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Earcleaning and the Submodalities of Sound

Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Brian Cullen
NLP can be described as the structure of subjective reality. In other words, NLP focuses not on the physical phenomena themselves but rather how people perceive them and take meaning from them. The key presupposition of NLP is: The Map is Not the Territory. What is happening in the world is not the same as how people perceive it. It is useful to think of this presupposition in terms of our major senses such as seeing and hearing, what would be termed visual and auditory modalities in NLP terminology.
Like many languages, English makes a clear distinction between the map and the territory for the visual and auditory modalities. The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers the following definitions:
to see: to perceive by the eye
to watch: to keep someone or something under close observation
to hear: to perceive or apprehend by the ear
to listen: to pay attention to sound
Both sets of definition echo the distinction between the map and the territory, the difference between the physical and the psychological worlds. Hearing is the physical act of sound entering the ear and represents the territory, the “objective” world of sound waves travelling through the air, entering our ears, and eventually reaching our brain through a series of transformations. Listening is the much more subjective map. We listen or pay attention to a certain sound because we are looking for information or meaning within it because our map of the world suggests to us that that particular sound may provide information that is useful in some way.
When I was teaching a graduate class on the use of sound in language and society, the students came up with the following table to explain some of the differences between “hearing” and “listening.”

Table 1. Differences between hearing and listening
Hearing Listening
No attention/unconscious Attention/focus/conscious
Automatic Intended
Sound Meaning
Passive Active
Physical Psychological

The students have effectively pointed out some of the important differences between hearing and listening and their examples echo the distinctions made in the definitions given above. We all know the difference between hearing and listening and we are all aware that listening is the way in which people use the sound in the environment around them to make sense of the world.
The interface between a person and the environment is of course, the ears. The human ear is truly an amazing piece of equipment, but what is surprising is how little we think about how to use it effectively. When you buy a new computer, telephone, or microwave over, you may have read the manual to find out all the functions and to learn how to use it in the most useful ways. Or perhaps you didn’t, and instead you played with the machine for a while to figure out how it worked. The world seems to be divided into the kind of people who read manuals and those who don’t. One approach is not necessarily better than the other, but it is nice to have a manual available so that we can refer to it if we can’t work out a function by playing. It would be nice if there was a manual for our ears. There isn’t, however, so we have to play, explore, and work it out ourselves. One of the first steps in exploring the functionality of the ears is what Scahfer (1969) and others have called earcleaning.
When we talk about earcleaning, we don’t just mean taking the wax out of your ears! We also mean paying more attention to the sounds that you hear so that you get more information from your environment. Below is a simple exercise that has been adapted from Schafer (1969) and other sources.

Earcleaning Activity

1. List all the sounds you can hear around you for 2~3 minutes.

2. Volume of Sounds

List sounds in order from loudest to most quiet

3. Length and Recurrence of sound

Is the sound …
Continuous ( C )
Repeating   ( R )
Unique   ( U )

4. Locating Sounds

Draw a circle.
Inside the circle draw the sounds that you made.
Outside, draw other sounds in the direction and at the distance that you heard them.

5. Classifying Sounds

What is the source of the sound?
Natural (N)
Human (H)
Technological (T)
Made by yourself (X)

6. Moving Sounds

Is the sound …?
Stationary (S)
Moving towards you (M+)
Moving away from you (M-)

Submodalities of Sound

In NLP, we might refer to the process of earcleaning as an exploration of the submodalities of sound. The primary modalities that humans perceive are related to the five senses and are shown below, along with examples of the submodalities of each. For those readers who aren’t familiar with the concept of submodalities, the table below gives some examples.

Table 2. Modalities, senses, and submodalities
Modality Sense Sample submodalities
visual see size, colour or b/w, moving or still
auditory hear loud or soft, near or far
kinesthetic feel warm or cool, rough or smooth
gustatory taste spicy, salty
olfactory smell strong/weak

Submodalities of sound help us to focus on particular aspects of information within the sounds that we hear. The earcleaning exercise above was a good example of focusing on different submodalities in order to clean the ears or to raise our wareness of the richness of the information that is available to us in the sounds that we hear. While we cannot escape our maps of the world completely, describing the submodality in “objective” physical terms is an attempt to describe the territory, while describing it in “subjective” psychological terms is a recognition that each person’s map is different and that a sound will convey different meaning to each person. For example, a musician listening to a piece of music will probably receive different information to a non-musician because their maps are different. Another way to say this is that the musician and non-musician focus on different submodalities of the music and are able to draw different information from the submodalities.
In the earcleaning exercise above, some of the submodalities practiced were loudness, length and recurrence, location, type of sound, and movement of sound source. Below, I have given some other useful submodalities of sound that you can become aware of. Some of them are most useful when you are listening to non-verbal sounds or music. Others such as tonality are very useful when you are trying to raise your sensory acuity of the use of sound in speech.

