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Part 5 added May 2007

Emotion and Cognition in Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy
Part 5 of a 5-part paper by Philip Harland


Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

What first motivated my research into emotion and cognition was a profound dissatisfaction at my knowledge of how people do feelings.  How do our brains construct these fundamental features of existence, and how do they relate structurally to thoughts? I know now that emotions are essential for reason to operate with depth and intelligence, and suggest that the process as a whole should really be called the construction of 'emo~cognition', in that the end result of these interlinked functions of the brain is their inseparable combination.  We can have no emotion without the mind pre-consciously appraising and labelling it (a cognitive process), and we can have no cognition without the body's prior involvement and influence (an emotional event).  Indeed, the brain is embodied as much as the body is embrained.

The fifth and final part of this paper considers Volition - what happens as a result of the four prior stages of emo~cognitive processing - and discusses ways in which facilitators can utilize their awareness of volition in working with clients.
Volition derives from the Latin volo: I wish, I will, and is usually (loosely) defined as the act of freely willing or resolving.  This is a little different to the meaning I ascribe to it here, which is the impulse to act - the last moment before action itself.

The article is in three parts:

 is free will ever voluntary?
somatic markers – micro-emotions - metaphor
deconditioning – reprogramming – transforming



and concludes with a note on emotional intelligence and the future.


Is free will ever voluntary?

“Most of our ‘thinking’ is ‘wishful’.”   Alfred Korzybski

We call the wave of energy transmitted from neuron to neuron in the brain an ‘electrical impulse’.  This relates neuro-linguistically to two everyday meanings of impulse: spontaneous inclination or desire (“a sudden impulse”); and considered inspiration or drive (“the creative impulse”).  Thus volition as the impulse to act may be involuntary or voluntary [Figure 1].


The mind is an amalgam of sensation and appraisal, with volition the result.  Volition has intention or inclination, and the outcome will be a conditioned response (reacting with apparently spontaneous anger to a perceived threat to survival, say); or a selected response (assessing the reality of the threat and controlling the reaction).  Selected responses are more than emotion-influenced, they are emotion-directed, even emotion-controlled.  The dotted lines in Figure 1 represent the out-of-awareness priming of voluntary process by prior involuntary events, rather like a root system conditions the growth and shape of a tree.

Because of this unconscious priming it is possible to say with some certainty that we can never make purely ‘rational’ choices, because this would mean rationalizing every possible outcome of an action, an impossible feat.  Only a feeling can limit the potentially infinite regress of reason.  And feelings, as we saw in Part 3, are products of the unconscious.

If the voluntary impulse of reason derives from every involuntary emotional process that precedes it, can ‘free will’ ever be freely arrived at?  To put it another way, do we make up our minds, or do our minds make themselves up?  None of our representations of self, control or intention originate in consciousness, so a self that experiences freedom of choice must be party to an elaborate self-deception.

Neuroscientists Halligan and Oakley1 state that in many respects the conscious self operates only as a monitor or recorder (or, I might add, reviewer) of events that occur in the unconscious.  They stress that consciousness happens too late in our neurophysiology to affect the outcomes of the unconscious mental processes that produce all our thoughts and feelings, and further, that everything experienced in consciousness has already been formed in the unconscious.


Somatic Markers   Micro-Emotions   Metaphor


“Basic emotions help manage actions in a rational way.”  Antonio Damasio

Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis calls upon the body’s entire system of somatic and visceral feedback as a relevance testing or biasing device to reduce the need for sifting through endless possibilities.  He describes it as a mechanism for arriving at the solution of a problem without reasoning toward it.  A kind of gut~brain feeling, or rational~intuition.

How do we form our personal intuitions?  I start from a presupposition that the organism seeks relative constancy and coherence in the face of changing external conditions (homeostasis), and is biased to avoid pain and seek pleasure.  According to Damasio, where the choice of a certain option leads to a certain outcome, and that outcome is followed by a pleasurable or painful body state, the brain acquires the hidden memory (or ‘dispositional representation’) of the experience: a non-inherited, subjective, involuntary association [Figure 2]. 

cartoon once upon a time

Re-exposure of the organism to the same option, or thinking about the same outcome, re-enacts the pleasurable or painful body state by re-activating the association, which serves as an involuntary (‘intuitive’) reminder of the outcome and heralds its likely – if by no means certain - reappearance [Figure 3]. 

