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First published in Rapport, journal of the Association for NLP (UK), Issue 58, Winter 2002
Emotion and Cognition in Neuro-Linguistic Psychotherapy
Part 3 of a 5-part paper by Philip Harland

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

I think, therefore I am.
We are, and then we think.
DAMASIO (1994)

Muriel & George Cartoon

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?
Head & Heart Cartoon





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 so wish).

Emotional Conditioning

The brain is the body's captive audience. Antonio Damasio

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 salivating response.


Stage 1


neural pathways


Input from external 'novel stimuli' and internal 'conditioned stimuli' ...

Somatosensory reception by Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic (external & internal), Olfactory and Gustatory receptor systems ...

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'):

Stage 2


neural pathways


Signals from
sensory receptors ...
feed direct to
'relay centre'


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:

Stage 3


neural pathways


Two sets of signals
released thalamus
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 engaged.

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.

Stage 3a


neural pathways


Direct rudimentary signals to amygala for 'emotional processing'...


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 and death.

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 survival.

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.

Stage 3b


neural pathways


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 internal 'screens']

Thalamic signals processed in 'memory': are the signals familiar? what do they relate to / link to / prompt?

Releasing 'significance 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 over-enthusiasm.

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 week.

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.

Stage 4




and cognitive
evaluated for
their relative
potential ...

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.

Stage 5




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.

Stage 6




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 article.


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 reason afloat.

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 condensed.]

And what kind of feet are those feet that need to feel better?

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 come from?

We used to go on holidays at the Holiday Fellowship.

And where could Holiday Fellowship come from?

From God.

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 cerebral cortex.

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 question.

4 See References for more on Therapeutic Metaphor and Symbolic Modelling.

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 gift.
References - see part 5.

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