have formed many associations with other things in the mind.  Speedy oblivion is the most inevitable fate of all that’s committed to memory in this way.”

“Whereas the same materials taken in gradually, day after day, recurring in different contexts, considered in various relations, associated with other external incidents, and repeatedly reflected on, grow into such a system, form such connections with the rest of the mind’s fabric, lie open to many pathways of approach, that they remain permanent possessions.  This is the intellectual reason why habits of continuous application should be enforced in educational establishments.” (p. 163)

The Physiology of “Thought”

Among one of those who first recognized the role of physiology and neurology in “thought,” James posited that all consciousness involves motor factors.

“The whole neural organism, it will be remembered, is, physiologically considered, but a machine for converting stimuli in reactions; and the intellectual part of our life is knit up with but the middle or ‘central’ part of the machine’s operations.  Every impression which impinges on the incoming nerves produces some discharge down the outgoing ones, whether we be aware of it or not.” (p. 237)

“We may then lay it down for certain that every representation of a movement awakens in some degree the actual movement which is its object; and awakens it in a maximum degree whenever it is not kept from so doing by an antagonistic representation present simultaneously to the mind. … We do not first have a sensation or thought, and then have to add something dynamic to it to get a movement.  Every pulse of feeling which we have is the correlate of some neural activity that is already on its way to instigate a moment.” (p. 293)


As the “father of American Psychology,” William James tremendously impacted the study of psychology.  Into psychology he brought both pragmatism and phenomenology.  His own pragmatic spirit caused him to ask questions of relevance and usefulness (ecology); his phenomenology of subjective experience enabled him to write in a most engaging narrative style.  And, as evident in his writings, he came very close—  amazingly close— to creating many of the distinctions and facets of the NLP model.


James, William (1892/ 1961). Psychology: The briefer Course. (Ed. by Gordon Allport). NY: Harper & Row.

Robbins, Anthony (1991).  Awaken the Giant Within. NY: A Fireside Book, Simon & Schuster.