The Neuropsychological basis for NLP and EI

Update Comments:

The article below seeks to examine the neuropsychological elements of NLP and EI. It does not seek to establish a link between NLP and EI. Since completing the research piece below (which was submitted as a requirement for the IT Carlow Level 9 Special Award in Emotional Intelligence in 2010), I came across the iWAM (inventory of Work Attitudes and Motivators) EQ test. Unlike the Bar-On test, the iWAM measures attitudes which are the basis for a person’s competencies. iWAM goes much deeper into a subject’s metaprograms (cognitive patterns) to help understand why they do what they do in the work environment.


Since the time of Plato in Ancient Greece, man has been interested in human psychology. From these historical foundations, through the various schools of thought on the subject many of the greatest thinkers and academics have put forward theories on how and why man acts in the way that he does in different situations.


The last Century has seen probably the greatest evolution in the field of psychology. Individual areas of study have become areas of specialisation for academics and clinicians alike. The word Psychology is fast becoming the ‘umbrella’ term for a field of study that is made up of individual specialities such as: Behavioural, Cognitive or Neuro psychology in the same way that Surgery has become the umbrella term covering individual fields such as Neuro, Cardiac and Orthopedic surgery.


Over the last 30 plus years, human behaviour has come under the spotlight even more. Advances in brain analysis have been made easier by advances in technology that enables the study of live brains rather than earlier studies of the brains of deceased subjects. The arrival of technology such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has had a major effect on the ability of scientists to go deeper and focus on the examination of specific aspects of brain function (Banich & Compton, 2003, p.65). Such developments have helped evolve the whole area of Neuropsychology and Cognitive Neuroscience.


According to Banich & Compton (2003) Neuropsychology “focuses on understanding mental processes in humans” while Cognitive Neuroscience “is critical to our understanding of the link between brain and mind”. It appears from this that the general area of neuroscience and neuropsychology seeks to go beyond the more traditional anatomical understanding of how the brain functions to examine some of the ‘softer’ functions of ‘why’ and ‘how’ we do what we do in given circumstances.


Since the 1970’s there have been developments in the field of human behaviour which until now have been largely considered to be outside the realms of academia and traditional medicine. Some, such as Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) are rarely viewed from an academic or medical perspective except to be predominantly ridiculed, while others, such as Emotional Intelligence (EI) are considered closer to the academic and psychology world.


Despite the apparent lack of formal support, NLP has evolved to become a global multi-million dollar business with supporters and practitioners claiming continual ‘treatment’ successes while non-supporters continue to dispute the validity of treatments.


Emotional Intelligence (EI) was first put forward by Goleman (1995) as a mechanism used by people to maintain positive interactions and relationships with others (Hayes, 2010, p. 206). Since then others, such as Bar-On & Parker (2000), Caruso & Solvay (2004), Mathews et al. (2004) and Stein & Book (2006) have further explored the concept of EI.


There are definite overlaps between Neuroscience, NLP and EI, despite the traditional academic reticence. The purpose of this piece is to investigate the extent of these overlaps, identify the links between them and establish the neuropsychological basis for all.



Emotional Intelligence (EI)

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is widely accredited to Daniel Goleman (1995). Goleman defined EI as “…the capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.” However during the 1980’s Dr. Reuven Bar-On developed a hypothesis called Emotional Quotient (EQ). Bar-On believed that EI was made up of overlapping skills and attitudes (Stein & Book, 2006, p 2). The Bar-On EQ-i (Emotional Quotient Intelligence) model measures EI under five general theme areas. These areas are subdivided into fifteen sub-scales.


Mayer and Salovey (1997) identified four branches of Emotional Intelligence (Bar-On & Parker, 2000 pp 107-111). The first relates to the person’s capacity to perceive. The second relates to the need for emotions to enter the cognitive system where they progress to the third branch: understanding of the emotion. Finally, there is the fourth branch: emotion management.


If the structure of the brain is examined it is possible to get a sense of where these branches can occur from a cognitive neuroscience point of view. In an area called the Medula there exists what are known as the Cranial nerves. According to Banich and Compton (2003, p 8-15), these are responsible for the receipt of sensory information. The Medula also houses the Reticular Activating System which is important for overall arousal and attention. The Hypothalamus controls behaviour while the Amygdala is thought to play a prominent role in emotional functioning.  The key for both Neuropsychologists and EI administrators is how people can use these parts of the brain to effectively manage their emotions and themselves.


