Recently, I’ve been looking for neuroscience links for the concepts used in NLP. This is not necessarily going to make NLP more effective, but it does help us to explain NLP more coherently in terms of what is or what may be happening in the brain. So many of the concepts of NLP are still rooted in the ideas that Bandler and Grinder came up with in the 1970s and 1980s and it would be nice to be able to frame them in more rational and scientific terms.
In some cases, of course, the concepts claimed by NLP practitioners are not supported by science. For example, there was a recent research study into the use of eye movements to detect lying, based on the rather simplistic notion that an upper left eye movement (visual recall) corresponds to the truth and an upper right eye movement (visual construct) corresponds to a lie. This was a claim made on some NLP websites and it is one that deserved to be debunked. I have my own doubts about other areas of NLP which are still considered gospel such as the notion of Preferred Representational System (PRS). While some people definitely do have a PRS, for many people I believe that it varies with context, and for some people it does seem to vary fairly randomly. If solid research can help us to identify those areas which need to be debunked, that is a very good thing indeed because it helps us to move forward towards a more rational form of NLP. In NLP, we are always primarily interested in knowing what works, but ultimately it is a whole lot nicer and easier to teach to others when there is evidence supporting both the results and the underlying theory.
So back to the topic of this post which is meta programs, or more specifically the first four metaprograms as taught in many NLP practitioner courses which correspond to the Myers Briggs Type Indicators.
Extrovert – Introvert
iNtuitor – Perceiver
Thinker – Feeler
Judger – Perceiver
If you’re not familiar with them, do a search on Google and you’ll find lots of descriptions of how to elicit them and ‘apply’ them.
Searching for Neuroscience Correlates for MBTI
This page briefly discusses some conjectures about how MBTI (the first four meta programs of NLP) may have correlates in neurobiology. The discussion on this page and elsewhere on the net seem to imply the strongest support for a neural basis to the Extravert-Intravert distinction.
Niednagel associates Extraversion with the front of the brain (anterior to the central sulcus) and Introversion with the back of the brain (posterior to the central sulcus). Most of the areas in the brain that initiate action and speech are located in the front of the brain, while the back of the brain gathers and processes data.
The same writer, Nidenagel, seems to place judging (J) in the left side of the brain and perceiving in the right side of the brain.
This all seems a little vague to me and I haven’t managed to turn up any actual PET scans or similar scans that might indicate these areas in the brain.
In NLP terms, the MBTI are referred to as meta programs and ‘program’ can be understood as a high-level strategy that runs behind and controls many of our other strategies. While it was originally suggested that meta programs were fixed, many NLP trainers (e.g. Michael Hall) now give techniques for trying on and adopting a different metaprogram. All of the MBTI distinctions are probably best viewed as skills.
Like many of the concepts in NLP, MBTI seems to be a relatively outdated classification system and one that has been largely replaced in psychology by a system of five distinctions.
You can see the “Big Five personality traits” model on Wikipedia.
The factors of the Big Five and their constituent traits can be summarized as:
- Openness to experience – (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious). Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience. Openness reflects the degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity and a preference for novelty and variety. Some disagreement remains about how to interpret the openness factor, which is sometimes called “intellect” rather than openness to experience.
- Conscientiousness – (efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless). A tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement; planned rather than spontaneous behavior; organized, and dependable.
- Extraversion – (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved). Energy, positive emotions, surgency, assertiveness, sociability and the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others, and talkativeness.
- Agreeableness – (friendly/compassionate vs. cold/unkind). A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others.
- Neuroticism – (sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident). The tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability. Neuroticism also refers to the degree of emotional stability and impulse control, and is sometimes referred by its low pole – “emotional stability”.
An older version of this model has been around since 1961 but it has only become widely used since the 1990s. The supporters of the Big Five model suggest that these characteristics “contain and subsume most known personality traits and are assumed to represent the basic structure behind all personality traits.” The model uses a test called the OCEAN test whose letters are made up of the five characteristics.
Some (e.g. http://www.outofservice.com/bigfive/) report a correlation between the MBTI and the Big Five.
O = N/S Strong Correlation (70%)
E = E/I Strong Correlation (75%)
C = J/P Moderate Correlation (45%)
A = F/T Moderate Correlation (40%)
N = (Not present).
Or rewriting this to match the standard MBTI order, we get:
Extrovert/Introvert ~ Extraversion
iNtuitor/Sensor ~ Openness
Thinker/Feeler ~ Agreeableness
Judger/Perceiver ~ Conscientiousness
There is a much larger volume of research connecting neuroscience and the Big 5 (compared to MBTI).
One research study is available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3049165/
The researchers studied the biological basis of the Big Five personality traits to “generate hypotheses about the association of each trait with the volume of different brain regions.” They carried out structural magnetic resonance imaging of 116 healthy adults. I have reformatted part of the abstract below for readibility:
Openness was not included in this study.
Conscientiousness covaried with volume in lateral prefrontal cortex, a region involved in planning and the voluntary control of behavior.
Extraversion covaried with volume of medial orbitofrontal cortex, a brain region involved in processing reward information.
Agreeableness covaried with volume in regions that process information about the intentions and mental states of other individuals.
Neuroticism covaried with volume of brain regions associated with threat, punishment, and negative affect.
The researchers claim that “these findings support our biologically based, explanatory model of the Big Five and demonstrate the potential of personality neuroscience (i.e., the systematic study of individual differences in personality using neuroscience methods) as a discipline.”
I have also pasted a copy of their image below.
If you are interested in reading more and actually making any sense of this image, please check out the original article which is available in full at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3049165/figure/F1/
This is a fun journey into understanding what is going on in the brain and how we can help people most effectively with NLP. Whether these two goals are actually connected or not doesn’t necessarily take away from the fun 😉