First published in Rapport, journal of the Association for NLP (UK),
Issue 58, Winter 2002
HOW THE BRAIN FEELS
Emotion and Cognition in Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy
Part 3 of a 5-part paper by Philip Harland
I think, therefore I am.
We are, and then we think.
Emotions Don't Just Happen
If I were to ask
you to spend a few moments thinking of, say, your lover ... your
mortgage ... a swarm of killer bees ... and Wolverhampton Wanderers
football club ... it is likely you would undergo a range of
imperceptible but nonetheless measurable physiological changes to
your breathing,heart rate and galvanic skin response related to a
variety of emotions from joy to indifference, and all within a very
short space of time. This is remarkable, because I only invited you
to think about these things, not to have any feelings about them.
What then is the sameness of feeling and thinking, emotion and
cognition, and what are the differences between them?
The answers lie in the way our brains construct experience, and
this is what this article is about. Emotions, cognitions, beliefs and
imaginings don't just happen. Nor do they originate in consciousness,
as many people suppose. The more we can learn about the organization
of these largely unconscious events the better we can understand,
enjoy and adjust our emotional responses, enhance our emotional
intelligence, and facilitate our clients to enhance theirs (if they
The brain is the body's captive audience.
Children who experience repeated reminders of their worth tend to grow up feeling secure in themselves. Reiteration changes the brain,
as those who rehearse NLP anchoring for state control will know. And
the intensity of the experience reinforces the change. People who
undergo repeated physical, sexual or mental abuse as children may
suffer a similar kind of brain damage to victims of accidents or the
trauma of war. If the pre-frontal lobes associated with motivation,
judgment and impulse control have developed abnormally through
traumatic experience, even minor events can trigger massive reactions
of violence, anger or phobia. The trauma does not have to be direct
or even discernible.
In brains already programmed for prejudice the
circuits can be strengthened further by every massacre, every
conflict over housing or land, [every] mass media promotion of
stereotypes ... whole political systems are constructed to shape the
most primitive emotional reactions in the brains of their
constituents. Ian Robertson
I anticipate a time when it is everyone's social responsibility to
understand how these kinds of psychological and political
conditioning can happen. Conditioned responses are not only a
consequence of our need to adapt to severe circumstance, they are a
fact of everyday life. You could say that all our emotionsare
conditioned -- by evolution, observation and social interaction. It's
just that some of them give us more trouble than others.
This article has three sections applicable to the construction of
every kind of feeling:
Novel and Conditioned
Direct and Indirect
Felt and Interpreted
Novel and Conditioned
The sensory inputs we receive every moment of our lives include
'novel stimuli' from external events -- what Goleman calls 'raw
physical signals' - and 'conditioned stimuli' (learned triggers) from
internal events. 1 When Pavlov's dog
first heard the bell the stimulus was novel and unconditioned. As the
dog learned to associate the bell with the appearance of food, the
sound created a conditioned stimulus that itself could prompt the
THE CONSTRUCTION OF EMOTION
Input from external 'novel stimuli' and internal
'conditioned stimuli' ...
Somatosensory reception by Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic
(external & internal), Olfactory and Gustatory receptor
Sensory receptors translate this input into the language of the
brain and transmit their signals to a complex two-lobe inner
structure of the brain called the thalamus (Greek 'inner chamber'):
sensory receptors ...
feed direct to
So far, so straightforward. Now comes the remarkable part.
Direct and Indirect
Our knowledge of what happens next has been revolutionized by
neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux's research, which has considerable
implications for psychotherapy, and in particular for experiential
constructivist methodologies. LeDoux was the first to reveal the
means by which the thalamus, acting as a kind of relay centre,
releases two sets of sensory projections:
Two sets of signals
on two separate routes ...
The first set takes a fast track from the thalamus direct to the
amygdala (Greek 'almond'), the brain's 'emotional processor', where
the signals will arrive before the rest find their way to the
neo-cortex, or 'thinking brain'. The working of this almond-shaped
mass of neurons in the temporal lobes, more properly known as the
amygdaloid complex (there is one amygdala in each hemisphere), means
that emotional responses begin to manifest before the higher brain
centres involved in thinking, reasoning and consciousness are
Although each step on the neural pathway is represented in this
diagram as having a linear connection to the next, remember this is a
systemic, recursive process. The various parts of the brain are not
just involved once, but are re-involved throughout.
Direct rudimentary signals to amygala for
prompting autonomic physiological
responses -- hormonal, cardiovascular,
motor, gastro-enteric ...
which send 'preparedness' signals
('edginess', increased heart-rate,
raised blood pressure, muscle tension, etc) ...