Detecting somatic markers is not an infallible means of making ‘correct’, ‘appropriate’ or even ‘adaptive’ decisions, but a method of monitoring or assisting our subjective decision-making, a reminder that the responsibility we take for decisions is a deeply personal one, and an internal physiological check we can make to avoid the nightmare of not making decisions at all.  Provisos that apply to the facilitator at least as much as to the client.  A facilitator’s gut~brain feeling may prompt a decision about the next intervention, but only by keeping the intervention ‘clean’ can a facilitator be confident of not contaminating  the client’s response.  There is more about working with Clean Language later. 


“It comes through my body.”  Client

Emotional reactions show up in the musculature within a few thousandths of a second of the event that triggers them.  They arrive in the form of unconsciously-derived neuronal impulses to any muscle of the body as the body primes itself – just in case - to fight, flee or freeze. These  involuntary ‘micro-emotions’ are a special sub-set of the nonverbal cues (gesture, posture, breathing, lines of sight,2 etc.) that can be utilized by a facilitator to encourage the emergence of new information for the client. Reading them is an integral part of a facilitator’s attending and reflecting skills.

The exchange that follows is taken from a Clean Language Practise Group exercise.3 Note the lightning speed with which movements of this kind can manifest.  The client’s body may react to a word from the facilitator well before the question is completed or the client’s mind has consciously appraised it. 

In this extract the full Clean Language syntax has been condensed.  Non-verbal events [noted in brackets] happen concurrently with speech.

 Facilitator  And what would you like to have [client flinches almost imperceptibly] happen?
 I’m not sure.
 Facilitator  And what kind of [subtly mirrors flinch] I’m not sure could that be?
 Hm.  It comes through my body.
 Facilitator  And hm it comes through your body like [client: same micro-movement] what?
 Like a tornado.
 Facilitator  And when [subtly mirrors movement] like a tornado, what kind of tornado?
 [Blinks] It’s quite striking.
Indeed.   Tiny movements can be pointers to great events.  They can be easily missed, or dismissed, because they look no different to the succession of turns and twitches we make every moment we’re alive.  Some of them last no longer than one-twentieth of a second.  A facilitator waiting only for a
client’s verbal response, or thinking ahead to the next question, could well miss a trick or two, because the only time-space in which new information manifests and change shows with any certainty – with no possibility of the client repressing, avoiding or amending it - is this pre-conscious micro-moment.

This client’s ‘tornado’ is, of course, a metaphor of feeling. 


“I was in the grip of my emotions.”  Client

There is a great deal more to discover about feelings than is accessible from a client’s pre-conscious twitches or mindful retrospective thoughts about feelings.  An intuitive description of a need for emotional control, say (“I have to tame..”, “curb”, “battle with”, “I’m in the grip of..”), or a problem with emotional excess (“my feelings run riot”, “they boil over”, “I give myself up to..”), manifest in metaphor and suggest the presence of some kind of force or impulse in their construction.  How can this involuntary impulse be engaged to effect?  If we accept with Daniel Goleman that the logic of the emotional mind is associative – that it takes the representations of the reality it generates to be the same as that reality – then we can allow that the symbols, similes, metaphors and metonyms clients use to describe their feelings are just as they seem.  They may be taken quite literally. 

The use of client imagery in remedial work has a long history.  Ernest Rossi, in The Psychobiology of Mindbody Healing, describes Jung’s approach:

“When Jung’s patients became overwhelmed with emotion, he would sometimes have them draw a picture of their feelings.  Once the feelings were expressed in the form of imagery, the images could be encouraged to speak to one another.  As soon as a dialogue could take place, the patient was well embarked on the process of reconciling different aspects of his dissociated psyche.” 

The exercise below makes use of self-generated imagery as a creative tool in emotional management.4 It is a means of encouraging Jung’s ‘dialogue’ to take place ‘cleanly’, without the risk of contaminating client process through facilitator assumption, suggestion, or interpretation of meaning.


  • Invite Client to identify/select/find/generate a metaphor for when they are [eg] angry and act inappropriately as a result: “That is like what?”
  • Ask basic clean questions of the metaphor and the symbols that make up the metaphor: “What kind of [X] is that [X]?”  “Is there anything else about [X]?” Intention is not to seek change, but for Client to get more information about the metaphor as it is. 
  • Invite Client to map/draw Metaphor 1.

  • Invite Client to get a metaphor for how they would prefer to respond: “That is like what?”  Ask basic clean questions as step 1.  Client maps Metaphor 2.

  • Invite Client to consider Maps 1 & 2 by positioning them anywhere in the space and by placing themselves in relation to the maps.  Ask Client: “In the context of the metaphor, how can Metaphor 1 BECOME Metaphor 2?”  Facilitate with basic clean questions. 

