I have published a number of papers on neuro-linguistic programming. The one you can access directly on this website (Heap, 2008) appeared in the Skeptical Intelligencer and in this paper I synthesise and expand on three previous papers (Heap, 1988a, 1988b, 1989) in which I reviewed evidence for the doctrine of 'representational systems' as espoused by the originators of NLP, Richard Bandler and John Grinder. (I must emphasise that I myself have undertaken no experimental work on NLP; I have simply reviewed the work of those who have.) If you are going to read only one of these four papers then it is the 2008 that you should choose. It is one of three articles on NLP that appeared in the 2008 Skeptical Intelligencer. The second of these articles (Neuro-linguistic programming: Time for an informed review, Skeptical Intelligencer, 11, 14-27) is a rejoinder to my papers by Andy Bradbury, an expert on NLP, who emailed me in 2008 to challenge the conclusions of my earlier review papers. Andy very kindly agreed to provide his comments and criticisms and outline what he considers is the correct representation of the issues that I raised in my papers. The third paper is by Mark Newbrook, who presents some of his thoughts on NLP from the standpoint of a linguist (Newbrook, M. (2008) Linguistic aspects of 'neuro-linguistic programming', Skeptical Intelligencer, 11, 27-29).
As I explain in my paper, I became interested in NLP in the early 80s. I recall much excitement at that time amongst psychotherapists, particularly those who used hypnosis, because NLP was being promoted as a revolutionary breakthrough in delivering fast and effective therapy. Very much allied to this was a fascination with the American psychiatrist Milton Erickson who was well known for his work and publications on clinical hypnosis. Erickson died in 1980 but in the years prior to this his home in Phoenix, Arizona became something of a Mecca for young psychotherapists wanting to know how he achieved his therapeutic outcomes, which according to a number of publications around that time, were quite remarkable.
Well, like many others I rushed about hither and thither, attending workshops and meetings in the UK and abroad finding out more about these exciting developments, and I read quite a number of the early NLP and Ericksonian texts (most of the latter having little to do with NLP). These included Trance-Formations by Grinder, Bandler (1981 - see my paper), a book on the therapeutic practice of hypnosis that has some interesting ideas and some odd ideas.
One idea from NLP that intrigued me was the doctrine of representational systems, namely that at any time the way we are representing our world cognitively is characterised by one of five sensory modalities (visual, auditory, etc.). It is contended that the dominant modality is signalled by certain behavioural indices, notably verbal expression and eye movements, and that people have a preferred representational system.
All of this seemed like the kind of information that should have been appearing in textbooks on cognitive psychology, and its absence therefrom puzzled me. From my reading and my attendance at meetings I could not ascertain how these observations and generalisations about the human mind had been derived. I recall broaching this with the leader of one workshop I attended, an earnest young American of some self-confidence. Throughout our conversation he looked at me intensely and I suddenly realised that whenever I uttered the word 'yes' he flicked his forefinger up. I came away none the wiser.
Later I spent a lot of time in the University of Sheffield library (before the days of Internet searches) and was surprised to find that there were a number of experimental studies of 'representational systems', albeit mainly in the form of dissertation projects by postgraduate students.
Thus I came to write my review papers. I have given a detailed account of all this in my 2008 article. Andy has, metaphorically speaking, rolled up his sleeves and given me a thorough beating in his paper, for which I am very grateful. I don't think it useful for me to provide any rejoinders to Andy's criticisms here. Let his words speak for themselves! I am sure that readers will thereby gain a clearer awareness of the true nature of NLP and its co-founders.
To access my 2008 paper click on the title below.
Heap, M. (2008) The validity of some early claims of neuro-linguistic programming. Skeptical Intelligencer, 11, 6-13.
The three earlier review papers (pdf format) are now on the website of the Association for Skeptical Enquiry at http://www.aske-skeptics.org.uk/nlp.html. They are:
Heap. M. (1988) Neurolinguistic programming: An interim verdict. In M. Heap (Ed.) Hypnosis: Current Clinical, Experimental and Forensic Practices. London: Croom Helm, pp 268-280.
Heap, M. (1988) Neurolinguistic programming - a British perspective. Hypnos: Swedish Journal of Hypnosis in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatic Medicine, 15, 4-13.
Heap, M. (1989) Neurolinguistic programming: What is the evidence? In D. Waxman, D. Pedersen, I. Wilkie & P. Mellett (Eds.) Hypnosis: The Fourth European Congress at Oxford. London: Whurr Publishers, pp 118-124.