To put it another way, we feel before we think. 2 The amygdala has
been called the storehouse of 'old brain'/archetypal/innate memory,
and its early warning system prepares the body to respond via a
rudimentary representation of the incoming stimuli before we fully
know what we are responding to. It pre-empts the need for thinking
what to do when any time saved can make the difference between life
Under the coarse logic of evolutionary survival,
danger should not have to be constantly relearned. Once bitten, twice
shy. Ian Robertson
It takes about 7 milliseconds for these elementary signals to
transmit to the thalamus, and a few milliseconds more for the
thalamus to relay them to the amygdala. Only a few thousandths of a
seconds -- less than a blink -- for our bodies to begin to react to
that noise in the forest as if it were a bear. Or to that elbow in
the ribs on the playing field as if it were a real threat to
Every millisecond of our lives our physical and mental state is in
flux as we adapt to the world. We relax or tense. Our heart rate,
breathing, blood pressure, perspiration response and a dozen other
physiological measures change - activity that mirrors fleeting shifts
in the balance of alerting and quietening neurotransmitters in the
brain. Only the more extreme of these instinctive responses will
normally be noticeable, but many of the subtler 'micro-emotions' that
flit across the face or are expressed by the involuntary twitch of a
muscle in a finger or a foot can be tracked by a trained therapist in
the split second immediately after a question has been asked (often
before the question has been completed), and just before it has been
fully appraised by the client.
The movements of expression...reveal the thoughts
and intentions of others more truly than do words. Charles Darwin
Though you may have to look carefully. Social psychologist Paul
Ekman (1980) videoed Japanese subjects watching an emotionally
arousing film in the knowledge that they were being recorded, and
their expressions hardly varied. Slow-motion analysis of the
videotape showed their smiles and polite expressions superimposed on
fleeting, prior-occurring facial movements, which, according to
Ekman, were their basic emotions 'leaking through'. 3
As basic fast-track signals are relayed to the amygdala, a more
complete set is being transmitted to the sensory cortices and the
neo-cortex ('new-brain'/explicit memory) for cerebral processing.
Indirect fuller signals relayed
from thalamus to create neural
codings of the stimuli in the sensory cortices
[this is the 'machine code' of
NLP's VAKOG pictures, sounds,
feelings etc that we represent in
metaphor on our
Thalamic signals processed in
'memory': are the signals familiar?
what do they relate to / link to /
hypothesis' signals -- could
be this, could be that ...
Every neural circuit adds time. It takes this cortical set of
signals significantly longer -- perhaps milliseconds -- to find its
way through the cerebral cortex to prompt the higher level reasoning
which reminds us that the bear in the woods could equally be a
squirrel. Or the elbow from the opposing full back understandable
By a trick of perception -- spot the milliseconds difference --
the shorter emotional trip and the longer cognitive trip will seem to
be synchronized. We wake already tense, heart thumping, at that bump
in the night before we know what caused it, yet the conviction that
the cat fell off the mantelpiece may already be present as we wake --
whether or not we have a cat.
Conditioned fears produce conditioned responses. Repeated life
events produce conditioned responses. Indeed, conditioned learning
can occur after a single unconditioned stimulus/response pairing if
the pairing is strong enough. Robertson describes experiments in
which photographs of faces were presented to volunteers at the same
time as an unpleasant noise. Later the faces were re-presented in
silence subliminally (so quickly they could not be seen consciously),
and brain-scan imaging indicated activity in the amygdala every time.
The inescapable conclusion was that the emotional centres of the
subjects' brains were reacting to unpleasant associations from the
past of which their conscious minds remained unaware. Scientific
confirmation of a phenomenon that psychotherapists see at work every
Robertson's subliminal experiments involved subjects who had
access to a very recent explicit memory which would have been
relatively 'clean'. We may need to remind ourselves that recollection
can be severely and innocently corrupted from a lifetime of linking
contemporary goals, beliefs and needs to past behaviours, emotions
and associations. With the best will in the world a client may come
up with a highly inaccurate or even fictitious scene from the past
(cf. 'false memory syndrome'). Memory is always a (re)construction,
never a replay. One of David Grove's great contributions to the
practice of psychotherapy has been teaching us how to work with
symbolic rather than cognitive recollection: to treat all client
information as a metaphor for what is really going on in the
unconscious. Metaphor, as Grove has said, mediates the interface
between the conscious and unconscious mind. 4
During the appraisal stage cerebral 'significance' signals are
assessed in combination with physiological 'preparedness' signals.
What emerges is neither an emotion nor a cognition, but both in
combination -- a product of the continuous monitoring of the body
during the cognitive process incorporated into the continuous
monitoring of the brain during the emotional process. An
'emo~cognition' 5 or a
'feeling~thought', perhaps. So much for our romantic myths of
'abstract' thought and 'pure' feeling. Damasio describes the organism
interacting with the environment as an ensemble, and the interaction
being neither of the body alone nor the brain alone. 'Mind and body
operate as one system' has always been a key NLP presupposition. Now
we have the scientific proof: the mind is embodied as much as the
body is embrained. 6
Felt and Interpreted
Volition -- the impulse to act on our emotions -- comes from the
resulting 'felt preferences' (pleasant or unpleasant) and 'action
preferences' (towards or away from) combining with and influencing
each other. Faintly or noticeably -- but without exception very
rapidly -- our bodies react to events with an orienting or defensive
reflex, and with 'lighter' or 'heavier' sensations.
Body-mind preferences formed:
pleasant or unpleasant;
towards or away from ...
