We have slowly, but progressively learned that in the fields of physical and mental health, it makes for sense and sanity to restore the mind-body split of western science and medicine. Increasingly, we are discovering more of the systemic connections between what we do with our Life Coaching clients and how we talk to them.
As we enter the new century and millennium, medical interventions and technologies have provided us incredible advances in the healing arts. We now have tools and methodologies for interventions that verge on the miraculous. And yet these technological improvements so dazzle and amaze us that we can easily forget about some other equally miraculous things. Namely, those that occur in the domain of the human neuro-linguistics and neuro-semantics and how they play a crucial role in the healing arts.
We (the authors) have joined to write this paper in order to refresh our memory and thinking about the entire mind-body system and the marvelous human technologies available to us.
The Hard and Soft Stuff of the Human Experience
Near the beginning of modern psychiatry, Sigmund Freud highlighted the importance of language as a neuro-linguistic process and technology. In those primitive beginnings, he discovered that how our minds and bodies responded to the power of language. In searching for the words to express his incredible insight that language can have upon human experience, Freud (1935) chose to describe it in terms of “magic.”
“Words and magic were in the beginning one and the same thing, and even today words retain much of their magical power. By words one of us can give another the greatest happiness or bring about utter despair; by words the teacher imparts his knowledge to his student; by words the orator sweeps his audience with him and determines its judgments and decisions. Words call forth emotions and are universally the means by which we influence our fellow creature. Therefore let us not despise the use of words in psychotherapy.” (pp. 21-22)
A few years later, another giant of the twentieth century, although one whose influence has been far less extensive, wrote about the same dynamics. In doing so, however, he used his knowledge of engineering and neurology to express his understandings. Founder of the field of General Semantics, Alfred Korzybski (1933/1994) expressed his genius in describing the neuro-linguistic nature of language. He related language processing to the abstracting functions of the nervous system and brain, and demonstrated throughout his masterful work, Science and Sanity, how the very structure and form of our languaging, symbolizing, or mapping of the territory was a metaphor for the function of the brain.
This enabled him to sort and separate the hard and soft stuff of human experience, or as we might say today, using computer technology as a metaphor the hardware and the software programs that govern the overall gestalt of human experiencing, emoting, relating, etc.
Using this construction, we now know that we are symbolic creatures. We live our lives not only within the structure of our bodies with all of their marvelous systems, but also within the constructs of our symbols, institutions, laws, and doctrinal systems. And, at the heart of all of our operations is language the product of our nervous system and the cerebral cortex functions at the sub-microscopic level in terms of bio-electrical impulses, neuro- transmitters, message carriers, the exchange of ions charges, etc.
Yet at a higher level of operation, the operating of cell assemblages in the higher cortices, we operate by symbols, representations, concepts, beliefs, understandings, etc. It is here that language provides us a neuro-linguistic (coaching) tool. By it we create phenomenological maps of reality and then use those maps to navigate through life. It is here that words and language and symbolization provides us a semantic (meaning) medium in which we live. It creates a neuro-linguistic environment one that we cannot escape from and yet one that inescapably effects and governs our lives, and our health.
We want to here focus on the significance of this neuro-linguistic environment, how it affects our well-being and functioning, and how we in the health professions can develop greater skill and insight in using it as a technology for healing.
Environments: External and Internal
That our well-being and health is related to the environments within which we live is so obvious that we hardly have to mention it. As biological organisms, where we live, what we experience in our immediate environment plays a very significant part of our lives. An equally impactful environment that we seldom consider, however, involves our neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic environment.
These terms refer to how our linguistics (words, language, the structure of our mental symbolization) and our semantics (meanings, higher level concepts, understandings and beliefs about ourselves, health, the world, etc.) not only operate at the immediate level of representation, but can become incorporated and instituted at higher levels. Words, language, and meaning, although strictly subjective, intra-psychic operations, can become externalised and made part of our actual, physical environment.
When we externalize our cognitive ideas, beliefs, understandings, paradigms, etc. into books, libraries, media, culture, rules, laws, etc., they begin to operate as a neuro-linguistic environment.
About this Korzybski (1933/1994) wrote:
“[Anthropology], at present, is used in a restricted sense to signify the animalistic natural history of man, disregarding the fact that the natural history of man must include factors non-existent in the animal world, but which are his natural functions, such as language and its structure, the building of his institutions, laws, doctrines, science and mathematics, which conditions his environment, his s.r. [semantic reactions], which, in turn, influence and determine his development.” (pp. 38-39)
Consider the impact of this structural understanding about the world we live in. As a symbolic class of life, we do not just live in the world of material things and forces. We also live in a symbolic world. We live in an environment that includes
“… language and its structure, the building of institutions, laws, doctrines, science and mathematics.”
Now, given this almost invisible environment of ideas, how does it affect us? What influence does it have upon our nervous system, how we function, and wellness or illness?
Given his time and place in history, Korzybski immediately applied this to the First World War.
“Take for instance, the example of the World War! Would the man in the trenches have endured all the horrors they had to live through if it had not been for words, and neurologically speaking, because of the conditional semantic reactions connected with words?” (p. 334)
It was the neuro-semantic environment that created the reality of that war, as well as every war since. Words lead to that momentous catastrophe that destroyed so many lives. Words also can lead to modern day stress and “mental and emotional breakdown.” Yet we seldom think about it in that way. We seldom realize that words and ideas can lead to such catastrophic consequences. And because we do not, we therefore seldom even consider the idea that the solution may totally involve gaining control over our language.
What explains this?
