Can Neurolinguistic Programmers Really Retrain Your Brain?

Yesterday’s “mass hypnosis” event on the Dr. Oz show yesterday, 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.” (

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.

Essentially then, this is no different than other large group awareness training programs such as Landmark and Tony Robbins (Robbins is a graduate of NLP). These programs are making their promoters filthy rich, not because they work, but because they are brilliantly marketed as being able to help people achieve their dreams of money, happiness and meaningful relationships.

Take Bandler, for example. He’s making himself a fine living these days selling his programs, which have morphed into all kinds of self-help gimmicks such as PE (Persuasion Engineering™) or MetaMaster Track™, or Charisma Enhancement™, or Trancing™. His penchant for trademarking had one critic accuse him of “trademarking his every burp.”

Grinder on the other hand, has gone the corporate route and joined Carmen Bostic St. Clair in an organization called Quantum Leap, “an international organization dealing with the design and implementation of cross cultural communication systems,” the website claims. St. Clair, also a teacher of NFP, claims to have the rare skill of being able to “elicit unconscious change in individuals and large teams.”

NLP is surprisingly popular among New Age fad followers, but has little or no support in the scientific community. This is because of NLP’s obvious lack of professional credibility along with the fact that there is no empirical evidence to substantiate its claims. Consequently, it has had no little or no impact on academic psychology and only a limited effect on mainstream psychotherapy. The only inroads it seems to have made are among private psychotherapists and hypnotherapists such as Dr. Oz’s pal, Paul McKenna.

For this reason, NLP has been relegated to the regions of New Age self help industry.

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