  • Source of sound
  • Tempo
  • Changes in volume, pitch, or other submodality
  • Tonality
  • Timbre of sound
  • Tempo
  • High or low pitch
  • Mono or stereo
  • Inflections in speech
  • Pauses in stream of sound
  • Duration
  • Rhythm
  • Source of voice (who?)
  • Background sound or foreground sound

Have fun with your practice in identifying these submodalities in the sounds that you hear around you. Earcleaning is  a good awareness-raising exercise to carry out, and it can be done easily wherever you are. Doing it at the train station, in a busy city street, in your bedroom, or sitting next to a mountain stream will all enrichen your awareness of the sounds around us and the information that we can perceive from them. What is important to remember is that the more that you practice making these distinctions, the more you will be able to use the submodalities of sound effectively in your own life and in your NLP processes.
Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Brian Cullen,
Associate Professor, Nagoya Institute of Technology

NLP Coaching and Training

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Book Review: My Lessons with Kumi

I met Michael Colgrass when he took on the role of a trainer at our NLP course at NLPU in Santa Cruz this summer. I say that he took on the role because Michael is a fascinating and inspirational man who takes on many roles throughout his life. From a very young age, he fell in love with the drums and went on to become a professional jazz drummer. Later, he studied composition and wrote extensively for drums. Along the way, he became a clown and many other things besides. Also, along the way, he met John Grinder who decided to model him which led to Michael’s long-term interest in NLP.
My Lessons with Kumi is the ultimate expression of this interest in NLP by a person who has truly lived the spirit of NLP and the striving for excellence in his own life. Michael is a highly congruent person and the same inspirational spirit comes to his audience whether he is talking, standing on his head, dancing, playing the drums, or taking on the role of an author in this book.
My Lessons with Kumi is very different to most NLP books. Rather than being a straightforward description of the presuppositions, concepts, and processes of NLP,  the book is written as a fictional account of Nick who is having problems in his work, relationships, and health and who has decided to find answers. In the book, the character Kumi is clearly helping Nick to naturally develop the concepts of NLP through exercises and raising of self-awareness, but the word NLP never actually occurs within its pages.
As we read about Nick’s growth at Kumi’s cabin in the mountains and later in New York City, people who have undergone their own development through NLP will recognize many of their own experiences, but in a very readable style almost completely absent of the terminology of NLP that can sometimes be off-putting and sound pseudo-scientific.
In this easy-to-follow narrative, Kumi guides Nick through standard NLP techniques and concepts such as submodalities, anchoring of resourceful states, modelling and role-models, somatic syntax, logical levels and much more. Colgrass also draws on his other life experiences as a performer to include important areas such as voice projection, tuning the human instrument, and silent performing.
For those who are already familiar with NLP, this book offers a new perspective in which to explore it, as well as a different form of metaphor which can be used to explain it to others. For readers who are not familiar with NLP, this book will be an interesting introduction to the subject which can teach at an unconscious level as well as a conscious level.
The book is divided into two parts a) the narrative of Kumi and Nick and b) Nick’s notes on the exercises. Part b at the back of the book provides a completely different perspective on the narrative and an additional way to use the book. In each case, Nick has transformed his experience with Kumi into an exercise. In other words, he has recreated many NLP exercises through modelling of the experiences that he went through with Kumi. This model of modelling provides a pathway to the very core of NLP and is a fine example of how NLP is ultimately the pursuit of the structure of excellence and of ways in which we allow others to replicate that excellence.
I highly recommend getting a copy of My Lessons With Kumi, a book that lives up to its two subtitles: “How I learned to perform with confidence in life and in work” and “…enlightens as it entertains.”
Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Brian Cullen,
Associate Professor, Nagoya Institute of Technology

NLP Coaching and Training

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Book Review: NLP–The New Technology of Achievement