According to Bar-On ( the “Encyclopedia of Applied Psychology states that there are three major models of emotional intelligence:

  1. the Mayer-Salovey model which defines this construct as the ability to perceive, understand, manage and use emotions to facilitate thinking;
  2. the Goleman model which views it as an array of emotional and social competencies that contribute to managerial performance; and
  3. the Bar-On model which describes EI as a cross-section of interrelated emotional and social competencies, skills and facilitators that impact intelligent behavior”


While EI has been broadly accepted in the field of psychology, Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) has not. The next section will examine this area from its inception and establish links between NLP, modern psychology and through our greater understanding of the brain, how NLP is applied to brain function.


Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP)

A definitive (and academic) history of NLP does not exist. Its evolution is somewhat one of legend rather than that of a more formally recorded process. In his article (1996, p29) Ashley Dowlen notes the “degree to which NLP is personalised to these two individuals [Richard Bandler and John Grindler], with far less emphasis being accorded to either the origins of NLP or its subsequent development by others.”


According to NLP sites (,,, et al.) NLP began in the mid 1970’s as a result of the coming together of Richard Bandler (a student of Mathematics and Psychology) and John Grindler (an Associate Professor of Linguistics). Both were at the University of California, Santa Cruz at the time. Bandler had become interested in the work of renowned therapists such as Virginia Satir and Frit Perls and had developed a keen interest in Gestalt Therapy which according to Butler and McManus (1998) looks ‘at the ways in which psychological processes are organised’. Hayes (2010) states that the four Gestalt principles of perception “show how our perceptual system automatically tries to make complete, meaningful units out of the information which it receives.”


At its core NLP is made up of three elements; Neuro (the mind – how we think, feel and imagine), Linguistic (language – speaking, written and unwritten) and Programming (reflects the way ideas and thought are organised into actions).


The NLP model looks at the brain as a computer in the same way that Cognitive Neuroscientists do (Banich, 2003, p2) and (McCrone, 2000, pp 11-13 &18-19). In NLP, it is suggested that every brain has the same basic neurological wiring but that from the moment of birth we become programmed by our environment and our individual experiences which result in our truly unique model of reality (, This theory reflects that of philosophers and scientists such as Hans Vaihinger, Alfred Korzybski and Gregory Bateman (Bandler, 2008, p 20). The key inputs to this programming is controlled by our sensory processes. Through our senses we experience our world and we process them in a way that is truly unique to us.


However, NLP also believes that it is possible to re-program processes that are deemed unsuitable or damaging to (and by) the individual. This is largely done through challenging the person’s perception of reality and their experiences. In the same way that over time a computer can become less effective as it takes in and stores many unnecessary pieces of information, NLP practitioners believe that the brain, which is bombarded by hundreds of thousands of pieces of information (conscious and unconscious) every day, can be re-programmed to be more effective and focussed and ultimately change behaviour.


Bandler (2008, p 21) and Dowlen (1996, p 32) suggest that one of the key differences between NLP and the more mainstream subject of Psychology relates to the fact that while Psychology focuses much of its attention on ‘why’ people become ill, NLP seeks to identify ‘how’ change can be implemented to help the person move forward, that is, Psychology focuses on the past while NLP looks to the future. This is an area of great debate.


However, the diversification of the field of psychology has opened up the potential for similarity in the study of the human brain across many disciplines. One apparent common area of ground lies in the fact that both NLP and specialities such as Cognitive and Neuro psychologists focus on obtaining a greater understanding of behavioural elements of the person. NLP seeks to understand current versus desired behaviours. Cognitive and Neuro psychologists study how people think (Hayes, 2010 p 9) and (Banich, 2003 p 2). They examine the mental processes involved in the taking in and processing of information.


In his book Understanding Psychology (2010, pp 78-81), Dr. Nicky Hayes identifies a form of psychology called Positive Psychology. This is a relatively new phenomenon in psychology which has been accredited to Martin Seligman (1998). The basis of this theory is that “we all have the capacity to live a positive life, but we don’t all do it in the same way.” This type of psychological thinking appears to have very close links with the thinking of NLP. Seligman argued that an optimistic outlook to life could be learned through a change to thought habits .


Before Seligman, therapists used a method called the Pollyanna technique where subjects were encouraged to look for something good (no matter how small) to come from every event or problem (Hayes, 2010, p 81). This ties exactly into the NLP theories of ‘there is no such thing as failure; only feedback’ and the NLP phrase ‘seek the positive in every negative’.


Neuropsychologically NLP uses the power of the mind to control and alter unnecessary or unsuitable behaviours or states and helps the subject to define and set new, more acceptable behaviours. This works very much in the same way as clinical neuropsychologists work with patients with brain damage to help them ‘re-wire’ their neuro pathways in order to regain links and function within the brain.


