Neuroscience, Metaphors in Coaching

This is my response to Steve Andreas post of November 2, 2016 in response to earlier posts on the swish, states, neuroscience and the HNLP Meta Pattern.

As usual, I will take a big picture view of the situation. In this post I will focus on two aspects of what Steve says:

  • Firstly, how the swish actually works. We have discussed the swish as classical conditioning, and Steve has raised the idea of the swish as operant conditioning. Another way of explain the swish is as post-hypnotic conditioning. We will explore each of these explanations and what they mean for the swish.

  • Secondly, I will briefly recap the ‘why’ of using neuroscience within change work, and offer a framework within which practitioners can decide whether it is the right ‘metaphor’ for them.

Before we begin, I’m going to put my own pedantic trousers on for just a moment. Steve takes several statements I made in a previous post and say they are wrong, in order to undermine my arguments.

As an example, I say that as a result of Hebb’s Law (‘neurons that fire together, wire together’), neurons become ‘friends’. Steve says they don’t become ‘friends’. I assume he means the neurons don’t go down to the pub together for a beer, which is true. But ‘friends’ is word that is used to describe supportive relationships, not just between two human beings. For example the UK and the US are often described as being ‘friends’ because of their mutual support in areas ranging from trade to defense. Neurons that wire together form mutually reinforcing neural networks, meaning when one neuron in the network fires, the chances are the rest of the neurons will also fire. Given that a neuron's whole existential purpose is to fire, and a neuron's firing is supported by the other neurons in the neuron's network(s), those other neurons are indeed ‘friends’.

I briefly mention a few of the other sillier objections Steve raises:

  • “Electricity doesn’t flow between neurons”. This is true only if you believe electricity is, and is only, something that ConEd delivers to the sockets in your home. In fact, synaptic action is typically electrical in nature. Electricity is defined as the flow of electric charge, and the ‘neurotransmitter chemicals’ Steve discusses are typically electrically charged (i.e. ionic). If you need more information see for example:
  • “Neurons don’t talk to each other”. ‘Talk’ is defined in a wider sense as the exchange of information, which is exactly what neurons do. This is why two computer networks are said to ‘talk’ to each other, and why sign language is sometimes referred to as ‘talking hands’.
  • “Neurons never talk back”. Perhaps Steve is unaware of ‘retrograde signaling’, the hypothesis that post-synaptic neurons do indeed communicate to pre-synaptic neurons. It seems that neurons do indeed talk back.

You will find a number of other similar objections in Steve’s article. OK, time to take my pedantic trousers off and return to the discussion at hand.

What is the underlying mechanism of the swish?

There are (at least) three mechanisms that are often cited as underlying the action of the swish:

Classical conditioning

Classical conditioning within the swish means the outcome picture (and associated neural networks) are linked or chained to the trigger picture through the action of LTP and Hebb’s Law; when your client sees their cigarette packet, their brain automatically generates a picture of their ideal self. This requires repetition.

Classical conditioning is also most relevant mechanism when considering Steve’s theories of the ‘but’ and ‘lap’ joint. I cited research in my last-but-one’ post showing that both types of conditioning are effective, and indeed follow different neural pathways.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning follows the ‘punishment and reward’ mechanism. It is the basis of what Dr. Richard Bandler calls the ‘propulsion system’, meaning the client is lead to move away from their problem at the same time as they move toward their outcome.

Operant conditioning is a great tool to have in your toolkit. In order to use operant conditioning, you must associate the negative aspects of the client’s problem onto the trigger picture, and the positive aspects of their outcome onto their outcome picture.

Incidentally, to incorporate operant conditioning into the swish, you have to build positive aspects into the ‘identity’ picture. Typically means the identity picture will have behaviors associated with it. For example, with a smoker their outcome might include being able to breathe more easily, being able to play soccer with their children, etc. These should be built into the outcome, although of course Steve does not want to include behavioral aspects into the outcome picture which would therefore be problematic for operant conditioning.

There is another issue with stressing operant conditioning as the major mechanism in the swish. That is that the client would have to be in (i.e. associated into) the negative aspects of the problem, and then to shift into the positive aspects of the outcome. This state change will likely take more time than the actual swish. For this reason, I would prefer a slower pattern to utilize operant conditioning; often the ‘Tiger Pattern’ from our smoking protocol.

Post hypnotic suggestion

You can also think of the swish as a way of installing a post hypnotic suggestion.

