First published in Rapport, journal of the Association for NLP (UK), Issue 56, Summer 2002
HOW THE BRAIN FEELS
Emotion and Cognition in Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy
Part 1 of a 5-part paper by Philip Harland
Let my heart be wise. It is the god's best gift.
NLP has rarely dealt with emotions. In the 1980's, Leslie
Cameron-Bandler and Michael Lebeau in The Emotional Hostage
developed the concept of the structure of emotion (change a
sub-modality and you can change a feeling). Michael Hall's work in
the 1990's on Meta-States addressed the modulating of primary
emotional states with meta-levels of feeling. Now Philip Harland
explores the neuro-linguistic basis of emotional intelligence
in a series of articles relating recent scientific research on the
structure and inter-relationship of emotion and cognition to David
Grove's work in Therapeutic Metaphor, and to Tompkins' and Lawley's
development of Symbolic Modelling.
A Greek poet writes of a woman who has waited morethan 20 years
for her beloved husband to return home. He embraces her passionately.
She is cautious and anxious, unsure of him. He is upset. She is
sorrowful. He is angry. She is fearful. So Homer in The Odyssey
describes the reunion of Penelope and Odysseus in terms we can
readily understand today. In 3,000 years the language of the emotions
has hardly changed. It may not have changed much in 4 million
EMOTION AND EVOLUTION
After all these years of human evolution, how far have we
come in terms of our emotional development?
The costs of emotional dysfunction - our inability to respond
appropriately to our emotions - can be counted many times over in the
worst effects of anger, addiction, fear, anxiety, depression,
intolerance, fanaticism and sociogenic illness.2
Emotional dysfunction is contagious. Indeed, the word 'pathology',
study of disease, comes from the Greek word 'pathologia',
study of the emotions. Disease of the emotions can be passed from
generation to generation. Doctors calculate that one in five of the
children they see has emotional stress-related problems. A particular
kind of dysfunction - lack of sympathy for the feelings of others -
is readily programmed into their followers by psychopaths who buy or
manipulate their way into positions of corporate, religious or
It's not all doom and gloom, however. As relative newcomers (there
were 4 thousand million years of life on earth before we
arrived) perhaps we are not doing badly. We know that every emotion,
however vexatious, has a positive intention. Or may be useful in some
situations. Or may be a signpost toa meaningful value. And
compassion, joy, altruism and empathy are in plentiful evidence too.
Where do we want to be emotionally? The development
of emotional sensibility is a necessary prerequisite for self-growth;
for reducing fear, violence, and psychic pain in society; for helping
us live and work well with our fellows; for managing change; for
using our intuition creatively; for developing the learning potential
of the human mind; and for our continued evolution as a species.
So what has to happen? What further adaptation do we
need to make in order to thrive? It has always been easy for us to
think we think. But now how do we think we feel?
EMOTION AND INTELLIGENCE
After all these years of heartache and joy, we could be ready to
take a huge evolutionary step in emotional intelligence as we begin
to recognize what is generally accepted nowadays among
neuro-scientists - that emotions are not independent of the brain.
They are functions of the brain.3
They are constructed and represented in that tangled web, and have
a direct inter-relationship with its cognitive functions. The mind
produces feeling as much as thought. To grasp this fact and to accept
its implications is to makea giant stride on the long road to taking
responsibility for ourselves.
It may no longer be useful to separate emotion and cognition in
the conventional way, because farfrom interfering with rationality,
as philosophical speculation has traditionally maintained, a sense of
emotionality is increasingly cherished as necessary for reason to
EMOTION AND COGNITION
To talk of emotion is to talk of a brain function arising directly
from input, and to talk of cognition is to talk of a brain function
arising indirectly from input. We shall discuss this in more
detail later, but if you want a simple distinction for now, that is
it. Disengaging thinking from feeling is like trying to separate
light and shade, or the crest and trough of a wave - the difference
between the two could hardly be more obvious, yet one cannot exist
without the other. They are inseparable. I invite you therefore to
make the direct/indirect distinction.
You might believe there is such a thing as 'pure' reason, or
'abstract' thinking - the kind mathematicians or philosophers are
said to employ. Well, mathematicians are not machines. There has to
be an emotional motivation behind - or rather, before - any
intellectual activity. A desire to know more, frustration at not
knowing, excitement at the challenge, envy of a rival mathematician
or philosopher, etc.
EMOTION AND DEFINITION
Just as we can make linguistic distinctions between emotion and
cognition, we can also make them between 'emotion' and'feeling', and
'feeling' and 'sensation'. The differences are largely academic, and
authorities vary in their attempts to characterize them. In fact a
great deal of ambiguity surrounds all our words about feelings, which
is not surprising given our invariably subjective and frequently
equivocal experience of what the words represent.