Probably one of the most visual examples of NLP working with neural pathways lies in the example of medical procedures. For example, contains a video of a dental procedure that was carried out without anaesthetic. In order for such a process to work, the NLP process would have to ‘affect’ the function of a number of brain elements such as the Cranial Nerves, the Reticular Activating System and the Hypothalamus in order to ‘block’ the body’s natural reaction to, and recognition of, pain.


Next we will examine the broader area of Neuropsychology and examine the works of some theorists in the area of Cognitive psychology to see how closely they match to NLP and EI.




Neuropsychology seeks to understand each element of the brain and how it works both individually and in conjunction with other elements.


Before the arrival of Neuropsychology as a formal field of study, many theories had been put forward to try to understand the link between cognition, emotion and clinical psychology. Eysenck and Keane (1990, ch 13, pp 465-497) mention many theories and work that has been conducted in this area by renowned people such as Freud (1915;1943), Zajonc (1980) and Lazarus (1982). It is interesting to see that many of these theorists used terms and discussions that are important to the fields of NLP and EI. According to Eysenck and Keane, Zajonc (1984) questioned whether “untransformed, pure sensory input directly generate emotional reactions?” Eysenck and Keane accept that this question can not yet be answered. Yet working with emotional ‘triggers’ are used in NLP to understand and control a client’s ‘state’ (mood).


Furthermore, Eysenck and Keane (1990) mention Bower’s Network Theory of Affect (1984). At its core, this Theory makes some assumptions which basically views emotions as individual units that are linked to other physical and psychological ‘systems’. These emotions can be triggered by external or internal events. These concepts appear to be very close to the views and approaches to NLP. It should be noted that Bower et al. even used hypnosis to tap into a specific mood or state, just as trance is used in NLP for the exact same purpose. Equally, the experiments that have been conducted by Zajonc, Lazarus and Bower et al. were all focussed on examining the emotions of the subjects


From an EI perspective, the work of theorists like Zajonc (1980), Lazarus (1984) and Bower et al. (1984) focussed on reaching a greater understanding of how people manage emotion and mood which is the core of EI.


Developments in Neuropsychology have further increased understanding of how the brain processes information. For example, it is known that the Hypothalamus controls behaviour (Banich & Compton 2003). This is known as state management in NLP. The links between the Hypothalamus and the Hormonal system are key to a number of internal processes including fight or flight reactions. EI manages how we react to given internal and external stimuli and situations. This implies that a subject with a higher functioning EI can in some way affect the flow of signals from the Hypothalamus resulting in greater ‘control’. Similarly in NLP terms, much of the work involved in this process come with helping the client to manage their ‘state’ or ‘mood’ which involves the control of how we react to events or stimuli. This process must in some way involve the control of ‘signals’ to and from the Hypothalamus.




This document has only begun the process of analysing the concepts behind NLP, EI and their basis in Neuropsychology.


Although not widely accepted (or considered) in more formal psychology and academic circles, NLP taps into many of the same practices as have been explored by theorists such as Zajonc (1980), Lazarus (1984), Bower (1984), and Seligman (1998). All have examined emotion and cognition as well as moods in their research with Bower even using the NLP tool of hypnosis in the experiments. Seligman probably came closest to the ethos of NLP through his theories on happiness and positive psychology where he argued that an optimistic outlook to life could be learned through a change to thought habits.


Similarly through the EI process, current behaviours are measured through the test process. These behaviours are measured across a number of scales and sub-scales and range from Intra-personal through Inter-personal to general mood. The results from this test, provide a starting point for a subject’s emotional improvement through changing habits or behaviours. As with NLP, these changes must take place at the subject’s neuropsychological level for them to be lasting.


Any form of behavioural change requires a change at the neuropsychological level. Using the analogy of computer science (as adopted by many psychologists and neuroscientists) behaviours can be changed through the re-wiring of the pathways within the brain. EI and NLP help identify the changes that need to be made and NLP provides the non-invasive programming tools to make the changes.


It is about time that all approaches to psychology, emotional and behavioural science were reviewed and consolidated into the one field of study. After all, NLP and EI were born out of psychology and were modelled on psychology practices. Neuropsychology has increased the potential for these subjects to be studied at a deeper level as well as opening up possible new avenues of study.


When all is said and done, all three topics are areas of current study and evolution as well as all serving the same purpose; helping clients, patients or subjects.





Books & Articles:

Bandler, Richard, 2008. Make Your Life Great: Guide to Trace-Formation. Great Britain, Harper Element


Banich, Marie T. & Compton, Rebecca J., 2003. Cognitive Neuroscience (International Edition) 3rd Edition, USA, Wadsworth Cengage Learning


Bar-On, Reuvan & Parker, James D.A., 2000. The Handbook of Emotional Intelligence: Theory, Development, Assessment, and Application at Home, School, and in the Workplace, USA, Jossey-Bass


Birholtz, Laura S., 1981. Neurolinguistic Programming: testing some basic assumptions, Dissertation Abstracts International 42(5), 2042-B The Fielding Institute, 131 pp. Pub. = AAC8118324


Butler, Gillian and McManus, Freda. 1998. Psychology: A Very Short Introduction. Great Britain, Oxford University Press.


