NLP's "New Age" Confusions

From: L. Michael Hall
Meta Reflections 2010 – #43
September 6, 2010
History of NLP Series #8


Not only has NLP long been confused with therapy (the last Meta Reflection), it has also for a long time been confused with the New Age movement and many of the way-out ideas involved in that.   I don’t know when “The New Age” movement began.  In the USA it seemed to have arisen during the 1960s as freedoms of various sorts were sought for and explored— during the Civil rights movement, Women’s Rights, etc.

It also seemed to have also been part and parcel of the Human Potential Movement (1962–1985) and eventually became part of the Trans-Personal Psychology (approximately 1965).  Esalen played a big role in it as it served as the New Age Center where the wildest ideas could be explored and where “East and West spirituality” could mix and mingle in new forms.

What specifically is this “New Age” movement?  What ideas determine and govern it?  Well, that’s where things get pretty messy.  It is almost a catch-all-term for anything outside of the mainstream thinking.  Sometimes it involves thinking outside-the-box and imagining what could be such imaginative questions as the following:

What if we could send our thoughts through space without speaking, just thinking?  What if we could move physical objects by our thoughts?  What if we are reincarnated from a previous life?  What if this is just one expression and we will be back?  What if thinking creates reality without having to invent and innovate products?

Wild and crazy and imaginative ideas, right?  And if we keep it as just that— some imaginative thinking for exploring—it keeps us playful and open.  But once a person starts to believe in such things—well, then the self-validating and self-reinforcing and self-fulfilling nature of a belief kicks in and then a person will begin to “see” and “perceive” evidence of their belief— even when there is nothing in reality.  That’s when all of this becomes a problem.  Then imaginations take flight and they never come in for a landing!  They continue to hover in la-la-land.

The challenge here is how to maintain a realistic (and scientific mindset) of testing things, checking things out, demanding rigorous standards for “proof,” and staying open, playful, and imaginative.  It is believing-while-being a skeptic until there’s external evidence that even an unbeliever has to acknowledge.

So a New Age Believer is just that— a believer in something, someone fully convinced about something and who also believes that he or she has “proof.”  In this, a non-believer does not see or perceive what the believer does.  This differentiates true science from pseudo-science.  In legitimate science, the evidence stands on its own— there’s a process for testing, and it can be replicated by others, even by those who do not believe that something exists or that something works.  In fact, when the non-believer has to agree with the facts and legitimacy of something, then you have proof that isn’t a function of a self-validating belief.

Now you know why double-blind and triple-blind research design projects are so important in science.  If the persons conducting the study know what to look for or believe that they will find it, they will mess up the results.

Why is it that this comes so easily into NLP?  Well the answer is this: As a cognitive-behavioral psychology based on a constructivist philosophy about reality and a phenomenological philosophy of human nature, we start from the assumption that there’s a difference between our mental maps about the world and the world.  We start from this “the map is not the territory” distinction.  We know that the way we “bring the world” into ourselves is through the “abstracting of our nervous system with its sense receptors.”  This is what Alfred Korzybski described in great detail in Science and Sanity (1933, 1995).  This is what NLP began with in saying that “We do not deal with reality (the territory) directly, but through our maps.”

[In Whispering in the Wind Grinder reveals that he has not read Korzybski as he accuses him of a shallow understanding of the “map” that we use to navigate reality and what Grinder calls ‘first access’ Korzybski mapped out in 1933 in much greater detail than Grinder as his Structural Differential and the neurological stages of abstractions.]

So far, so good.  In science we know that the electro-magnetic spectrum of “energies”out there in the world are processed and interpreted by our nervous system and sense receptors as light, sound, and sensation.  And we know that different nervous-system structures in neurology, as the eyes of owls, the ears of dogs, etc., see and hear and interpret the “energy signals” out there in the world differently from ours.  They may see the ultra-violet aspect of the spectrum where for us, we see nothing and sense nothing.  Then there are all of the extra-neural devices that we have invented over the years— devices that allow us to register, detect, recognize, interpret, and understand what is “out there” that we cannot pick up naturally with our neurological sense receptors.

And yes, there is a world “out there” beyond our nervous system.  There is a reality of objects that impact us independent of whether we know what they are or how they work.  You don’t have to believe in cars or car accidents (or disbelieve in them) in order to experience an accident.  Reality exists outside of you and your inner “reality” (subjective experience of reality) is co-created by the mixture of your thoughts and beliefs with the stuff outside.  So reality is not pure or only subjectivity.  We do not merely project the world.  We project our models and theories onto the world, our assumptions and then see the world in terms of those assumptions.

So we know that there is more “out there” than we can detect without special help.  And this is where our playful imaginations come in as we imagine the what ifs... and play around in our thinking about what other extra-neural devices we could invent and wonder if we could re-program our thinking and feeling in order to expand our capacities.  And as long as that’s what we’re doing, I say, go for it.

But I also think we should be very, very, very careful about turning imaginative ideas into beliefs, and then into creeds.  I would love to move things only with my mind.  But until someone figures out how to do that, demonstrates it to non-believers, and can demonstrate it under laboratory conditions, tele-kinesis is just an imaginary desire and sci-fi plaything, and not reality.

But this is what begins to create the New Age Believer— that person has jumped over the evidence stage and has become a believer, and often times a fanatic, who is absolutely convinced and therefore no longer open-minded and no longer open to feedback that he or she could be wrong.  And that, of course, is a big danger sign!

NLP was designed, as a child of the Human Potential Movement, to be creative, playful, imaginative and to stretch forward to play with the various possibilities for developing new human resources.  So no wonder so many “New Agers” were (and are) attracted to NLP and many end up as Trainers.   And with that another problem begins.  They not only teach and train the Cognitive-Behavioral psychology of NLP (if they even know it), but they also mix it with their religious belief system, alias their “New Age Religion.”

And they have the right to whatever religion they want!  I have no problem with that.  But to confuse NLP and New Age Religion, well, with that I do have a problem. They are fusing together a model of human nature with a set of beliefs.  And doing that confuses things.  Nor should someone confuse NLP with Christianity, or NLP and Buddhism, or NLP and Islam, etc.

We have been very, very careful in Neuro-Semantics about keeping the model of Neuro-Semantic-NLP clean and clear from any and every religion.  Within our ranks are people who are believers in these different spiritual disciplines who use the models that govern language, emotion, meaning, performance, mental filters, etc. in their religious expressions.  So far, so good.  And what we ask is that they keep them separate.  One is the model itself, the other are the various applications.

So if you see or read about some NLP or Neuro-Semantic person into what I personally consider pure non-sense, like the stuff in “The Secret,” or other New Age Beliefs about tele-kinesis, channeling the dead, reincarnation, Huna (Tad James), “quantum” psychology or linguistics, “new humans” emerging with mutated DNA, etc., none of that has anything to do with NLP or Neuro-Semantics.

Now our official position in Neuro-Semantics is that all of this is pre-scientific and much of it is pseudo-scientific and is the idiosyncratic beliefs of certain people and have nothing to do with the models.

2010 L. Michael Hall, Ph.D. All rights reserved.