As with operant conditioning, thinking of the swish as a form of post-hypnotic suggestion requires that there is a suggestion to ‘do something’ when presented with the trigger picture. Again this requires an action be associated with the outcome picture.

In fact, most NLP practitioners would use a pattern such as the six step reframe to install a post hypnotic suggestion, because the six-step utilizes a specific new behavior. Of course, you can also drop your client into trance and use direct suggestion.


Neuroscience and Nuclear Physics as ‘Metaphor’

Steve uses the example of nuclear physics, he states, “I assume that the laws of nuclear physics underlie the practice of therapy, and I also assume that they underlie the process of kissing someone or making a soufflé.” I’m not sure I understand exactly what Steve is saying here, perhaps that because all three process involve matter, which in turn contain atomic nuclei that are governed by nuclear physics that somehow nuclear physics ‘underlies’ them? If so, this is not correct.

Nuclear physics is only relevant if the nuclear forces have some relevance for the process at hand. Because the nuclei of atoms are not changed as a result of change work, kissing or French cooking nuclear physics does not underlie these processes. There is a school of thought, originated by Roger Penrose in his fascinating book ‘The Emperor’s new Mind’, that the brain utilizes quantum phenomena to think. However, I’m not aware of any research that backs this up. So for now nuclear physics and change work are strangers.

In contrast, neuroscience underlies brain activity, and therefore change work. As such quantum physics (or nuclear physics) are at best pure metaphor for change work. Neuroscience is not a strict metaphor for change work because it does actually underlie human brain function, thought, mind and ‘changing your mind, and keeping the change’.

Neuroscience as Road-Map to Change

Steve challenges me to cite any example of neuroscience offering predictions on how to help a client with a problem. Steve doesn’t know of any such examples for an obvious reason, he doesn’t study neuroscience within the context of change work.

The pattern ‘the Fusiform Swish’ was directly developed from my studying the function and action of the brain area known as the ‘fusiform gyrus’. This study predicted that the Fusiform Swish would cause a direct and immediate installation of identity level characteristics, sort of an instant Deep Trance Identification. Which indeed it does; an elegant and effective pattern that was developed directly from neuroscience (I’m teaching the pattern at the IACT conference in Daytona in May 2017 if anyone would like to learn it).

Neuroscience as Metaphor

Steve argues that the best way of motivating a client is to utilize the client’s values for changing, i.e. the ‘why’ of their outcome. This confuses values with beliefs; it is essential to utilize the client’s values around their outcome, but this does not necessarily address their belief that change is possible for them.

Neuroscience offers a complete and powerful set of metaphors to lead the client to believe in change. These metaphors are particularly useful for certain types of client:

  • As Steve says, clients who are at least somewhat externally framed. If they are entirely internally framed, then they will typically not care about external research.
  • Clients who are business people working within an analytical ‘facts and figures’ environment.
  • Clients who are involved in scientific research, often including medical professionals.

Note that the neuroscience metaphors are not recommended for those interested in scientific research who are polarity responders!

Roadmap for Using Neuroscience as Metaphor

You may already have made up your own mind about using neuroscience as ‘metaphor’. Perhaps, like me, you have used these metaphors and discovered how powerful they can be in the right context. That’s why I wrote a book (with my co-author Melissa Tiers) outlining how neuroscience can help coaches, NLPers and hypnotists.

Or perhaps, like Steve, you have already decided that there is nothing of relevance to learn about human change within neuroscience.

If you are still on the fence, I would invite you to begin using neuroscience in your change work and see if it is effective for your clients. You could do worse than read my and Melissa’s book. Otherwise a great way to start is to learn something about ‘working memory’.

Working memory is a ‘virtual’ brain area that guides all short term behaviors. It consists of three parts: 

  • A movie screen, which projects a picture or plays a short movie clip on the client’s inner movie screen
  • A soundtrack that plays a short audio clip related to the movie. This may be sound or dialogue.
  • A ‘title’, what the movie means.

This minor piece of neuroscientific knowledge can be used to frame many NLP or hypnosis techniques, from visualizations (including NLP techniques such as the swish), to ‘inner-voice’ work, to meaning reframes. They work because they utilize working memory, and that my friends, is scientifically proven.


Again I’d like to thank Steve for adding this discussion for the benefit of our readers, and taking the good natured teasing that both his and my articles contain, in the right spirit.