Submodalities in Language

Submodalities in Language

“And a voice spoke to him on the hilltop, a voice neither male nor female, loud nor soft, a voice infinitely kind. And the voice said unto him, ‘Not my will, but thine be done. For what is thy will is mine for thee. Go thy way as other men, and be thou happy on the earth.'” 

“Illusions” Richard Bach.

One of the most frustrating things watching counsellors work was their absence of knowledge about submodalities. In “Magic In Action” Bandler gives a great example of a client who says that she needs some “distance” from her problems:

Susan: “Okay, I have a problem with a fear that is almost disabling to me at certain times. When I have it I sort of go into panic attacks. What I would like to do is distance myself so that when I’m in the situation that I wouldn’t experience the fear to the degree that I have it. Where I can control myself and make better decisions.”

Richard Bandler. Magic In Action, p7.

As Bandler suggests, the clients interviewed by the counsellors that I observed all said something similar eventually but this was continuously missed by their counsellor. Whilst most NLP Practitioners are familiar with the VAKO/G modalities and their expressions through language, a deeper understanding of the submodalities reveal that far more is going on with language than it first appears.

Now before I go on to the examples, a quick word on a neurological aspect of what is going on. As a massive generaLIEsation the neural pathways that process “how?” questions are different to those that process “what, why, when?” questions. Asking a “why?” will generally elicit a lengthy verbal explanation that will be full of nominalizations. “How?” questions are processed differently and will elicit primarily visual predicates where submodality language is used.

“The bodily changes themselves are not specific to the precise mix of guilt-affection-irritation that has been assembled in the cortical association area. A shot of adrenaline, for example, will make people feel angry or elated according to their situation. But when the shakes and tingles, butterflies, breathlessness and muscle tension come to the attention of the conscious brain it interprets them in accordance with its preconceived notion. The sequence is: ‘I think I should be feeling something,’ followed by ‘it must be anger.’

Even at this stage an emotion has not come to full flowerandrequires yet another round of cognitive processing. Emotional expression requires some sort of bodily action. It may be a sob, a blow, a dash for safety or just the insertion of a slightly jarring tone into an otherwise neutral vocal statement.

It is quite common for people to be able to feel emotion but to be quite unable to express it. These people, whose condition is known as alexythymia, are in a different situation to thosewho cannot express emotion because they do not feel it to start with. The inability to express felt emotion probably arises when there is some disruption in the neural connections between the cortical (unconscious) emotional processing areas and the brain regions that control facial expression., speech and the other physical means by which emotions are displayed. If, for example, the break lies between the emotional brain and the speech areas in the left hemisphere, the result may be a curious flatness of voice. Such people say, in quite a neutral tone: ‘I am very angry.’ Then, aware that the statement has some shortcoming, they might add: ‘and I mean it.'”

“Mapping the Mind.” Rita Carter.

From experience, ‘Why-questions’ will generally elicit meta-programs and beliefs whilst ‘How-questions’ will elicit submodalities. For more information on meta-programs, “Word That Change Minds” by Shelle Rose Charvet is probably one of the best books for the NLP Practitioner to study.

“How?” questions tend to elicit sensory-specific (visual?) data, whilst “why?” questions tend to elicit lengthy, verbal descriptions full of nominalizations. It is possible that these different pathways travel across the visual/auditory cortex’s respectively.

Some examples.

Two clients complaining of depression consulted me, I saw them both together. I asked them, “What would you like me to do for you today?”

Client one answered: “I would like you to brighten up my life.” Subsequent elicitation showed that virtually all of her pictures were dull. Her voice was flat in tone also.

Client two answered, “I need some colour in my life.” Elicitation demonstrated that her pictures were, almost without exception, in black and white. Her voice was monotone. She described her self as a “dullard” and “boring”.

With exercises, beginning by varying voice tonalities and postures and moving on to brightening and adding more colour to their pictures, both clients were able to remove much of their physical symptoms (“clinical signs”) during that afternoon.

Oliver Sacks gives an interesting description of an artist who had suffered damage to his V4 visual region, rendering him totally colour blind:

“Music, curiously, was impaired for him too, because he had previously had an extremely intense synaesthesia, so that different tones had immediately been translated into colour, and he experienced all music simultaneously as a rich tumult of inner colours. With the loss of the ability to generate colour, he lost this ability as well – his internal ‘colour organ’ was out of action, and he heard music with no visual accompaniment; this, for him, was music with it’s essential chromatic counterpart missing, music was now radically impoverished.” 

“Anthropologist on Mars.” p9.

It is my contention that submodalities are a function of the mind. And that submodality co-ordinates exist between visual and auditory representational systems. For example, make a picture bigger and the sound will get louder. Make a picture more colourful, the pitch will raise (for some, but not all people). Affect one system, and you will impact upon the other. The effect of submodalities is based on the individual’s real-world experience out external events. For example, most people feel better when they get a physical distance from the thing that bothers them. The same will be true for an internal representation of the same event. People who have grown up with television are used to have representations in frames/borders. I found that the following discussion with some Nepali people living in the mountains – without contact with television – very few produced visual representations that were not panoramic.


