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What is Symbolic Modelling?

Having discussed modelling in general, in the remainder of the article we will describe in some detail what we are calling Symbolic Modelling. To start with, we will define a few terms. Traditionally in NLP 'metaphor' has been explained as:

    Indirect communication by a story or figure of speech implying a comparison. It covers similes, parables and allegories. (ref. 10, page 230).

This definition implies that the metaphor is constructed by the storyteller for the benefit of the listener. However Symbolic Modelling refers to client-generated metaphors. These are the raw material for the Symbolic Modelling process, just as behaviour is the raw material for Sensory Modelling and ideas are the raw material for Conceptual Modelling. Thus each of these forms of modelling are not different by degree, they address qualitatively different aspects of subjective experience.

What needs to be remembered is that a linguistic metaphor is but the verbal 'surface structure' of an untapped mine of meaning. In our 'deep structure' lies a complete symbolic representation which has information encoded in visual, auditory and kinesthetic constructs. In the following quote, Robert Dilts makes clear the distinction between 'literal and figurative' (we prefer the labels 'sensory and symbolic') information.

    It is also important to recognise that, in addition to being able to input, process, and output information, all representational systems have the capability to represent information in at least two ways: literally and figuratively. That is, each of our sensory systems can form maps that have either a direct correspondence or a more metaphorical correspondence to the phenomenon we are representing. For example, we can visualise the white cells of our bodies as we have seen them under the microscope, or as looking like octopi or 'Pac-Man' video game characters. Similarly, we can speak of our brains literally as 'a network of neurons,' or figuratively as being 'like a computer.' Likewise, we can experience a particular emotional symptom as a particular set of kinesthetic body sensations or as a 'knot' in the stomach. (ref. 14, page 7)

Metaphors and Symbols

In our terminology all metaphors contain symbols. These comprise the elements or components of the metaphor. Carl Jung noted that what makes a symbol more than a sign or literal representation is that a symbol always contains something extra:

    A symbol is a term, a name or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning. It implies something unknown or hidden from us. (ref. 15 page 3)

The 'us' Jung refers to is our conscious mind. At an unconscious level we know the symbol has meaning for us, even though we may not be able to verbalise the reasons for our knowing. This is the precise purpose of metaphor and symbol: to carry information that cannot be represented in sensory or conceptual terms. In fact, we go further than Jung. We maintain that sounds, feelings, gestures and any other non-verbal behaviour can be an external manifestation of a symbolic representation. As David Grove says:

    In every gesture, and particularly in obsessional gestures and tics and those funny idiosyncratic movements, is encoded the entire history of that behaviour. It contains your whole psychological history in exactly the same way that every cell in your body contains your whole biological history. (ref. 16, page 21)

NLP's original models were therapists. The processes which were extracted from their therapeutic activity have now been applied in many other contexts. Similarly, Symbolic Modelling comes from our two-year study of another therapeutic wizard, David Grove. Although, at this early stage of development of the model, the main applications of Symbolic Modelling have been psychotherapeutic, it is beginning to be used in education, health and business as we discuss below.

Modelling Comes Full Circle

Modelling was originally devised as a way of codifying excellence. It was soon realised that the same process could be used to model how client's "do their problems." The leap from modelling states of excellence to modelling problem states is not so large when client's are regarded as excellent at replicating their unwanted behavioural patterns. There is nothing wrong with their replicating mechanism (the process). It works perfectly. It is the output which is the problem for the client. Often the slightest change to the input or alteration to the process will produce significant changes to the output, i.e.. behaviour.

We find it worth noting that modelling has come full circle. Starting from modelling therapists, it is now used by therapists to model client's patterns of behaviour, thinking strategies and metaphors.

The main way we use Symbolic Modelling at the moment is to help our clients to identify their own patterns in metaphor. In so doing they become aware of their own processes in new ways. The neuroscientist, Karl Pribram (the co-creator of the TOTE) expresses a similar viewpoint in an article entitled From Metaphors To Models where he maintains:

    Analogical reasoning sets in motion a self-reflective process by which, metaphorically speaking, brains come to understand themselves. (ref. 17, page 79)

According to 'self-organising systems theory', at a certain level of complexity, a system will naturally reorganise in a way that preserves the identity of the system, while increasing responsiveness to it's environment. It is through a heightened awareness of our own patterns that new levels of complexity can emerge. In other words, the system starts to self-correct.

