First published in Rapport, journal of the Assocition for NLP (UK),
Issue 57, Autumn 2002
HOW THE BRAIN FEELS
Emotion and Cognition in Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy
Part 2 of a 5-part paper by Philip Harland
Let my heart be wise. It is the god's best gift. EURIPIDES
Time after time as I listen to people talk about feelings I am
struck by the wholly subjective and frequently overwhelming nature of
their experience. As a therapist I have seen too many clients at the
mercy of their emotions, believing they had no choice but to give in
to them. As a trainer I have seen too many trainees who were
emotionally just not ready to learn because their employers had only
the foggiest awareness of their emotional needs.
Yet emotion is a kind of cognition as knowable as any other
construct of the human mind.
This 5-part paper mimics the 5-stage structure of emotion. In Part
1 ('Arousal', Rapport 56)
I wrote about what happens before a feeling is felt, and invited the
reader to begin to deconstruct this sequence of near-simultaneous
1. AROUSAL [external or internal
2. SENSATION [unconscious physiological response and
3. CONSTRUCTION [unconscious connection to other
body/brain events: associative memory, past experience,
present needs and values, etc]
4. APPRAISAL [(un)conscious cognitive assessment of
events 1 - 3]
5. VOLITION [(un)conscious impulse to act]
Five events that happen in an instant. Emotions are notoriously
quick to move us.1
It's no wonder that many people confuse their experience
of one part with their experience of the whole, and this gets them
into all sorts of trouble. Part 2 of this paper is about
distinguishing the initial physiological events
[sensation ] from the mind-body associations
[construction ] and cognitions [appraisal ]
that follow, in order to better understand and deal with the whole
THE CONFUSION OF FEELING
Why might we want to do this? Some people believe that feelings
are best left felt rather than analysed, and this makes for a richer
experience of life. If however you believe that knowledge activates
intelligence, and emotional intelligence is vital not just for
survival but for the continued evolution of the species, please read
I invite you first to distinguish between sensation and
feeling. Sensation can be defined as our mental representation
of our physiological signalling systems, and feeling as our mental
cognizance, or processing, of the experience.2
If I stray from this sensation~feeling distinction it's because
like many people I tend to use feeling words interchangeably. There's
not a lot of choice. Our feeling-related experiences far outnumber
our vocabulary for them, and this means that our capacity for
deconstructing emotional experience in order to better enjoy and
employ it (one definition of 'emotional intelligence' )
is, shall we say, unpractised. We are still learning the language.
Figure 1: WHAT ARE EMOTIONS/FEELINGS?
Emotions or feelings have been variously described as:
carriers of multiple messages
pointers to a judgment
a powerful manifestation of drives and
positive or negative preferences
beliefs not based on reason
a core component of our capacity for rational
pleasurable or painful consciousness
Recognizing and describing our emotions helps shape the brain. Not
recognizing and describing them, I believe, stunts the brain. Many of
us find it very difficult to describe how we feel. We experience a
confusion of internal events: sensations, associations and
evaluations jumbled up. Or we experience a mix of emotions -- a
medley of feelings -- at the same time. Separating out and naming
these is an essential skill in the building of identity. Parents who
talk about feelings help their children learn who they are. Anger
consultant Mike Fisher says, "To know who I am, I need to know
what I feel. When I know what I feel, I know who I am."
Unfortunately our brains have the greatest difficulty separating
what we feel from how we feel. The evidence for this comes from the
last half-century of neuropsychological research, which has produced
a large number of scientific models describing how:
- We misremember events with an emotional component, yet because
our 'memories' have produced specific pictures or sounds we are
certain these events happened exactly that way.
- We imagine stimuli that are not present, yet because our
emotion-influenced beliefs are based on them, we employ 'reason'
to argue that they are present.
- We focus our attention on a limited number of stimuli, yet
like to believe we have considered the whole event.
- We make decisions on the basis of incomplete information, yet
readily assert that they are 'correct'.
- We make wild rushes to judgment about the motivation and
behaviour of others, only to find later that we were - sometimes
tragically - wrong.