Our unawareness of this may simply arise from the fact that we are all born into a world of words. We grow and develop in a neuro-linguistic environment and then take it for granted. We then experience human life as we do by the words and concepts that we generate. It operates as our invisible environment. We live in this symbolic environment that affects our very neurology like the proverbial fish in the water.
Yet if we live in a sick and toxic neuro-linguistic environment, the very existence and structure of our language can make us ill. It can undermine our health. And yet, we now know that the very structure of our language can play a horrendous part in the genesis of the stresses that we suffer and endure. In recent years, the cognitive psychologies and therapies have identified numerous cognitive distortions that feed and foment a poisonous way of thinking and living along with the “cure” of exchanging the cognitive distortions for more healthy and accurate ways of mapping things out symbolically.
Life in an Invisible Neuro-Linguistic Environment
To compound the complexity and nature of our neuro-linguistic environment, Korzybski also noted that we tend to “read unconsciously into the world the structure of the language we use.” (p. 60).
How does this complicate things?
We then assume that our worlds are “real.” We confuse our words, our ideas, our way of talking with the territory and forget that they are but symbols, maps of the territory. When this happens, our capacity for adjusting to the territory and predicting how things works becomes hindered and limited. In that we become just a little less “sane.” We become “unsane” (to use the term invented by psychiatrist P.S. Graven). Today we use the term “neurotic” (full of nerves and nervous energy). And, with the use of more and more “unsane” words and maps, our neuro-linguistic, neuro-semantic environment becomes less and less sane … ordered, meaningful, significant. It fits the way things are with less and less accuracy. Yet as the mind-and-body attempts to adjust in such an environment, psychological “stress” increases which then creates more tensions and physical stress symptoms in the organism.
In a neuro-linguistic environment, we live, breathe, and have our being according to the frames set by the particular language we use. In other words, the very form and shape of our words and language formats and structures our “reality.” As we take it for granted, we give power to the ideas, beliefs, doctrines, etc.
Realizing this, Korzybski warned that many, if not most “human problems” arise from the structure of the language, from our neuro-linguistic environments, and that we needed to develop consciousness of our language and languaging in order to take control of this very powerful and “magic like” force. To that end he developed General Semantics and from that later came Neuro-Linguistic Programming (Bandler and Grinder, 1975), and even more currently, Neuro-Semantics®.
Each of these fields seek to create and provide more powerful linguistic tools so that people can take charge of their neuro-linguistic mapping. In this way, we can generate the kind of languaging and language environments that will promote health and well-being.
Languaging For Health
First we need to learn to make the distinction between map and territory. Korzybski wrote extensively about this:
“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness. … If we reflect upon our language, we find that at best they must be considered only as maps. A word is not the object it represents…” (p. 58)
Upon making this distinction between these two levels, we next dis-identify and recognize the inherent unsanity in “the ‘is’ of identity.”
“… whatever we may say an object ‘is’, it is not because the statement is verbal, the facts are not.” (p. xxix)
“‘Whatever one might say ‘is’, it is not.’ Whatever we say belongs to the verbal level and not to the unspeakable objective levels.” (p. 409)
When we identify our words with the objective level, we confuse words and facts, language and actualities, and treat them as “the same in all respects.” This projects a false structure onto the world and disorients us in our adjustments to things. From this initial confusion, we have a powerful tendency to blame. Once we confuse a triggering stimuli with our neurological, emotional, and psychological responses, we then assume that the “cause” of our stress is “out there” and so we move into blaming. We fail to see our role and part in the process.
Yet the coping mechanism of blaming only increases the unsanity. The initial confusion of map and territory disorients us about the processes at work that generate our experiences. So we fail to adequately map the structure of the experience. Then, with the disorientation, and the mental map that “the problem” or “the source of the problem is the trigger out there, we try to make things better by accusing, judging, and blaming. Yet since we have little power to control things “out there,” we feel more and more insecure and dis-empowered. Attempting to adjust things in this way then increases the problem, especiallywhen we are “blaming” other people.”
To complicate things, we may then use another neuro-linguistic map, we may attempt to impose our rules, expectations, and desires on others by telling them what they “should” think, feel, or do. This, more often than not, does not work. And when it doesn’t, we make things even worse for ourselves (and them), by using another form of neuro-linguistic unsanity. We ask them “why” they won’t do what we “know” will improve their reality.
“Why won’t you?”
Of course, what we then typically hear are lots of reasons, rationalizations, explanations, and history that supports and validates their refusal. Now they have become even more entrenched in their own neuro-linguistic environment. And we helped them. After all, we invited them to access all of the supporting frames as higher level states (meta-states) and that only solidified their resistance.
So we blame them some more!
And with that, we then solidify our own “Blame Frame” as our neuro-linguistic environment that gives meaning and significance to our experience.
Are Words Benign? Can They be Malignant?
We have provided this description of a common neuro-linguistic experience in order to highlight the power and neurological impact of words. So, what do you say if we now ask, “Are the words in the previous description benign?” Isn’t it clear that they are, of course, not? And what do you answer if we ask, “Could these words work in malignant and toxic ways?”
Given this, what can we do? How can we escape from them?
Does it not direct us to become conscious of our language and languaging, and the structuring that they create? Of course. Consciousness of our symbolizing empowers us to become mindful about our use of symbols and words. And that leads us to checking the usefulness, productiveness, and ecology of using shoulds, whys, etc.
Food For Thought
With this awareness of ourselves as neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantic beings living in neuro-linguistic environments and handling the technology of language, what does this mean in terms of health?
* What does it imply for health professionals in terms of carrying out the tasks of providing health care?
* How can we create a more healthy and health-producing neuro-semantic for our patients?
* What words and terms promote good adjustment?
* What words and terms increase unsanity and illness?