Thus transformation takes place organically and results in more desirable behaviour. This can happen cognitively or unconsciously. Either way, it is mostly an automatic process. To achieve this result, the modelling process we use is based on two elements: Clean Language (ref. 12) and a framework of emergent properties within symbolic systems described below. We have found Symbolic Modelling especially useful in the following situations:

  • When the client cannot formulate an outcome
  • When the client is caught in paradoxes, double binds, self-perpetuating conflicts, etc.
  • When the issue is related to identity, sense of purpose, connection to the spiritual and other "big issues"
  • When the original coding may have been pre-verbal
  • Unproductive meta-states
  • Highly traumatic memories
  • When the client has spent a lot of time in therapy
  • When other approaches have not produced the desired results

Another way in which Symbolic Modelling can make a contribution is through the modelling of couples, families and teams. When two or more people engage in behaviour for a common purpose they become part of a system. How does one model the emergent properties of a group? Metaphor is one fascinating way.

The Structure of Symbolic Experience

Even the most complex issue, involving multiple interlocking patterns of internal and external behaviour can be expressed symbolically. The amount of complexity that can be represented by a single symbol is astronomic. We appear to have a natural capacity to recognise and represent significance and meaning in patterns of symbols. How we do this, itself has a structure. And the process by which we 'metaphorise' is reflected in how we manifest ourselves in the world. As Norbert Wierner, the father of cybernetics, said:

    We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. (ref. 18)

Symbols carry their hidden element within symbolic characteristics. These are to be found in the attributes and function of the symbols as well as their spatial and temporal relationships. The characteristics become the symbol's unique identifier. In this way, the symbol gains an identity and develops into an 'entity'. Thus is the ephemeral born into existence and we are able to transcend the boundaries and limitations imposed by conceptual thinking.

David Grove calls the totality of a person's symbolic representations their Metaphoric Landscape. Within this landscape everything can be regarded as symbolic. All people, places, times, things, events, memories, emotions and ideas cease to be 'real concepts' and instead become symbolic. See our article in Rapport 36 for more about this form of metaphor (ref. 3).

Relationships Between and Across Symbols

Once a symbol emerges it will have unique attributes that both distinguish it from, and connect it to, other symbols. These attributes will be correlates of the characteristics of the "it" being symbolised; be that a thing or process. When attributes repeat they form 'recurring motifs'. These are so important to us that they not only appear in our mental representations, we manage to unconsciously arrange for these motifs to appear in our physical world too!

For example, one person we know had recurring symbols of sand dunes. Her life and relationships were a series of ups and downs; incredible highs followed by soul destroying lows. Through the exploration of other symbols in her Metaphoric Landscape it became clear that a common motif was their shape, a curved dome. When she moved into a new apartment the first thing she had the builders do was to convert the entrance into an arch! When we pointed out the connection she was flabbergasted. "I just had to do it," she said.

Jung clearly recognised this phenomenon as he devotes a whole chapter in his autobiography to how he designed his home using the principles of externalising his inner symbolic world. For over 30 years, each time he was undergoing a key personal or spiritual development he would modify or add to the building to reflect the symbolic changes taking place within himself (ref. 19, page 250).

Pattern of Relationships

The most universal way the mind has of denoting significance is through relative location. While the location of symbols relative to each other is important, the primary spatial relationship is between the location of the symbol and the location of the symbolic viewer-hearer-feeler. The sum total of all the spatial relationships together form the 'structure' of the Metaphoric Landscape.

Additionally, everything we experience is part of a process. In our perception, every event is preceded by antecedent events and followed by subsequent events. This is how we think of time passing. Thus, how a symbol is related to other symbols across time can hold symbolic meaning. And sequences repeat because significant information is contained in the symbolic pattern of events. These sequences form the 'process' by which the story of the metaphor was created, is maintained, and evolves.

Taken together, the attributes, relative location and repeating sequences form a pattern of relationships that define the role of each symbol within the Metaphoric Landscape. It is through these relationships that the system maintains its form and the symbols are able to carry significance and meaning.

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