EXERCISE IN SENSATION (1)
As I'm not particularly emotionally articulate I asked my
emotionally highly articulate partner to distinguish, locate, name
and describe some of the strong sensations she feels. Here is her
verbatim account ('C'), along with descriptions of similar
feelings by others ('K', 'Q' and 'S'). The
exercise is in two parts. You are invited to:
- Compare your experience of these emotions with the subjects'
- Try to separate the original sensations and their
location from the associations and
interpretations the subjects make around them.
A tightening in my solar plexus. Fire. Power that
needs to lash out. If it doesn't lash out it boils away or
knots. My jaw gets a restricting kind of feeling,
constriction of the muscles before the lash out, tension
that grabs in my stomach and jaw, even in my eyes, I can
feel them grow, they're not relaxed. And it's very basic,
primitive, it's got to do with protection, you're under
threat, your ideas are being sabotaged, your will is
undermined, there's an obstacle in your way and you have to
sort that out, and if you don't it has to be sublimated and
My voice gets louder, harder, sharper. My jaw
becomes more fixed. Clenching. My internal organs are being
squeezed. A sense of wanting to attack.
I feel neanderthal. I feel like my forehead and
neck get smaller and shorter. My face gets rigid. I inflate
my chest and don't let it go.
'Excitement' or 'Joy'
('Excitement') A bubbling feeling in the solar
plexus, a fast feeling. It's got energy, it's dynamic, it
moves so I want to take action, to be involved. It's a whole
body thing. A sacral, sexual, faster, lighter feeling that
includes all of myself, and I can feel my pulse get faster,
and my heart beats faster. I breathe faster. There's a
lifting up of my eyebrows and my mouth. I'm ready to engage.
And I want to move my whole body with excitement.
('Excitement') Constant waves, it's an all over
thing. Almost a colour - yellow or red. A warm, rosy
('Joy') Being able to breathe very clearly. A sort
of tingling on the outside of my body. My muscles feel ready
-- I could spring up in the air. A sense inside like a
gentle bubbling, and as the bubbles rise and break -- ting
-- I want to skip.
Is in my chest. Like a restricting. You breathe in
and hold your breath. It's a suspension. When I'm afraid I
stop, I don't breathe, in order to gauge the action I should
take. This is survival stuff. You reduce your movement,
reduce your sound. I can feel my eyes getting bigger to see
the threat. I can feel my pupils getting bigger in order to
assess it, and I'm ready to take action.
A tightening like a muscular tensing in my ribcage.
I start to breathe higher in my chest, I have a sense of
being stuck in the moment, and as my attention comes into my
head I start thinking, "Oh god, what shall I do?" and I
freeze and wait.
My fear is of not being listened to and taken
seriously, of not being valued. I feel it in my eyes. It's
an observation of others' reactions. A thoughtfulness that
distracts me from being confident. A sense of sinking in my
chest. Breathlessness. Heaviness.
SENSATION AND EMOTION
There are similarities in this sample. Although subjects were
asked to identify the sensations they experienced, they
found it a challenge to distinguish these from the
constructions and appraisals they related
to their sensations (eg "This is survival stuff" ). All
identified the chest as the seat of 'Fear', and the whole body as the
location of 'Joy'. Other similarities highlight anomalies: a
'tightening' sensation, and 'faster' or 'higher' breathing, were
linked to both 'Joy' and 'Fear', two quite different emotions. And
although K's 'clench' may sound much the same as C's 'grab', it's
apparent that the words represented quite different experiences of
the 'Anger' both felt.
I asked subjects to identify the emotions they experienced
commonly, and I presupposed that a collective list of six or seven
would emerge. I had to change my mind when the first set of people I
interviewed came up with varying lists of between five and twelve,
and between them identified twenty-six different, diverse and
'Acceptance', 'Annoyance', 'Anger', 'Appreciation',
'Compassion', 'Confidence', 'Contentment', 'Creativity', 'Curiosity',
'Depression', 'Excitement', 'Fear', 'Frustration', 'Gratitude',
'Guilt', 'Happiness', 'Helplessness', 'Interest', 'Jealousy', 'Joy',
'Love', 'OK-ness', 'Pleasure', 'Resentment', 'Sadness', 'Shame'.