I bought this book after seeing some videos online by Steve Andreas and being very impressed by his sincerity. The same sincerity comes through in NLP: The New Technology of Achievement. The other members of the writing team include Charles Faulkner and Suzi Smith, and along with several others they comprised the NLP Comprehensive Training Team based in Colarado in the United States.
The book covers all of the basics of NLP including submodalities, rapport, mission, values, and perceptual positions. In most cases, it is quite light on terminology and instead provides very practical exercises to help the reader to internalize NLP. These include standard NLP exercises such as the swish and the fast phobia technique, as well as less common ones such as the lovely Autobiography exercise which involves you seeing yourself through the eyes of someone who loves you.
A reader who carries out all of the exercises in the book will definitely develop a strong internal sense of NLP and the power that it can provide. The reader will not necessarily be able to explain all of the concepts, but ultimately the purpose of any NLP training must be to get it “in the muscle”, so for the non-specialist, this is a highly useful book.
After the main text, the NLP 21-Day Unlimited Achievement Program is an additional section which provides a completely different way to understand and practice the content of the book by setting out a three week program with an exercise to do each day.
Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Brian Cullen,
Associate Professor, Nagoya Institute of Technology

NLP Coaching and Training

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Binaural Beats: A Short Introduction

Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Brian Cullen
All over the Internet, there are claims that binaural beats are beneficial in some way, and they are often included as a background in hypnosis or relaxation audio programs. Like many claims, this is one that is worth examining a little more closely to see if it rests upon a solid foundation of research. This article does not attempt to examine the research in detail, but provides a brief introduction to binaural beats.

What are binaural beats?

The Webster-Merriam dictionary defines binaural as:

of, relating to, or involving two or both ears

Although this definition tells us that both ears are involved, binaural beats are not simply a stereo rhythm pattern as the name might indicate. Beats is a physical phenomenon that occurs when two very similar waves interfere with one another. These can be waves of sound, light, or a physical medium such as water, but for this article we are interested in beats resulting from the interference of sound waves. The Encyclopaedia Brittanica describes the simplest case of beats:

… beats result when two sinusoidal sound waves of equal amplitude and very nearly equal frequencies mix. The frequency of the resulting sound (F) would be the average of the two original frequencies (f1 and f2):

The amplitude or intensity of the combined signal would rise and fall at a rate (fb) equal to the difference between the two original frequencies,

where f1 is greater than f2.

In other words, a new frequency is perceived which is equal to the difference between the two original frequencies. So, for example, if a 320 Hz sine wave is played into the right ear and a 330Hz one into the left ear, the brain perceives a beat frequency of 10 Hz.  This is an interesting phenomenon because normal human hearing extends from 20Hz – 20kHz. So the phenomenon of binaural beats is allowing the brain to perceive a frequency that would not normally be possible.
Binaural beats differ to normal tones because they are the effect created by the brain when a different tone is heard by each ear. It is as if the brain has naturally mixed the two sounds to produce a new sound. Certain conditions need to apply for the brain to perceive this beats frequency. First, the frequency of the tones must be below about 1,000 hertz. Second, the difference between the two frequencies must be below about 30 Hz.

The history of binaural beats

Binaural beats were discovered in 1839 by Heinrich Wilhelm Dove, but it was not until 1973 that they attracted attention as a possible treatment method when Oster collected and published the results of modern research on binaural beats (also called auditory beats) in the brain (Oster, 1973). Oster claimed that binaural beats involve different neurological pathways than ordinary auditory processing. His research was followed up by Campbell (2007) and others who investigated the effects of binaural beats on consciousness. They attempted to reproduce the perceived effects of reported out-of-body experiences.
This research was a contributing factor in the formation of  the Monroe Institute, a charitable binaural research and education organization. According to their website, the Monroe Institute “provides experiential education programs facilitating the personal exploration [and evolution] of human consciousness.” The Monroe Institute has developed a type of binaural beats which they call Hemi-Sync. It is used

… for integrating brain functions, … for mental, emotional, and physical healing through the use of varied binaural sounds

These are some of the strongest claims to be found on the Internet about binaural beats and the work of the Monroe Institute has clearly been a force behind the widespread popularization of binaural beats and the claims that are made for their usefulness.

Claims about binaural beats

As an example of one of the widespread claims about binaural beats on the Internet, one website says that:

Binaural beat audio tracks directly affect brainwaves and can positively alter feelings, behaviors, even your state of being.