  •  “What is the FIRST thing that needs to happen for Metaphor 1 to become Metaphor 2?”  Then: “What is the LAST thing that needs to happen?” 
  • [If appropriate]  Invite Client to draw a Metaphor that symbolizes the whole process of ‘becoming’.  Or to draw key ‘In-Betweens’; like the intermediate frames of an animated film, that will help Metaphor 1 become Metaphor 2.

  • “How will the information in the metaphor guide your behaviour next time you are in a similar situation?” 
  • “You can start getting used to being like Metaphor 2 by embodying its characteristics NOW.  What is your posture?”  “What do you feel?” “ Where is your focus of attention?”  “What do you say and how?”

Acknowledgments, Penny Tompkins and James Lawley

Using Clean Language to facilitate feeling allows the facilitator to honour not only the client’s unconscious impulse, but also their experience of conscious, voluntary volition.


Deconditioning    Reprogramming   Transforming

“Reason, ruling alone, is a force confining; and passion, unattended,
is a flame  that burns to its own destruction.”
   Khalil Gibran

How can our emotional intelligence be enhanced voluntarily as a result of understanding how we construct it involuntarily?  First we have to accept that we’re going to have painful or difficult feelings, whether we like it or not.  They come with being alive.  Second, we need to believe that our brains are not ‘hard-wired’ immutably, and may be changed.5 Third, we need to rely less on the cognitive reporting of feelings, because retrospective access to their cause or construction can be at best flimsy, and in any case, as we saw in Parts 3 and 4, the mind has no way of distinguishing technically between ‘feeling’ and ‘thought’ in the brain.

We have several alternatives for dealing with difficult feelings without having to think about them. Doing nothing (going through life on an emotional wing and a prayer) is a common enough option, and pretty much guarantees distress at some time of life. Suppression (sitting on or denying feelings) is generally accepted as being bad for the health. Body therapies (yoga, shiatsu, acupuncture, etc) and ‘Energy’ therapies (crystal twirling, dowsing, reiki, etc), have an integrative intention but leave most of the mind work to the caprice of the client. Spiritual therapies (shamanism, mysticism, animism, etc) take little account of the body and are generally fuzzy in their application.  And so on.

Three processes that utilize the systemic capacities of the body~mind for change to take effect are deconditioning, reprogramming and transforming therapies.

Deconditioning (or ‘extinction’) therapies are mainly employed for manifestations of the fear response – anxiety, phobia, compulsive disorder – and in essence consist of the gradual presentation of the learned trigger or conditioned stimulus without the worst case scenario reaction.  The client gradually gets the idea that things aren’t so bad after all.  They can be tricky to set up and stressful in their early stages, but in many cases with persistence seem to work.  However the unconscious origins of the pattern that prompted the problem remain unexplored, and it seems likely that its neuronal connections stay in place.  This may explain why phobic-like behavioural and emotional reactions can erupt spontaneously long after they have been ‘extinguished’. 

Recent research using brain imaging techniques confirms what neuro-linguistic and trance practitioners have known intuitively for years: that effective reprogramming changes the brain as much as drugs can.  New neuronal firings create new programmes, new programmes prompt the neurons to fire differently - a systemic effect based on the simple if still widely unacknowledged principle of the body~mind loop [Figure 4]:
Neuroscientist Ian Robertson offers a simple test of the body~mind interdependency: “By an act of will or whimsy we can decide to change the state of our brains this moment by choosing to summon some sweet memory into consciousness.” 6 A voluntary volitional act that some NLP practitioners call ‘meta-stating’ – superimposing or ‘layering’ a resource state on the problem state in the expectation that the primary state will take on new qualities or at least waste away.  Bob Bodenhamer invites us to try it out for ourselves in the moment: “If you experience fear, what happens if you become fearful of your fear?  You will become more fearful, maybe even paranoid.  The fear of the original fear multiplies the first state.  But, what if you accepted your fear, what happens?  The fear changes, doesn’t it?  And what happens if you apply faith, courage, compassion, understanding, etc to your fear?” 7

Anyone can conjure up a semblance of a feeling within the brain alone, and it will have much the same effect as a spontaneous body state.  Athletes improve performance through mind ‘rehearsal’.  Intuitive actors feel their way into a character’s thoughts.  Intellectual actors think their way into a character’s feelings.  Brain scans show that ‘thinking’ a body state is neurologically no different to having the state in action.

