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First published in Rapport, journal of the Association for NLP (UK), Issue 56, Summer 2002


Emotion and Cognition in Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy

Part 1 of a 5-part paper by Philip Harland

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

Let my heart be wise. It is the god's best gift. EURIPIDES

Cartoon: I am, therefore I feel. (I think)

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 years.1


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 political power.

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.

Cartoon 2: Do I mean how do we feel we think?

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?


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 operate usefully.


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.

Cartoon 3: Feeling - Thought - Action

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.


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, problem-solving, etc.


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 interchangeably with:


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 Arnold said:

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.


Stage 1

Cartoon 4.1

Instigating stimuli.
How the emotional process gets going. What sets it off.

Stage 2

Cartoon 4.2

Physiological correlates.
What emotions etc actually are. How we know we have them.

Stage 3

Cartoon 4.3

Physical systemic coherence.
How emotions are created in the body/brain. How they inter-relate with cognitions.

Stage 4

Cartoon 4.4

Cognitive evaluation.
How we consider and communicate our emotions/cognitions. How we may track them in others.

Stage 5

Cartoon 4.5

Motivational impulse.
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 articles.


We have hearts within.
Warm, live, improvident, indecent hearts.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Cartoon 4.1: Arousal

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 angry.5

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 immediate control.

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 writing (action).6

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 century.


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 3.)

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 own.

Cartoon: Member of the Associative Tendency.

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:

  1. What are the first strong feelings you remember?
  2. Was it encouraged, tolerated or unacceptable to express feelings openly in your family?
  3. If encouraged, how did you learn to manage themusefully? If unacceptable, how did you learn to deal with them?
  4. How would you characterise your prime carers emotionally?
  5. 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?
  6. And what are yours?


Seeing's believing, but feeling's the truth.
Thomas Fuller

Cartoon 4.2 Sensation:

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 circuitry
configured by personal experiences
and constantly updated
as we live out each moment.
Susan Greenfield

Cartoon 4.3: Construction

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 I,
so that you could see some of my feelins.
Artemus Ward

Cartoon 4.4: Appraisal

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.
Joseph LeDoux

Cartoon 4.5: Volition

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 thought
and emotions are not always so illogical.

Joseph LeDoux

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 and enjoy.

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 condition.

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: The Guardian]

3 In its association with the body. More on this in Part 2 and Part 3.

4 Acknowledgment to James Lawley for making this connection.

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 observation.

8 You might prefer 'influence on', but read on.

9 More information meanwhile from the website, or James Lawley and Penny Tompkins book, Metaphors in 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.

Philip Harland
Photo of Philip Harland Philip Harland is a neurolinguistic psychotherapist with a private practice in London, England. He has written many articles on Clean Language for professional journals and the internet. In 2009 Philip published the first book related to David Grove's last innovations, Emergent Knowledge, 'THE POWER OF SIX: A Six Part Guide to Self Knowledge'. You can order a copy from or

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