This ambiguity of meaning may relate to the notion that one cannot
have any experiential sense, including an emotion, without at the
same time interpreting it. And interpretation, willful or not, is
a cognitive act. Ergo: the thought about the feeling is the feeling.
This is one of those academic distinctions! Meanwhile for the sake of
a shared sensibility here are my working definitions, culled and
filleted from an assortment of sources.
A broad term applied to those mental activities related
to thinking, conceiving, reasoning, etc, where the
underlying characteristics involve symbolizing, imagery,
memory, belief, intentionality, insight, judgment,
Subjectively experienced moving, stirring or agitated
mental state or feeling. Sometimes limited to to the
strongly felt 'basic' emotions ('sad', 'glad', 'mad','bad'),
and often used interchangeably with:
A consciousness of, or belief about, something in the
mind/body. Can be distinguished from, and is also used
An experience, or awareness, of conditions within or
outside the body, produced by the stimulation of a sensory
receptor or receptor system.
A relatively short-term state of the feelings.
A condition or situation of somebody or something. In
NLP, the term given to a combination of any or all the above
at a given moment.
One of the expectations on me as a therapist is to be able to
acknowledge and facilitate the thoughts, beliefs, judgments,
emotions, feelings, sensations and moods (the 'states') of my clients
without complicating them with my own! In order to have the remotest
chance of achieving this, I have had to become familiar with my own
beliefs and feelings. I have had to recognize, name and manage them.
And I have especially needed to understand my emotions in relation to
my cognitions, with which I have generally been more familiar. This
paper is a further stage of that personal journey. It has been
fascinating, and at times difficult. In my childhood the theatre of
the emotions was a desolate place. Feelings hovered in ghostly
silence inthe wings, or erupted in frightening, inexplicable
explosions backstage. The whole thing was a mystery. As Matthew
And we are here as a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
One of the reasons people go into psychotherapy - as therapists or
clients - is because they think (or feel) that their feeling and
thinking are somehow opposed. Passion and intelligence are ignorant
armies in a a permanent state of attrition.
This paper is a preamble to the negotiations the parties must
enter before peace can prevail. It is organized into 5 parts, a
metaphor for the 5-stage feeling-thinking process itself.
THE STRUCTURE OF EMOTION
How the emotional process gets going. What sets it off.
What emotions etc actually are. How we know we have them.
Physical systemic coherence.
How emotions are created in the body/brain. How they
inter-relate with cognitions.
How we consider and communicate our emotions/cognitions. How
we may track them in others.
The urge to act. What happens as a result of arousal,
sensation, construction and appraisal.
An example of the 5-stage process in action: recently I realized I
was seeing a number of clients who were angry, and others who were
phobic (1: AROUSAL). This stimulated a complex of physiological
activity in my body and brain (2: SENSATION). Which I characterised
as a gap in my knowledge of anger, fear and emotions in general, and
felt frustrated, anxious and incompetent as a result (3:
CONSTRUCTION). Thinking about this I became curious and excited at
the prospect of learning more as I realized I could neutralise the
feelings I didn't want and enhance those I did (4: APPRAISAL). I went
off researching and training to extend my understanding, and through
communicating that to feel useful and fulfilled (5: VOLITION).
These 5 stages can be loosely mapped on to Dilts' 'Logical Levels'
of human experience:4
= internal/external events at the level of
= receptor system stimulus at the level of
= creation of feeling at the level of
= consideration of feeling at the level of
= impulse to act at the level of
In this article I shall concentrate on the first stage and
summarise the other four, which will be the subject of later
We have hearts within.
Warm, live, improvident, indecent hearts.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
What arouses feeling? It used to be thought that emotions, like
surplus food, were the privilege of the rich, and that essentially
they came from nowhere. Modern theories of emotion recognize that
they're neither a luxury nor a metaphysical event. As soon as we have
any experience we become emotionally aroused to a greater or lesser
extent. The 'instigating stimuli' are either exogenous (events in the
world), or endogenous (internal thoughts and sensations). An example
of exogenous stimuli: when I saw the pictures of the terrorist
attacks on New York I felt shocked and anxious. Endogenous: when I
imagined the suffering of the victims I felt wretched and
We human beings are sentient biological entities in a repeatedly
reconstructed state of constant flux, with no choice but to take in
and process every moment of our waking lives a near-infinite number
of bits of information from ourselves and the rest of the world.
These stimuli have an emotional and physiological effect beyond our
When you came to this article you were in that most basic form of
consciousness, a feeling state of one kind or another, whether you
were conscious of it or not. As you read now, your brain is changing.
