Neuroscience Perspective on What is NLP

There should be a neuroscience perspective on what is NLP because NLP, neurolinguistic programming, includes the syllable “neuro.” When Dr. Nancy Mramor, a licensed clinical, media and health psychologist, explains what NLP is, she says it’s based off the work of genius hypnotherapist Milton Erickson ( I have to admit that when I hear the word “hypnotherapist,” I think “hypnotist,” and NLP automatically loses some scientific credibility for me. Thankfully, I have pushed past this rush judgement to do some real thinking about what neuroscience has to say about NLP.

I have been working towards my Certificate in the Foundations of NeuroLeadership ( because I am a self-professed neuro-nerd obsessed with reading up on all things neuroscience. This is not easy because over 90% of what we now understand about the human brain has been discovered in the last 10 years (“The Brain: Health, Intelligence and Creativity,” Harris Publications Inc.: 2016, page 27). But easy or not, an obsession is an obsession.

While “neuro” has to do with the brain, “linguistic” has to do with speech patterns. Interestingly, while NLP involves the use of three primary speaking modalities, neuroscientist Dr. Dawna Markova speaks to three perceptual languages of thought from her research (Markova D., MacArthur A., Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking with People Who Think Differently, Penguin Random House: 2015, pages 27-39). The three primary speaking modalities of NLP are the same as the three perceptual languages of thought: visual, kinesthetic, and auditory. Furthermore, David Rock, founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, writes “speaking aloud about complex ideas can be a way of seeing your own thinking more clearly” (Rock, D., Your Brain at Work, HarperCollins Publishers: 2009, p. 149). In other words, we speak our thoughts and ideas. In turn, thoughts and ideas come from connections made in the non-conscious brain (Jung-Beeman M., Collier A., Kounios J., “How insight happens: learning from the brain,” NeuroLeadership Journal, 2008: Issue 1). Therefore, the three speaking modalities of NLP are a manifestation of the three perceptual languages of thought from our non-conscious brain.

The three primary speaking modalities of NLP are used to build rapport with another person. The idea is to determine the primary speaking modality of the person you are interacting with and then speak in that modality. For example, a visual would paint pictures to convey concepts and experiences and say “I see” when they agree. Dr. Markova has found that the three perceptual languages of thought can trigger different states of attention in different people. For example, a lecture can cause some people to focus their attention and others to space out. Therefore, the NLP technique of speaking another person’s primary speaking modality is akin to using the perceptual language of thought that best gets their focused attention. Attention is a pre-requisite to building rapport!

Another rapport-building technique from NLP is matching and mirroring. Matching and mirroring includes things like matching the breathing rate of the other person, mirroring the other person’s emotional state, and even mirroring the other person’s movements. This NLP technique is also supported by neuroscience. Neuroscientists have observed that the brain activation patterns of two people become similar once they connect during conversation ( Neuroscientists call this phenomenon neural synchrony. It makes sense that matching breathing, emotions, and behaviors are other ways to move towards neural synchrony since the brain controls all of these things!

While this is not a comprehensive review of the tools and techniques of NLP, the rapport-building techniques mentioned are supported by neuroscience and worth adding to your toolbox of social skills.