Caruso, David R. & Salovey, Peter, 2004. The Emotionally Intelligent Manager, USA, Jossey-Bass


Dowlen, Ashley. 1996. NLP – Help or Hype? Investigating the Uses of Neuro-linguistic Programming in Management Learning, Career Development International pp 27-34, UK, MCB University Press


Eysenck, Michael W. & Keane, Mark T., 1990. Cognitive Psychology: A Student’s Handbook, UK, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Ltd.


Goleman, Daniel. 1995. Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. Great Britain, Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.


Hayes, Nicky, 2010. Understand Psychology, Great Britain, Hodder Education


Knight, Sue, 2002. NLP at Work: The Difference that Makes a Difference in Business 2ed. Finland, Nicholas Brealey Publishing


Matthews, G. Zeidner, M. & Roberts, R. D., 2002. Emotional Intelligence: Science and Myth, USA, MIT


McCrone, J., 2000. Going Inside London, Faber & Faber


Stein, Steven J. & Book, Howard E., 2006. The EQ Edge: Emotional Intelligence and Your Success, Canada, John Wiley & Sons (Canada) Ltd.


Teresa (Owner, Admin Solutions)

Completing the iWAM EQ test with Innochan Solutions was a huge eye opener for me. As well as being very accurate it gave me a greater awareness of going from being an employee for over 20 years to being an Owner/Sole Trader for the past two years.


The report was a huge help and lead to some very interesting meetings with Denis who has been very supportive and genuine in his delight when I reached one of goals we had set or when I would realise what I needed to do to achieve them.


Doing the test and subsequent follow up coaching sessions with Denis gave me a much greater focus, determination and drive to succeed and a lot more confidence in running my business. Denis has a great way of tapping into the skills you already have, but may not have been using, and showing you ever so gently how to put all these skills to greater use.


Denis has inspired me to keep going and given me the courage and commitment to know I am on the right track.  I would definitely recommend Denis and his work for any size  of company or business.

New Partnership…

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Denis Coleman will be running Extended DISC training under our banner in Ireland, he will also be facilitating our MA programme (Masters in Applied Coaching) in due course. In addition The Performance Solution will be supporting Denis’ business; InnoChan Solutions, with the accreditation of Coaching courses. So with this in mind we have asked Denis to give us an insight into his journey in becoming a coach…..

Coach, Mentor & Behavioural Change Consultant

The last few years have seen a dramatic change in my work and in my outlook. In 2007, I was introduced to the world of Coaching when my employer (the last one I had) decided to contract an Executive Coach for his senior team (of which I was one). These sessions really opened my eyes. I realised that there was another way to deal with my workload. I was struck by the calmness and focus of the coach.

In 2008, I found myself in need of more coaching and, never one to do things by half, I decided to do a Coaching course rather than just attend a coach. It changed my life. In fact, it had such a dramatic effect that within a few months of obtaining my Diploma, I had left the role of employee and set up my own business. My focus was to bring my growing skills to people with a desire to help people just as I had been helped by coaching. I also wanted to pursue my desire and interest in educating and training others.

Since then, it has been a race to the bottom to gather more information and more qualifications. I started my MA in Coaching & NLP. That opened my eyes to just how much I didn’t actually know. The MA lead me to the world of Emotional Intelligence (EI) and Non-verbal Communication. I obtained special awards at Honours and Masters degree level in EI (including certification in the Bar-On and iWAM EI test methods). I also obtained certification in Extended DISC behavioural analysis and certification in Advanced Micro-expression. Phew!!

But it hasn’t ended there. I have continued with courses in iWAM trainer certification, Certification in Subtle Expression recognition, Higher Professional Skills certification in coaching, finishing the Masters and next year I will be completing the process with university accredited NLP Trainer certification.

Undertaking all this training while trying to set up a new company probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do and to be honest it has been hard to ‘share’ my focus between my own development plans and the development of my company.

Over the last few months, I decided to re-launch my business. Now that most of my courses are in the final stages, I believe I now have something worth selling. I have been strengthening myself, my knowledge and my service offering over the last few years and I am now ready to take them to market. My courses and experience have helped me to clarify who I am and what I do. My focus has become laser sharp, my resolve to succeed has become unbreakable. These changes, I believe, are mostly due to the level of training and development I have pursued since I first started the Coaching Diploma in 2008.

Watch out world…here I come!!