The feeling-thought is 'felt' ...
These volitional signals (which may have only small differences
between them at this stage -- the felt tendency is already producing
micro-actions of muscle contraction, blood flow, etc) feed back to
the sensory cortices proprioceptively to become further input for the
organism as it primes itself to take action. Only a moment later will
we interpret and label the experience as a whole, stages 1 to 5, as
'joy','fear', 'anger' and so on.
The feeling-thought expressed,
interpreted, labelled ...
In the instant after volition and before action, the structure
provides a moment of choice. This moment may not always be
well-defined, but does exist. We will consider how to make more of
it, and other moments both conscious and pre-conscious, in a later
Amygdala and cerebral cortex are interactive parts of the same
neurological system, yet it is a physical reality of the brain that
there are many more connections from the amygdala to the cortex than
the other way round. No single fact about our neurophysiology, says
Robertson, is more relevant to explaining war, conflict or
environmental recklessness in the human race. While it is certainly
possible for our higher-brain centres to influence the wilder
excesses of our feelings, it often takes a heck of an effort to keep
LeDoux suggests that this asymmetry between amygdala and cortex
means that the process of psychoanalysis will always be a prolonged
one, because the aim of psychoanalysis is for the cortex to gain
control over the amygdala. I believe the same applies to all
psychotherapies that depend on a client's cognitive understanding of
their unconscious emotional processes for change to take effect. At
the mental health charity Mind I worked with several cognitively
unsophisticated clients who had been turned down for psychodynamic
and cognitive-behavioural therapy because they had been assessed as
having limited insight into themselves. Yet they were able to respond
to outcome-oriented Clean Language counselling because this works at
whatever level of emo-cognitive constructs a client is able, or
chooses, to access.
56-year old Janet's first words to me were: "I feel worn out
since my mother died and I don't want to die before my 57th
birthday". In order to feel better she needed "someone to talk
to, a tidier house and being able to dance again". To dance again
her "feet needed to feel better".
[In the following transcript the full Clean Language syntax is
And what kind of feet are those feet that need to feel
They're worried feet.
And what kind of feet were those feet before they were worried?
They used to dance a lot.
And where could feet that used to dance a lot come from?
I must have got them from my mother and father, they liked
dancing and walking.
And where could a mother and father who liked dancing and walking
We used to go on holidays at the Holiday Fellowship.
And where could Holiday Fellowship come from?
What kind of God?
A caring God.
And that's a caring God like what?
Like my cat.
And what kind of cat is my cat?
[Visibly softens] Very nice. Very relaxed. I love it.
And would very nice very relaxed I love it cat be interested in
going to worried feet?
[Smiles] Maybe. [One foot starts to rub against the other]
And what happens when very nice cat goes to worried feet?
It massages it.
And when it massages it then what happens?
I'm doing it to myself.
And then what happens?
My feet feel better.
Clean Language helped this client self-model her feelings,
thoughts, beliefs as symbolic constructs ('worried feet', 'caring God
like my cat', etc), which allowed her to access and explore them at
the levels of unconscious Sensation and Construction without the need
for cognitive Appraisal.
In Part 4 we shall move to the appraisal stage of
emotion~cognition and inquire further into the workings of what we
have no choice but to use for the purpose: our unique and original,
tangled and extravagant, ingenious and amazing brains.
© 2002 Philip Harland
1 I use 'external' and 'internal' here in the sense of our
perception of events as originating outside or inside the body. Our
representation of events, whatever their origin, is by this
definition'internal'. For the system as a whole, of course, space is
neither 'external' nor 'internal'.
2 The direct route requires the signals to cross only a
single synapse [Goleman reporting LeDoux's research], which may well
be why these signals alone cannot support fine distinctions -- first
glimpse of a twisted shape on the ground may prompt physiological
reactions to 'snake', but a second later, having scrolled through the
cortical options, we can see 'dead twig'. Signals from the olfactory
receptors ('smell') are a special case. Their survival role in
determining what was edible or toxic, allowing food which had led to
sickness to be avoided next time, gives them a direct route to the
3 In NLP the perception of subtle physiological distinctions
is called 'sensory acuity', though the phrase is often used loosely
and may have lost some of its original sharpness. 'Calibration' is
noticing patterns to these distinctions over time in a particular
individual. The study of unconscious micro-emotions is a current
research project. Are there precise timings of the progress of
signals through each stage of the emo-cognitive process? Is it
possible for amygdala-biased signals to reach and prime the cerebral
cortex before it receives its neutral thalamic set? If so, this would
put notions of the purity of 'rational thought' even further into
4 See References for more on Therapeutic Metaphor and
5 'Cogmotion' would be a mechanistic alternative.
6 Susan Greenfield in The Private
Life of the Brain argues that it is this
iteration between body and brain -- their function in concert -- that
generates (is) consciousness itself.
James Lawley, Penny Tompkins, Carol Thompson for
their creativity and attention to detail.
Let my heart be wise. It is the gods' best
EURIPIDES (c400 BC)
References - see part 5.