We can divide this claim into two parts. First, there is the strong claim that “binaural beat audio tracks directly affect brainwaves.” Second, there is the hedged claim that “binaural beat audio tracks can positively alter feelings, behaviors, even your state of being.” At one level, both of these statements are hard to disagree with since pretty much any stimulus will affect your brainwaves, and any statement with can used as a modal operator is grammatically a statement of possibility and not a fact. Even if one person in a thousand is positively affected by binaural beat tracks, the statement can still be said to be true.
But the clear implication of this website’s claim and the claims on so many other sites on the Internet is that binaural beat audio tracks are good for you in some way. If we are to metamodel the quoted claim, some of the questions that we might ask include:

  1. How specifically do they positively alter feelings and behaviours? (Modal operator of possibility)
  2. Who says they positively alter feelings and behaviours? (Lost performative)
  3. All binaural beat audio tracks? Which particular binaural beat tracks can have this effect? (Universal quantifier)
  4. Positively in specifically which ways? For example, do they increase good feelings, or decrease bad feelings or …? (Simple deletion)

Below, I take up several of these questions to take a look at some of the research into binaural beats.

Why might binaural beats be effective?

In order to understand why bianural beats could be effective, we need to understand entrainment. Entrainment is the process whereby two interacting oscillating systems, which have different periods when they function independently, assume the same period. This was originally noticed by the physicist Christian Huygens in the 17th century by observing that two pendulums clocks started moving with the same period. The period of a wave is the length of time that it takes to complete one cycle. Since the frequency of a wave is the number of cycles per second, entrainment also implies that the frequency of the two oscillating systems also begins to match.
Sounds, music, and the human brain are all examples of oscillating systems, and it is possible for brain entrainment to occur in exactly the same way as the pendulums. In the example above, a perceived frequency of 10Hz corresponds to the alpha range of brain activity.
As noted above,the phenomenon of beats can allow the brain to perceive very low frequency tones that would not normally be possible. Being able to perceive a frequency of 10Hz is interesting because this is in the alpha range of brainwave activity. Table 1 below shows the well-accepted brainwaves with their related frequencies and the type of activity associated with each one.

Table 1. Brainwaves, frequencies, and typical activities
Brainwave type Frequency Typical activity
beta 15-40 Hz aroused and actively engaged in mental activities
alpha 9-14 Hz resting or taking a break
theta 5-8 Hz daydreaming
delta 1.5 – 4 Hz deep dreamless sleep

When the perceived beat frequency corresponds to one of these brainwave frequencies, the brainwaves entrain to the beat frequency and are postulated to generate the typical activity pattern. So the alpha range is associated with relaxation. The beta range will produce alertness. Entraining in the theta or delta range could produce deep daydreaming or sleep.

Particular Frequencies?

At least one website gives a very precise correlation between frequencies and a large number of medical/spiritual effects including alcoholism, opening of the third eye, muscle pain, confusion, depression, and arthritis. The list is described as including the following types of frequencies:

  • Brainwave frequencies associated with various mental states
  • “Healing” frequencies which could be used to heal illnesses of different kinds, or stimulate some region of the body (chakras).
  • Natural phenomena frequencies including natural frequencies that occur in nature (e.g. Schumann’s Resonance which is an aural pituitary stimulation to release growth hormone), as well as sound tones calculated from the revolution/orbit of the various planets.


This article has been a short introduction to the rationale behind binaural beats. While it does seem logically possible that brain entrainment may occur and positive effects may result from binaural beats, this article has not attempted to answer the questions raised in the metamodeling above though an investigation of research to determine whether these effects have been systematically corroborated.


  1. Campbell, T. (2007). My Big Toe. Lightning Strike Books.
  2. Oster, G. (1973). Auditory beats in the brain. Sci. Am. 229 (4): 94–102.

Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Brian Cullen,
Associate Professor, Nagoya Institute of Technology

NLP Coaching and Training

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Life Without Limbs

This guy is such an inspiration – a truly amazing human being.
You can also visit Nick’s webpage at:

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Sun Dec 05 10 08:30 PM

Shooters in Fushimi in Nagoya, AICHI –

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Looking for ideas for NLP research

I am hoping to get a sabbatical sometime for six months. If it comes through, I’m planning to spend the time on NLP research. Even if it doesn’t come through, I’m still planning to spend a lot more time on NLP research – which leads me to the question.
Question: If you were to choose an area/application of NLP that is very worthwhile researching, what would it be?
I have lots of ideas myself already, and would love to hear lots more.