Blog Post

A Cautionary Note About Neurolinguistic Programming

BB writes: "A parishioner at my church is offering NLP at her health food store. It sounds kind of New Agey to me. Can you tell me more?

It's tough to pin down an exact description of NLP (neuro linguistic programming) 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.

If this sounds a bit “New Agey” to you, it should, because the founders of NLP were influenced by the shamanism of Carlos Canstanedas and its basic tenets draw from the New Age’s Human Potential Movement. This is why NLP remains a pseudoscience and, in the opinion of some sociologists and anthropologists, is a quasi-religion. One researcher claims it is akin to a syncretistic folk religion "that attempts to wed the magic of folk practice to the science of professional medicine.”

For those who have never heard of it, “A literal translation of the phrase 'Neuro Linguistic Programming' is that NLP empowers, enables and teaches us to better understand the way our brain (neuro) processes the words we use (linguistic) and how that can impact on our past, present and future (programming). It gives us strategies for observing human behavior and learning from the best (and worst) of that!”

Practitioners sometimes use the example of a fear of snakes. 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.

Practitioners make various exaggerated claims such as how NLP can treat phobias, depression, learning disorders, PTSD, in a single session, none of which has proven true under scientific study.

One of the reasons why NLP has so little support in the scientific community is because these theories have never been proven credible. In this paper, published in 2012 in the British Journal of General Practice, researchers concluded: “There is little evidence that NLP interventions improve health-related outcomes. This conclusion reflects the limited quantity and quality of NLP research, rather than robust evidence of no effect. There is currently insufficient evidence to support the allocation of NHS resources to NLP activities outside of research purposes.”

Similar results were found by researchers at the University of Reading who published a paper in 2019 stating that their review of the evidence for NLP revealed no evidence to support its claims.

“Given this review, we have no hesitation in coming to the view that coaching psychologists and those interested in evidenced based coaching would be wise to ignore the NLP brand in favour of models, approaches and techniques where a clear evidence base exists. However, moving forward, we might take with us the dream of drawing together a unified model of coaching which brings the best of all approaches, but leaves the sales hype and unsubstantiated miracle change claims behind."

In addition, the scientific community views NLP as being based on outdated ideas about how the brain works.

One of the most concerning issues about NLP is that it is too often being offered to the public by practitioners who are not mental health professionals or in seminars and on-line “workshops” by presenters who lack the necessary credentials to be coaching people on their neurological health.

As this article explains in Psychology Today, “An NLP therapist should be a licensed mental health professional, social worker, or therapist with additional training in NLP interventions and techniques through workshops and mentorship programs.

Too many online establishments offer NLP training to anyone who wants it without requiring them to be credentialed mental health professionals.

In conclusion, NLP is not considered to be scientifically valid, has dubious roots, and is too often practiced by non-credentialed people, many of whom are also involved in New Age energy work and other modalities. It is difficult to comprehend why any Christian would want to engage in it when there are so many other well-founded, proven and effective methods available.