Blog Post

Can Neurolinguistic Programmers Really Retrain Your Brain?

THIS ARTICLE WAS REVISED AND UPDATED IN APRIL 2020

A "mass hypnosis" event on the Dr. Oz show that occurred several years ago, which featured popular British self-help guru Paul McKenna, has people asking about the neuro linguistic programming (NLP) he claims to use to help people lose weight.

What exactly is NLP?

It's tough to pin down an exact description of NLP because the people who founded it, and those who practice it, use such vague and ambiguous language that it means different things to different people. Common denominators seem to be that NLP helps people to change habits/behaviors by teaching them how to re-program their brains. Proponents claim we're given a brain, but no "users manual," and that NLP is the users manual. It's "software for the brain" they say.

A proponent's website explains how it supposedly works:

"The neuro linguistic therapist will analyze every word and phrase you use in describing your symptoms or concerns about your health. He or she will examine your facial expressions and body movements. After determining problems in your perception, the therapist will help you understand the root cause. The therapist will help you remodel your thoughts and mental associations in order to fix your preconceived notions. These preconceived notions may be keeping you from achieving the success you deserve. NLP will help you get out of these unhealthy traits and replace them with positive thoughts, and patterns that promote wellness." (http://www.holisticonline.com/hol_neurolinguistic.htm)

The site uses a fear of snakes as an example. One person can pick up a snake and cuddle it like a pet cat, while another recoils in absolute terror. NLP is supposedly able to "reprogram" your brain by getting to the root of this fear and helping you to think in a whole new way about snakes.

NLP was developed in the 1970s at the University of California at Santa Cruz by a linguist named John Grinder and a mathematician named Richard Bandler. The two wondered how people of the same background could have such different life outcomes, with some being enormously successful and others not so much. They wondered what made some people become high performers and decided to make a kind of "model" out of them by studying how they communicated - verbally, body language, eye movement, etc. Once they did this, the two claimed to be able to make out patterns of thinking that helped these people achieve success and theorized that the brain could be taught to learn these healthy patterns and behaviors. This is how NLP came about.

"The basic premise of NLP is that the words we use reflect an inner, subconscious perception of our problems. If these words and perceptions are inaccurate, they will create an underlying problem as long as we continue to use and to think them. Our attitudes are, in a sense, a self-fulfilling prophecy," the site explains.

One of the reasons why NLP has so little support in the scientific community is because these theories have never been proven credible. As this article in Medical News Today reports, "A paper published in 2009 concluded that after three decades, the theories behind NLP were still not credible, and evidence for its effectiveness was only anecdotal."

In addition, a 2010 review found that of 33 studies, only 18 percent supported NLP's underlying theories.

Whether or not the practice works in a clinical setting is another unknown.

"So, despite more than 4 decades of its existence, neither the effectiveness of NLP or the validity of the theories have been clearly demonstrated by solid research," Medical News Today reports. "The broad ideas that NLP is built upon, and the lack of a formal body to monitor its use, mean that the methods and quality of practice can vary considerably. In any case, clear and impartial evidence to support its effectiveness has yet to emerge."

Because NLP is surprisingly popular among New Age followers, people should be warned that practitioners may be involved in other New Age activities.

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