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/// May 23, 2019 8:00:00 AM

I NOW KNOW WHERE THEY GOT “Neuro-Linguistic Programming!”

Posted by The Coaching Room

This article was originally written by Michael Hall - gently edited by The Coaching Room


When I first learned NLP I made a decision to read all of the foundational books that were quoted by the founders, and so I did.   Korzybski, Bateson, Satir, Perls, Erickson, Chomsky, and so it went. Also George Miller, Eugene Galanter, and Karl Pribram. For that I went to the library, and checked out their book, Plans and the Structure of Behavior.  I wanted to read the source of the TOTE model.  But to tell the truth, I didn’t get much out of it.  Problem: I read too quickly. I was also too focused on understanding TOTE and modeling, and overall—I wasn’t ready for it.

Then last week I reread the book.  Or more literally, I spent time to actually read it for the first time— slowly, deliberately, and now with 30+ years of NLP experience behind me.  And in that book I found a lot!


What I did Not Know

I did not know that what Miller, Galanter, and Pribram did in that book was challenge the “reflex arc” of behaviorism as the “unit” of study that makes up “behavior” and replaced it with the feedback loop of the TOTE structure.  I did not know that they opted for a “neuron theory” about the nervous system and the processes by which the old stimulus and response model was then re-conceived to occur within human neurology. I did not know that they relied heavily on the computer revolution that had been going on and constantly compared the “programs” within a computer to the instructional and operational Plans that go on in a human being.  I did not know that they used the best of neuro-science at that time and kept making guesses about brain anatomy and where and how in neurology, the “map control room” of working memory might occur.  I didn’t know that they wrote a whole chapter on linguistics and relied exclusively on Noam Chomsky’s work. That’s a lot of things I didn’t know about their work or that book.

What is that book about?  In a word, the whole book is about the plans (which they also call programs, programming) within the nervous system (neurology) and how it is coded primarily in language (linguistics).  And there you have it— neuro-linguistic programming.


In their own words they began by comparing brains and minds to computers and programs:

“The notion of a Plan that guides behavior is, again not entirely accidently, quite similar to the notion of a program that guides an electronic computer.   ... we reviewed the cybernetic literature on the analogies between brains and computers, between minds and programs.” (p. 2)

From there they based their work on cybernetic ideas (p. 3) and on the metaphor that minds create and operate from internal maps.  As they use the terms Image and Plans throughout the book, they mean internal representations. The Image is all the accumulated, organized knowledge one has (p. 17).

“A human being ... builds up an internal representation, a model of the universe, a schema, a cognitive map, an Image.” (p. 7)

“[The brain] is far more like a map control room than it is like an old-fashioned telephone exchange.” (p.  8 quoting Edward Tolman)

“The problem is to describe how actions are controlled by an organism’s internal representation of the universe. ...  What we must provide, therefore, is some way to map the cognitive representation into the appropriate pattern of activity.” (p. 12, 13)


“Without a program nothing can happen.  A computer must have a program. As soon as someone suggests that people are like computing machines ... people must have programs.  If a man is like a computer, then the man must have somewhere available an organized set of instructions that he attempts to execute.” (p. 197)

Does this sound like an NLP book?  Yes! Yet it is not. And yet, in one way it is since it is one of the foundational books that NLP drew heavily upon, but quoted very little.  Now the solution they came upon for describing how actions are controlled by internal representations is a hierarchical organization of behavior (p. 15).

“When we speak of a Plan... the term will refer to a hierarchy of instructions. ... A plan is any hierarchical process in the organism that can control the order in which a sequence of operations is to be performed.  A Plan is essentially the same as a program for a computer.” (p. 16)

Then declaring this to be the basic form of organization in problem-solving, they define strategy, tactics, and the execution of the plan.  “The central problem of this book is to explore the relation between the Image and the Plan.”  That is, between one’s Map and the Program for action.


The Big Exchange

In challenging Behaviorism and the reflex arc, the three authors argued that the basic elementary unit of behavior is not the reflex (which is a myth, over-rated, and merely a useful fiction, p. 22, 23) and can be replaced by “the neuron doctrine” of neural and receptor tissues responding by testing-and-operating via feedback messages (p. 25-26), hence the Test-Operate-Test-Exit “we shall call a TOTE unit.” (p. 27).   The feedback loop itself now replaces the reflex arc. And for the arrows in the diagram— “What could flow along them?” Energy, information, and control. Energy as in the neurons and control as in instructions (p. 28).  The stimulus processes now focus on the incongruity between Image (map, a desired outcome) and the Test (p. 30).

That is all in Chapter 2.  Chapter 3 focuses on computers and programs.  Chapter 4 on one’s Map in terms of intentions, values, knowledge, evaluations, memory, etc. and all of that “knowing is for the sake of doing.” (p. 71).  Chapter 5 is titled “Instincts” talks about imprinting programs in animals. Chapter 6 describes how we turn skills into habits, “the plan is turned over to the muscles.”

“Man is assumed to be capable of building up his own ‘instincts.’” (p. 89).

“The cerebellum is a machine to provide analogue Plans for regulating and integrating muscular coordinations...” (p. 92)


Chapter 7 introduces the idea of Meta-Plans (p. 98).  Chapter 8 on hypnosis, “one of the seven wonders of psychology” and is used to highlight how we can relinquish a Plan, letting someone else install a Plan (program).  Chapter 9 introduces what we call Meta-Programs (aspects of personality), 10 on memory, and 11 on Linguistics and specifically on Noam Chomsky (p. 144)! The book then returns to using the Plan to solve problems (chapters 12-13) and concludes with a chapter on neurology– Some Neuro-Psychological Speculations).

How about that?  What is Plans and the Structure of Behavior (1960) about?

It is about structure— ­the units of analysis so we can understand behavior.

It is about plans or programs — operational instructions for how to do things.

It is about images or maps — background knowledge that enables us to cope.

It is about human neurology — how our nervous systems and brain functions to create our experience.

It is about the feedback loop structure of test-operate-test-exit (TOTE) that enables us to look into the black box of consciousness.

I don’t know if this is where the term “Neuro-Linguistic Programming” originated, but it would make perfect sense that it was derived from here.  And especially given that John Grinder worked one year in George Miller’s lab. It’s something to think about.

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