“I am overwhelmed by the size of the problem.”
“It started of as a small issue, then it blew out of all proportion.”
“It’s only a very small problem.”
“It’s a big issue.”


“I need to have some colour in my life.”
“I see the world only in black and white terms.”
“Everything in my life is so drab.”


“I need to brighten up my life.”
“My life is so dull.”
“He seems so dark and mysterious.”
“It was a dark period in my life.”


“I can’t seem to focus on the solution.”
“Everything seems so blurred.”
“I see it like it happened yesterday.” (This also demonstrates where it is on the time line.)
“It happened in a blur.”
“He has a sharp wit.”


“This problem seems to follow me everywhere I go.”
“The solution was just staring me in the face.” (Remember, the amygdalas track eye movement and facial expression).
“I cannot seem to move forward in my life.”
“I wish I could just put the problem behind me and move on.”


“I need to get a different angle on this.”
“I want to see this from a different angle.”


“I want to get a different perspective on this.”
“I need to see this from a different position.”
“I see it like it is really happening to me all over again.”
“I need to disassociate myself from the blame for this.”


“I need some distance from this.”
“I just wish I could run away from my problems.”
“It’s too close for comfort.”


“It’s racing through my mind.”
“It’s all over so quickly.”
“I just get stuck and can’t get the picture from my mind.”
“It stares me in the face.”

Most people will slip these descriptions into their “story” of their problem and often offer more than one submodality. For example, “The depression is really weighing me down and follows me everywhere I go. I just want to put it behind me and leave it there. I want a brighter future and to move on with my life.” However, whilst clients are not always this precise they will only offer such descriptions if the right questions are asked of them. The counsellors I observed were chasing the cause of the problem. Their listening filters were attuned only for the suspects and were filtering out any process. The clients responded to this quickly and started offering only information that the counsellor responded to:

“Following pop guru John Bradshaw, Bass and Davis spend another chapter encouraging women to contact their wounded, innocent ‘child within,’ to reconnect with, ‘her softness, her sense of trust and wonder.’ Essentially, this entails a literal regression to childhood in which adult women decorate whole rooms as though for a five-year-old. ‘I’m going to build a tent out of bed sheets and we’ll [referring to herself and her inner child] sit inside and read stories by flashlight,’ one Survivor writes”

Meanwhile, being a little more pragmatic, Bandler suggests in Magic In Action (P28):

The student of NLP will notice that although the session with Susan is very short, it was lasting and powerful. The importance of distance as the critical parameter is demonstrated in two ways – first, by using the swish pattern with the parameter of size, which didn’t prove pervasive enough for Susan to maintain. Then, in repeating the process and adding distance as a parameter, I achieved a lasting effect.

Students of NLP should keep in mind that it always takes two analogue and one digital submodality for the swish pattern to produce lasting change.

The two main “relay stations” in the brain are the thalamus (all sensory information except olfaction) and the limbic system (emotion/memory). Richard Cytowick, in his brilliant book, “The Man Who Tasted Shapes”, experimented various drugs with his patient, Michael, testing for effects upon his synaesthesia:

Michael was amazed that something external, like the poppers [amyl nitrate], could influence his synaesthesia given that he was unable to alter it by his own will power. By itself, amyl nitrate did not cause synaesthesia, but it was exactly what I had been looking for in a limbic-brain enhancer. As the [blood] vessels relax, their diameter increases and this causes the blood pressure to plummet. Although the heart increases its pumping in an effort to compensate, the net effect on the brain is a sharp but temporary drop in pressure at the end of the circulatory line, which happens to be the cortex. Without adequate blood flow, neural function abates. Amyl nitrate temporarily slashes blood flow to the cortex, suppressing it; this enhances the relative activity of the limbic brain.

The drug’s clinical effects include a withdrawal into the self, slowing of time such that music seems slower or more distant, metamorphosia, disinhibition, and heightening of ecstatic throng. There is an oceanic state of oneness with the sexual partner, a sense of heightened orgasm, and an abandonment of judgement.

Its effects are consistent with a marked enhancement of sensual pleasures subserved by the limbic brain with a corresponding dissolution of higher judgement.

Synaesthesia is common in a milder form to that described by Cytowick. In strategy elicitation, it is not unusual to find a sensory modality crossover such as, “I look at the drug and I begin to feel great, as I tell myself that I am going to have it real soon.” (V-A-K is the correct sequence – “as I tell myself“). We find a great many apparently synaesthesic patterns in everyday descriptions, such as:

“She has a colourful personality.”
“It was a blue Monday.”
“I’ve got the blues.”
“It was a dull concert.”
“It was a tasteless joke.”
“He isn’t very bright.”
“It was a grim job.”
“It was a blue movie.”
“He is a vivid character.”
“His essence filled the room.”
“He couldn’t get to grips with the task at hand.”

In these statements, the verbal “submodality” is a description of the analogue relationship the speaker forms with the target.

Studying the communications between rehabilitation nurses and aphasic (left hemispheric damaged) patients and the language patterns of schizophrenics (right hemispherically impaired), I am going to posit that submodalities are a function of the right hemisphere, whereas the content is processed primarily by the hemisphere to the left.

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Brain, Mind and Language