It is making many millions of unconscious neural connections,
associating your present seeing and hearing to what you have already
seen and heard in your life. As this is happening you will be aware,
in varying degress, of your environment, your body, and the world at
large. And you will now be in a different emotional state to the one
you were in a few moments ago. Slightly different or entirely
different. We are always in a state of feeling something. What
are you feeling now? I'm feeling excited, curious, uncertain, and
ready for a cup of tea.
I ask myself how I come to be exploring emotion and cognition at
this time. What were the stimuli that set off the emotional chain of
events that result in this cognitive activity?
I was working with several clients who seemed to have something in
common (exogenous arousal) ... these experiences stimulated a
process of pattern-spotting in me about emotions (endogenous
arousal) ... which activated some underlying physiology
(sensation) ... resulting in a half-conscious awareness of
frustration and anxiety at my ignorance (emotional
construction) ... followed by conscious excitement and curiosity
at the prospect of learning more (emotional appraisal) ...
leading to the impulse to act (volition) by researching and
Somewhere around appraisal came two principal cognitions,
which also had an influence (ie they fed back to become a part of the
endogenous arousal process). Firstly, that emotional intelligence is
arguably the most important of our multiple intelligences - verbal,
spatial, kinesthetic etc. Being able to track our own and others'
emotional life; to understand the multiple causes of feelings; to
recognize the distinction between feeling and action; and to be able
to nurture the emotional growth of others, particularly the young, is
of enormous developmental benefit and evolutionary advantage.
Secondly, that if the human condition has been one of underlying
fear, frustration or anxiety for the past 4 or more million years, as
some evolutionary psychologists believe, it's about time we did
something about it. Plato said that passions and fears made it
impossible for him to think.7 2,400 years later I
have no difficulty imagining how he felt. We have inherited more ways
of being angry and fearful than we need for survival in the 21st
Most of us believe that when we think, we think logically; that
is, we use reason in an orderly, 'unemotional' way. One thing I
expect to show in these articles is that THE BRAIN
CANNOT DISTINGUISH BETWEEN FEELING AND THINKING. This is a
logical assertion (ie it is perfectly rational), but not everyone
will assess it as credible. Indeed, you may have an inner certainty
that it's perfect tosh."Of course I know the difference," you
may say, "between my thoughts and my feelings."
While most of us allow that our feelings are subjective, we claim
to be entirely capable of thinking objectively. In fact if the
complexity of body-brain events that we interpret as 'feeling' and
'thinking' occur largely unconsciously, as neuro-scientists have
shown, we can have no idea how, when or whether we have crossed any
hypothetical divide between them because the direct (feeling)
function of the brain and its indirect (thinking) function have no
physical threshold. You cannot step from one and be unequivocally in
the other. 'Feeling' and 'thinking' are elaborate neural activities
with inextricably complex connections that make them to all intents
and purposes indistinguishable. (We shall attempt to distinguish the
processes which give rise to our conceptualisation of them in Part
The importance of recent work on emotion and cognition by Damasio
(1994), Goleman (1996), LeDoux (1998), Greenfield (2001) and others
is, I believe, this: if none of us is truly capable of distinguishing
our emotions from our cognitions, how can we help but fall victime to
what LeDoux calls 'the Associative Tendency'?
In therapists and counsellors this finds its expression in the
employment of unconscious personal associations and conscious
personal fancies in the interpretation of client meaning, resulting
in the employment of therapist-led, rather than client
information-led, interventions, and thus the likely, indeed
inevitable, contamination of 8 the client's
emotional, conceptual and metaphorical processes by the therapist's
What associations did you make to the characters in the drawing?
Which did you think was the therapist and which the client? What
inferences did you make about their relationship? What kind of people
did think they were?
If we can make all this up in an instant about a drawing, think
what we get up to with real people! Our brains have no choice but to
construct these unconscious models, but as therapists we can make
conscious choices about what we do about them.
- We can allow our associations - without at the same
time allowing them to pervert our intentions or shape our
behaviour towards the client.
- We can acknowledge our associations - bringing the
unacknowledged into consciousness and admitting it as a highly
inaccurate metaphor for the client's model of the world.
- We can redirect our associations - so that they relate
directly to, and are constantly updated by, the specifics of
client information, rather than to our subjective, speculative
beliefs and judgments about the information.
And we can do all this while still being able to track emotion and
cognition in clients and facilitating them to get the changes they
want. How? In a later article I shall argue the case - again, without
apology - for the assumption-uncontaminated methodology of David
Grove's Clean Language. 9
For now, an exercise in arousal. In getting going. Knowing more
about your own emotions is essential for developing intelligence.
Consider your emotional history:
- What are the first strong feelings you remember?
- Was it encouraged, tolerated or unacceptable to express
feelings openly in your family?
- If encouraged, how did you learn to manage themusefully? If
unacceptable, how did you learn to deal with them?
- How would you characterise your prime carers emotionally?