I'm sure you'll be able to add your own to the list. You can argue
the toss about which of these may be 'basic' emotions, and which may
be variants or compounds, but it's clear to me now that however you
separate out your feelings, it doesn't matter a jot what you call
them or how many you have. The important thing is that they are
uniquely yours. As you identify them, so they identify you.
Figure 2: IDENTIFYING EMOTIONS
Since Darwin ('The Expression of
Emotions in Man and Animals', 1872)
first propounded a theory of universal emotions finding
their expression in overt behaviour, academic researchers
have attempted to generalize this area of subjective
experience and reduce it to universal patterns.
Tompkins (1962) and Izard (1977)
proposed 8 basic emotions, or 'innate patterned
responses controlled by hardwired brain systems'. These were
Suprise, Interest, Joy, Rage, Fear, Disgust, Shame,
Anguish. Izard described anxiety as the
combination of fear with any two from guilt, interest,
shame, anger and distress.
Plutchik (1980) came up with a different
8: Sadness, Disgust, Anger, Anticipation, Joy,
Acceptance, Fear, Surprise, which he arranged in
eighths of a circle, proposing that further 'non-basic,
psychosocially derived, cognitively constructed, uniquely
human' emotions would derive from a mix of adjacent eighths
(eg joy + acceptance = friendliness or
love, fear + surprise = alarm).
Panksepp (1982) used the behavioural
consequences of the electrical stimulation of areas of rat
brain to identify 4 basic emotions or 'response
patterns': Panic, Rage, Fear, Expectancy .
Expectancy is an interesting one, although in laboratory
animals anticipating another application of electricity that
had previously produced Panic, Rage and Fear it's much as
you might expect.
Damasio (1994) proposed three varieties of
feeling: 5 universal emotions (Happiness,
Sadness, Anger, Fear, Disgust) , which he called our
'combined perception of certain bodily states with whatever
thoughts they are juxtaposed to'; a number of
variations fine-tuned by our individual experience of
these 5, which are 'subtler shades of cognitive states
connected to subtler variations of emotional body states'
(eg Euphoria and Ecstasy as
variations on Happiness ); and minimal
background feelings originating in the body alone -
eg the feeling of life , or a sense of just
being - states neither pleasant nor unpleasant.
Of course there can be advantage in an ability to extrapolate the
general from the specific, as these researchers have done. Once upon
a time it helped us avoid any large creature with sharp teeth that
was making its way towards us. But when it comes to individuals,
generalizing has its limitations. From a therapeutic point of view,
it is the idiosyncrasy of the clients' subjective
experience that defines them uniquely, and is the key to them
changing their subjective experience.
Figure 3 compares the findings of the 5 researchers above with the
subjective experience of 4 volunteers.
One thing my (limited) research confirms is the point about
identity: the sum of our emotions is a summary of ourselves. You can
check this by compiling your own list. To what extent does it mirror
who you are?
If emotions are person-specific, and no-one agrees a collective
list, what most modern theories have in common is agreement on the
underlying structure of emotion, and this forms the core of this
paper: instigating stimuli (AROUSAL); physiological correlates
(SENSATION); physical coherence (CONSTRUCTION); cognitive evaluation
(APPRAISAL); and motivational impulse (VOLITION).
EXERCISE IN SENSATION (2)
- What sensations are you aware of at the moment? Try not to
interpret what you are experiencing. Locate and label the direct
physiological stimuli you sense, and do your best to describe them
in sensory-specific language. What is your body awareness?
- Consider what associations you have to these
- What do these sensations and their associations
'mean' to you?
I can, with some difficulty, distinguish these three levels of
internal event. 4
(1) Physical sensations. A sense of the weight
of my body in the chair, of my hands moving as I type, some kind of
slight gnawing in my stomach, a crick in one side of the neck, and an
unsettled sense, difficult to locate and describe, that's probably in
my head, heart and gut. (Not all in sensory-specific language, you
will note, but I'm doing my best.)
(2) Body-mind associations and constructions. I'm convinced
that the 'gnawing' is the onset of 'hunger', a familiar association.