Change has a transforming effect when involuntary and voluntary knowing combine, when the organism functions, as Korzybski puts it, ‘as-a-whole’.  It is during this moment that vital information imprisoned in the problem pattern is released and the body~mind can be freed of its self-imposed shackles.  Below is an extract from an autogenic metaphor process, Symbolic Modelling, with a client in his 30s who came to therapy with what he described as an “overwhelming spider phobia”.  His case is unique, as all are, but illustrates how any emo~cognitive construct becomes accessible with Clean Language questioning.  The client’s process relates to the five phases of its construction:

    1  Arousal: his reporting of sensory input into his system.
    2  Sensation: his physiological responses to this arousal.
    3  Construction: the unconscious associations to these sensations that he
        makes from past events, present goals, etc.
    4  Appraisal: his internal assessment and labelling of these constructions.
    5  Volition: his impulse to act on this appraisal.
        And finally:
        Action: what he says and/or does as a result.

Of course clients are not in the habit of communicating their constructs in this convenient order.  A client’s awareness and communication of events (normally the facilitator’s first point of entry) will always lags behind the events themselves.  If you were to map this sequence across to a particular client, you would see that every statement or gesture they make is a report of these five events happening over and over again.  Every one of their feelings has gone through the initial three phases of arousal, sensation and construction.  Every metaphor they create is a compact account of the third and fourth phases, construction and appraisal.  Every tiny physiological shift is a signal of the fifth, volition.  And it is all happening in the moment.8

In the following extracts the Clean Language syntax of the facilitator has been condensed. The words of the client are verbatim.

It’s so overwhelming, I can’t be alone in the house with one.  I read somewhere that people on average eat eight spiders in a lifetime, and that wherever you are you’re never  more than three feet away from a spider. [Eyes widen] If I see one in the house I’m terrified.
 Facilitator  And with all that what would you like to have happen?
 To be able to relax.
 Facilitator  And when you are able to relax, then what happens?
 [Shoulders drop slightly] A sense of peace and balance.
 Facilitator  And when a sense of peace and balance, then what happens?
 Feeling honoured and cared for.
 Facilitator  What kind of honoured and cared for?
 [Slight frown] Loved for who you are and as you are.








At the next session the client brings a representation of some part of his construct in the form of a dream:

It was about a window covered in webs, and I was really small compared to the window.
 And how old could ‘I’ be that was really small compared to the window?
 [Younger voice tone]  Six or seven.  The webs were very dirty.
 What kind of dirty?
 Layers. Years of webs. But there was no over-riding panic when the hoover didn’t suck them up. [Pause] I could be quite fond of spiders. An odd thing to say, that.  It would be nice not having to kill them. But if I see one at home ...
 Facilitator And what happens just before you see one at home?
I’m feeling jumpy, scared.
 Facilitator Like what?
Like being lost in the forest.  A big old dark forest.  Like Hansel and Gretel left by their parents, who were upright moral citizens.
 Facilitator And what happens just before upright moral citizen parents left Hansel and Gretel?
[Pause]  They lost all their money, they couldn’t afford their children, but Hansel and Gretel kept finding their way back again ... [Recalls] ... our house being possessed, moving into a caravan, being sent to boarding school paid for by an aunt.  My mother tells me that me and my sister changed at that time. I had bad school reports, they were waved in my face. I was no good at exams.  I only remember one thing from my Latin; ‘puer in silva’, boy in the woods ...

He maps out a thick green forest with a house glimpsed through the trees in the distance.

What are you drawn to?
The house.  It’s light, warm, everyone is there, it’s a party.  I’m not wanted.  I’m scared and lonely. [Slight move back]  I keep my distance, like a lone wolf.
Facilitator What kind of lone wolf?
Client The sort who goes off for a long time and comes back.  [Long pause, then]  I took the boy’s hand, and smiled, and reassured him.




In his third session:

I kind of thought yesterday I don’t really have a problem with spiders and I don’t know what the fuss was about.  I’ve been thinking about whether the fear allows me to feel vulnerable and let other people sort out them out.  Home should be a place of happiness and sociability but my home wasn’t.  It was there I was fearful of spiders.
And what would you like to have happen now?
To go into the garden and get a spider and bring it into the house.

We go into the garden.  He allows a small spider to run over his hand.

I have never ever done that before.


He coaxes the spider into an empty jam jar and we return to the consulting room.  He keeps spider and jar close for the rest of the session.


Two weeks later, in what turns out to be his final session:

I’ve thought a lot about the phobia being some sort of displacement for needing other people.  I depended on my parents and I lost that when I was sent to boarding school.  Now I’m linking spiders to a need in me to be less alone, less alien.  I acknowledge spiders rather than avoid them.  I’m getting to know them more.  I’ve stopped thinking of spiders as alien.

