History of NLP Series #9: On The Shoulder Of Giants

[This article is adapted from the International Society of Neuro-Semantics (ISNS). Originally written by the co-developer of Neuro-Semantics NLP, Dr. L. Michael Hall, in Meta Reflections #41 (2010) in September 13, 2010.]

In spite of all of the hype and myths about NLP, the models and field of NLP did not appear all of a sudden just from the work of Richard Bandler and John Grinder. In many ways, they were just the final catalysts who brought together the thinking, spirit, and focus of many others. And to a great extent they just happened upon what we today call NLP, it was not a thought-out plan or strategy. It was as much coincidence and accident as anything else.

For example, did you know that long, long before Bandler or Grinder were even born, Alfred Korzybski was conducting Neuro-Linguistic Trainings around the United States as a way of making General Semantics known? Yes, that’s right. That occurred during the 1940s. Today we recognize Korzybski as one of the giants upon whose shoulders NLP stands. He set forth the presupposition that “The map is not the territory” as well as the terms “neuro-linguistic,” and “neuro-semantics.” And long before Grinder ever used the words “first access,” Korzbyski mapped out the multiple levels of “abstracting” that occur in our nervous system long before it reaches conscious awareness. He called that the “before words” level of abstracting.

And long, long before the idea of modeling excellence dawned in the midst of either Bandler or Grinder, Abraham Maslow was actually engaged in modeling self-actualizing people. After writing an exhaustive volume on Abnormal Psychology, Maslow turned his energies to the highest and best in human nature, the “Farther Reaches of Human Nature” and began modeling people who showed some of the characteristics of self-actualization. In fact, he began with one of the co-founders of Gestalt Psychology, Max Wertheimer. This was the man who Fritz Perls later followed as he developed Gestalt Therapy. Maslow also modeled Ruth Benedict, the mentor of Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson’s first wife.

Maslow and Rogers, in the 1930s and 1940s, then set out the foundations of Humanistic Psychology, the psychology of the Human Potential Movement of which Perls, Satir, and Bateson were second generation leaders and who worked together at Esalen. These were the giants upon whose shoulders Bandler and Grinder stood and which enabled them to create the synthesis called NLP.

And there were others. NLP was also founded, in part, on the work of the two men who founded the field of Cognitive Psychology. Both Noam Chomsky and George Miller are each credited as the founder of the Cognitive movement beginning in 1956. Chomsky because of his work in founding Transformational Grammar — the first tool that J. Grinder used to create the Meta-Model of Language and that defeated Behaviorism as the dominant model in psychology. Miller for his classic 1956 paper, “The Magic Number 7 plus-or-minus 2″ and for his 1960 book on “Plans and the Structure of Behavior” that introduced the TOTE model which Bandler, Grinder, DeLozier, Dilts and others used to create the Strategy Model in NLP.

And others— of course, the work of Milton Erickson in hypnosis and hypnotic language patterns, Virginia Satir which brought in systems thinking. There was Gregory Bateson the professor at the University at Santa Cruz whose work on meta-levels, double-bind theory, anthropology, systems work, and general creativity powerfully influenced and enriched the NLP model.

The point? NLP was inevitable. The idea of stepping back from structures of excellence and using various tools and models — General Semantics, Transformational Grammar, Human Potentials,Gestalt,Systems,etc. AlreadytheSelf-Actualization Psychology of Maslow had encouraged a new strengths-focus in many areas—education, therapy, training and development, etc. It had encourage people to look for and explore human potentials and to begin to look at and model positive examples.

What NLP added to this spirit of the times in the 1960s and 1970s was that using two sound disciplines—linguistics and neurology— they intentionally sought to understand the structure of an experience apart from the content details (the story). And with that focus, they were able to identify some component pieces of “mind” and “body” and that’s what gave them some control and management in replicating excellence. And with that the modeling of NLP began.

Korzbyski calls this whole process time-binding. This refers to our ability to bind into our very being— our minds and neurology— the learnings, insights, and discoveries of people who went before us so that we don’t have to reinvent everything with every generation. Ideally, we could begin each generation where the previous one left off. Using symbols (language) I can take what Aristotle or Einstein or Maslow or Bateson or anyone else and bind what they learned and make it mine. This is “standing on the shoulders of giants” so that we can see further, so that we can progress to the next level of development and not have to start all over again.


CY Soh
CY Soh

CY Soh is a Certified NLP Master Trainer (NLPU), Licensed Neuro-Semantics NLP Trainer (ISNS), a speaker, and performance coach who works with leaders and executives to create personal breakthroughs, performance improvement, and achieve high-impact results. He is also a trader and a CMT charterholder.