The 'crick' I link to poor posture. The 'unsettled' to some kind of
feeling of restlessness and uncertainty.
(3) Mind evaluations and appraisals. The idea of hunger
induces 'anxiety': when am I going to eat? The idea of poor posture
brings further anxiety, this time about fitness, so I experience the
crick as an 'ache'. I evaluate restlessness and uncertainty in terms
of the 'curiosity' and 'excitement' I feel about what I am writing
about. And also to what I recognize as 'annoyance' at the noises
other people around me are making as they prepare to go out. This
prompts feelings of 'guilt', followed by 'love' and 'appreciation' as
I am reminded of the needs of those making the noises (my wife and
son), and of the benefits that accrue to me from my relationships
Even in my relatively neutral emotional state it is evident there
is a lot going on in there. No wonder it can feel like a confusion of
internal events when things are really shaken or stirred.
SENSATION AND CONSTRUCTION
My anxiety, curiosity and guilt are thoughts as much as feelings.
We shall say more about how the mind does construction
and appraisal in Parts 3 and 4. Meanwhile how can I be certain that
my feelings are constructs of the mind? Even my neck-ache? Isn't pain
a purely physical phenomenon?
If I compare the ache in my neck with a similar ache in my legs
after a long walk, I am aware of an entirely different experience. I
evaluate one as 'unhealthy', because I associate it with poor
posture, and the other as 'healthy', because I associate it with good
exercise. So I experience the unhealthy sensation in my neck as
'painful' (prompting an emotion of 'anxiety'), and the healthy
sensation in my legs as 'pleasurable' (prompting an emotion of
If similar sensations can engender emotions as radically
dissimilar as 'anxiety' and 'happiness', it can only be because my
associations with and appraisals of the sensations - my unconscious
and conscious thoughts about them - have become the sensations
themselves. 'Anxiety' is - characterizes - is indelibly associated
with - my aching neck; 'happiness' with my aching legs. Emotions,
after all, are "just another form of
In the examples earlier you may have noticed something about the
language subjects used to describe their sensations. Similes,
analogies and figures of speech cropped up/popped up/came crawling
out of the woodwork everywhere. In describing my own body awareness I
tried to keep to neutral language, but couldn't help using words like
gnawing, crick, unsettled . Metaphors like these - and
the bubbling, boils, waves and knots of
other people's descriptions - are signposts to the larger landscape
of unconscious experience. Less obvious but just as metaphorical were
C's restricting; an obstacle in your way; it moves so I want to
take action . We have even seen that the simple words we use
for emotions themselves - 'Sadness', 'Anger', 'Joy' -
are not simple at all, but 'omnibus' concepts that carry a variety of
"I was literally beside myself with joy."
Emotion as Metaphor
Metaphor (Greek meta = beyond + phora =
carrier) is a higher order container with the capacity for holding a
great deal more emotional experience than an impartial description of
their related sensations. Indeed it may be impossible to talk about
feelings in any depth without moving into metaphor. As we sort
through the internal confusion of body-mind events it's as if our
minds have to ask themselves, what in my unconscious is this
Kruger and Merlevede describe emotion as "unspeakable deep
level structure." 6 Given that we have
many more emotional experiences than descriptions for them, we have
little choice but to fish around in the depths of our unconscious for
recognizable, speakable, isomorphic [alike-structure] constructs that
already exist. Thus metaphor becomes the first language of feeling. A
carrier of multiple messages from the otherwise unspeakably deep
levels of our subjective experience.
Happy as a lark. Scared stiff. Down in the dumps .
Expressions like these are not chosen arbitrarily. "We not only
describe our feelings in metaphor," say Lawley and Tompkins
in Metaphors in Mind , "we think and make sense of
them through metaphor, and we behave in ways that are consistent with
A feeling of 'depression' may be very difficult for a client to
discuss analytically or abstractly with a therapist. What happens if
the therapist questions the client in a different kind of way?
And whereabouts is 'depression'?
Behind my forehead and about an inch in.
And 'depression' behind your forehead and about an inch in is
It's like a great wave of blackness.
What kind of blackness?
The sort from a night sky at sea without stars. If I could
find one star it would be less intense.