And recently (two years after this work), he reports:

“I’ve been in contact with many small spiders in the last two years and I’m little bothered by them.  Instead of killing them or having someone dispose of them I generally leave them alone, though sometimes I speak to them.  A couple of  times I have needed to pick up a big house spider in a glass and put it outside.  Not a pleasant task, but possible.”

Somehow in his own special way the client has brought feeling and thought, involuntary and voluntary impulse, pre-conscious and conscious knowing together to create a different volition.  His “overwhelming fear” has transformed into “little bothered” without a single suggestion from the facilitator, and has generated a range of behavioural, emotional and cognitive choices.

CONCLUDING - for the time being

”You are not thinking, you are merely being logical.”
Niels Bohr to Albert Einstein

Emotional intelligence is simply learning to use emotion intelligently, and this happens when amygdala and cortex [see Parts 3 & 4] communicate well as one circuit.  At this stage of our evolution there are many more connections from the brain’s ‘emotional centre’ to its ‘rational centre’ than the other way round.  But we are not fixed entities.  Susan Greenfield suggests that as human emotional intelligence evolves and the pre-frontal cortex becomes more active, neuronal connectivity from the cortex to the amygdala will increase and even up the present imbalance. At the same time, the continuing survival value of the emotions as they cope with anything the world might throw at us will keep us from retreating into over-introspection: more grounded in the here and now, with greater self-awareness, healthier self-control, increased empathy with others, improved social skills and enhanced personal influence.

It is time to update the sentiment of the Greek poet who wrote, “Let my heart be wise, it is the gods’ best gift.” This is the kind of gift facilitators can help people give themselves.  Not only in the cause of self-fulfilment, but for the continued evolution of the brain and the continuing march of human destiny. 

© 2004 Philip Harland

Thanks for their helpful comments Penny Tompkins, James Lawley, Carol Thompson


1 Peter Halligan and David Oakley, 'What do you mean when you talk about "yourself"?' New Scientist, 18 Nov 2000. Evidence of this impulse to act is always available, even if no action ensues. Only sensory acuity is needed to detect it.2 Grovian 'lines of sight'; have a symbolic, content-rich significance that distinguishes them from the systemic, content-free patterns of NLP 'eye accessing cues', see Lawley and Tompkins, Metaphors in Mind, p. 294.3 The facilitator was Caitlin Walker, the ‘client’ Clive Bach. See for more information on Clean Language.4 Exercise designed by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley, adapted with permission for British Association of Anger Management trainings.5 There is a wealth of neurological research to support this. See LeDoux and Greenfield et al on the natural fluidity of the brain.6 Ian Robertson, Mind Sculpture. See References.7 From Bob Bodenhamer’s book review of Peter Young’s 'Understanding NLP', Rapport 54 Winter 2001. has more on ‘meta-state’ theory and practice.8 More on the momentary appearance and utilization of client information in Philip Harland, 'A Moment in Metaphor', Rapport 51 Spring 2001, and

References and Further Reading

  • Peter Afford, The Neuroscience of Therapy, The Psychotherapist Spring 2002.
  • Leslie Cameron-Bandler and Michael Lebeau, The Emotional Hostage, Real People Press 1986.

    Antonio R Damasio, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain, Putnam's 1994; The Feeling of What Happens: Body, Emotion and the Making of Consciousness, Heineman 1999. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence, Bloomsbury 1996.

    Susan Greenfield, The Private Life of the Brain, Penguin 2001; (ed.) The Human Mind Explained, Cassell 1996.

    Richard L Gregory (ed.), The Oxford Companion to the Mind, Oxford University Press 1987.

    David Grove, Clean Language and Therapeutic Metaphor trainings, research, publications.

    L. Michael Hall, Meta-States, E.T. Publications 1995-2000.

    Bryony Lavery, Frozen, National Theatre 2002.

    James Lawley and Penny Tompkins, Clean Language and Symbolic Modelling trainings, research, publications; Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling, The Developing Company Press 2000;

    Joseph LeDoux, The Emotional Brain, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1998.

    Ian Robertson, Mind Sculpture: Unleashing Your Brain's Potential, Bantam 1999.

  • And the following papers presented at Emotion, Evolution and Rationality, an interdisciplinary conference hosted by the Philosophy Department, King's College London 2002:

Antonio Damasio, A Neurobiology for Emotion and Feeling

Ray Dolan, William James and Emotion Revisited

Dylan Evans, The Search Hypothesis of Emotions Paul Griffiths, Basic Emotions, Complex Emotions and Machiavellian Emotions Jim Hopkins and Christopher Badcock, Emotion versus Reason as a Genetic Conflict

Chandra Sripada and Stephen Stich, Evolution, Culture and Irrationality of the Emotions


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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