- What would you say were your prime carers'
core/basic/underlying emotional states, the ones they generally
reverted to when no particular mood was dominant?
- And what are yours?
Seeing's believing, but feeling's the
Feelings are ever-present. In Part 2 we will consider what they
are. Information signals? Bodily responses? Powerful manifestations
of evolutionary drives? Things we all know about until asked to
define? Or are feelings, as LeDoux claims, just another kind of
cognition? What all sensations have in common is that when we
describe them, we almost without exception speak in metaphor. I
have a gut feeling. My heart is broken. Happy as a lark. Blind with
rage. Beside myself with joy. Expressions like these are not
arbitrarily chosen. What has to be true for a client to unconsciously
encode their description of a sensation in a particular symbolic way
rather than any other? And what happens if a therapist assumes that
the client's metaphors and their own correspond or are comparable?
That seething morass of brain
configured by personal experiences
and constantly updated
as we live out each moment.
How does the brain feel? Many people believe emotions just happen.
In Part 3 we will track the remarkable sequence of events in the
mind-body as the dual pathways of emotion and cognition are
constructed.10 A graphic
representation of the physical sequence of events will help us
assess possible places for therapeutic intervention: the more aware
we are of unconscious processes, the more we can calibrate their
effects in consciousness. And an analysis of the symbolic
construction of feeling will reveal clues about the way emotional
problems and their solutions are coded in the unconscious.
I wish thar was winders to my sole, sed
so that you could see some of my feelins.
Emotions are notoriously difficult to verbalize. In Part 4 we will
consider the appraisal process, one of the most advanced, and often
misleading, functions of the human brain. We will review the choices
we make about expressing or suppressing its results, and consider how
as therapists we may track these events before we intervene. We will
particularly evaluate nonverbal appraisal: the (generally) obvious -
where the client marks out aspects of their unconscious construction
of anemotional landscape by gesture and posture as they speak; and
the (generally) subtle - those tiny twitches of the musculature which
signal the appearance of an emotional reaction in the fraction of a
second before cognition intervenes. What happens in the micro-moment
just after a question, and just before the brain can appraise it?
Emotions by their very natured to an impulse
to act.lead to an impulse to act.
Volition is normally defined as the act of using our will to
control, decide or choose what to do. In Part 5 we will note that if
emotions lead to, or are, the impulse to act, they are the
motivators, not prescribers, of action. They do not control what we
do. The brain can be trained to reappraise. We shall consider the
phenomenon of unconscious volition, and how the body-brain's
innate capacity for healing may be energized to allow the client more
feeling choices, more cognitive choices and more action choices.
Cognition is not as logical as it was once
and emotions are not always so illogical.
Many of us will share Greenfield's and Damasio's view that a
cognitive understanding of the neuro-biological mechanisms behind
emotions is perfectly compatible with a sentimental view of their
value to us as human beings. Plato, however, was wrong in this
particular: passions do not make it impossible to think. Emotions are
as cognitive as any other mental function, and they are ours to use
With conscious access to the way our brains construct the
functions of emotion and cognition we can make better use of their
interdependence. We are one system. Just as we can choose (if not
always easily) what to think, we can choose (if not always readily)
what to feel, and with the two in creative combination we can choose
how to act. As we learn to maintain a healthy relationship between
our emotions and cognitions we will solve problems more easily,
reduce pain, increase pleasure, and generally further the human
I hope you have experienced some Arousal. For more
Sensation, see Part 2.
© 2002 Philip Harland
Thanks to Penny Tompkins, James Lawley, Carol Thompson for their
comments and suggestions.
1 Or 6 million if a direct evolutionary line to the first
'bipedal hominid' (discovered in Kenya in 2000) is confirmed.
2 Genuine symptoms induced by fear and anxiety. Three weeks
after the World Trade Center attacks, 35 people suffered nausea,
headache and sore throat after a man sprayed what turned out to be
window cleaner into a Maryland subway station. [Source:
3 In its association with the body. More on this in Part 2 and Part 3.
4 Acknowledgment to James Lawley for making this
5 From a strictly constructivist viewpoint all 'exogenous'
events are of course constructed 'endogenously': 'external events'
are 'perturbations of the system'.
6 In Michael Hall's domain of 'Meta-States' my meta-level of
excitement and curiosity would be about my primary emotions of
frustration and anxiety.
7 It is not recorded whether
Plato thought or felt that this was an emotional or a rational
8 You might prefer 'influence
on', but read on.
9 More information meanwhile
from the www.cleanlanguage.co.uk website, or James Lawley and Penny Tompkins book,
Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling.
10 Sex is also a construct of
the brain. In Part 3 we will deconstruct the neural connections of
sexual pleasure and suggest ways in which you can improve them.
References - see part 5.