And can you find one star?
When I do I'll see light at the end of the tunnel.
What kind of light?
And so on. 7 Every feeling has a
unique construct. It will have a location in the metaphor landscape
that exists within and around each of us. It will be 'like'
something. And both 'like' and location will be ways into
communicating with it.
Even if we talk in shared metaphor, we are never walking in the
same landscape. 'Light at the end of the tunnel'
is a phrase I've heard countless clients use at one
time or other, yet every client's 'tunnel', their every
'light', their every 'end', their every way of perceiving their
tunnel/light/end, their every sense of time in their tunnel, and its
size, configuration and location in space, were different to every
This particularity of subjective experience has clear inferences
for the way we as therapists orchestrate the therapeutic relationship
as a whole. If we can minimize our contagion of the client's
experience with our personal associations, interpretations and
instructions, I believe we can maximize the client's capacities for
self-directed healing and growth.
I'm feeling down in the dumps.
And you are feeling down in the dumps. And when you are feeling
down in the dumps, what kind of dumps is that dumps you are down in?
It's like a hole full of rubbish.
And a hole full of rubbish. And when a hole full of rubbish, where
could that rubbish come from?
Other people throwing it in.
And other people throwing it in. And when other people throwing it
in, what kind of other people?
People I'm scared of, and I let them dump their rubbish on
And people you're scared of, and you let them dump their rubbish
on you. And when you let people you're scared of dump their rubbish
on you, what happens next?
I know they're only dumping it on me because I just happen
to be in the dump, so I realize I have to climb out.
And can you (etc) ...?
The Clean Language of the therapist does not address the client
directly. It addresses client information as coded in the metaphor.
This information will be released as the client begins to make sense
of their construction of a unique and otherwise unspeakable feeling;
and to find a (metaphorical and experiential) way out. 8
EXERCISE IN SENSATION (3)
- Identify a number of your key emotions. Name them what you
- Separate as far as you can the original sensations from your
subsequent constructions and appraisals.
- What other associations can you make to these
- Imagine having the sensations without the
associations. What would it be like to think, 'Oh, that's a
heaviness in the gut, or a lightness in the heart...full stop'?
A blueprint for the Construction of Emotion will be drawn
up in Part 3.
© 2002 Philip Harland
Thanks to those who talked about their feelings, and to Penny
Tompkins and James Lawley who thought about them.
1 'Emotion' comes from the Latin emovere : to move, excite,
stir up, agitate.
2 A feeling could also be defined as the 'emergent property'
of the 5 inter-related parts of the structure working
3 A fuller lexicon of the principal terms - cognition,
emotion, feeling , sensation, mood, state - is in Part 1. There is
currently no consensus among neuro-scientists and philosophers about
what emotions 'are'. Antonio Damasio (see References ) describes
emotions as '
basic bio-regulatory reactions', a collection of chemical and neural
responses that play a regulatory role in our neuro-physiology and
constitute a substrate, or base, for feelings, which are our mental
experience of the changes ensuing in body and brain. This may be a
useful distinction for academics studying the phenomena at cellular
or microcircuit level to make, but here the terms emotion and feeling
are used in their colloquial sense - interchangeably.
4 See also Michael Hall on 'Meta-states', or states about states, where (1) is the sensation, (2) the
feeling/cognition about the sensation, and (3)
the feeling/cognition about the
5 Antonio Damasio, Descartes'
Error. For a detailed appraisal of
evolutionarily determined 'emotional processing' compared to
'cognitive processing' or 'mere thoughts' see Daniel Goleman,
(References at end).
6 Framing Emotional
Intelligence, Rapport 54, Winter 2001
7 More about Clean Language
questioning in articles by Penny Tompkins, James Lawley, Philip
Harland in previous editions of Rapport,
or at www.cleanlanguage.co.uk, or in
Lawley and Tompkins' Metaphors in Mind.
8 Part 2 of Resolving Problem
Patterns (Rapport 50 Winter 2000, or cleanlanguage.co.uk), has an analysis of what happens - reassignment/ rearrangement/translation/transformation
- when information in the metaphor is released.
References - see part 5.