How the Nervous System Mediates our Experience

March 7, 2008

NLP from a Neuroscience perspective


Neuro Linguistic Programming explains how we as human beings process data through the nervous system and then interpret that data to form our mental map of the world. We interface with the world around us through our five senses. However at best, we live only in a map of the world. A key NLP distinction in NLP, originally coined by Alfred Korzybski is “the map is not the territory”, (Korzybski 1933).

In their book “Structure of Magic I”, Grinder and Bandler stated ‘Human beings live in real world. We do not, however operate directly or immediately upon that world, but, rather, we operate within that world using a map or series of maps’ (Grinder & Bandler 1975)


In this article I overlap neuroscience and NLP processes to explain how we form our mental maps.

I like the analogy of a ‘story’ to refer to our constantly changing mental maps. The story teller is the nervous system mediating our experience with the outside world with its five input channels VAKOG* simultaneously reporting events from the world around us. For an individual, the current story (mental map), consists of present time sensory experience, reconstructed representations of past experiences, sensory constructions of things that have not been experienced. Your nervous system is reporting the story and through your language you are interpreting the story. In your behavioural output you are living the story.

I will now describe from a neuroscience perspective the processes of how the nervous system narrates the story of events around us and thus mediates our experience and formation of our maps of the world. The nervous system consists of an intricate network of neurons and neural systems that mediate muscle movement, the senses, speech, memories, thought and emotion. A neuron is a specialised cell that transmits and processes information through electrical impulses and chemical messages to other neurons throughout the body and brain. Groups of neurons operate together as part of a neural system to perform a particular function or behaviour. Neurons communicate with other neurons that form part of neural networks.

The nervous system has two main elements, the ‘central nervous system’ (CNS) and the ‘peripheral nervous system’ (PNS). The neurons in the brain and spinal cord form the central nervous system and the neurons throughout the rest of the body form the peripheral nervous system. Each neuron has an electrical charge and has branched projections at both ends that receive chemical messages from other neurons. The messages neurons communicate to each other are essential for everyday functioning as well as survival.

As I said earlier the human system has an intricate network of neural pathways mediating different types of experience across what we call different representational systems in NLP. The example below is a kinesthetic response to a sharp object that comes into contact with the skin. This would include neurons communicating with each other within the central nervous system (CNS) and peripheral nervous system (PNS). When the sharp object comes into contact with the skin, the ‘sensory neurons’ responsible for detecting tactile stimulation are disturbed creating what is known as an ‘action potential’ in the neurons.

The action potential is an electrical impulse that travels the length of the neuron and instigates an action potential in another neuron until the neurons located in the spinal cord are stimulated**. From the spinal cord, messages are sent through neurons to the skeletal muscles causing a reflex action (movement of the body part) at the location of the sharp object. Meanwhile the neurons in the spinal cord have also transmitted messages to neurons in the brain where pain is registered. In this example, the neurons are part of a neural network throughout the body and brain (CNS and PNS). Complex communication processes exist in all the representational systems in transforming data from sensory receptors to activity in the cortex that will ultimately consist of some meaning.

While the action response within any individual neuron is an electrical impulse, the way one neuron communicates with another is chemical. Between each neuron there is a space known as a synaptic gap which is a junction for messages between individual neurons. Neurotransmitters are located at the terminal of the neuron before the synaptic gap (presynaptic neuron), these neurotransmitters transmit chemical messages to receptors in the neuron the other side of the synaptic gap (postsynaptic neuron).

Depending on the substance being transmitted and receptors receiving it, either an excitatory or inhibitory response is instigated in the postsynaptic neuron. An excitatory response stimulates an action potential in a neuron at rest or an increased action response in an already active neuron. An inhibitory response is a suppression of activity within a neuron. Different types of neurons transmit different types of chemicals that can only be received by counterpart receptors in postsynaptic neurons. In the above two paragraphs I have summarised how different types of neurons communicate with each other in the body and brain to form our experience. All this happens before conscious awareness and for those readers who are trained in NLP, the neuro processes I have described are part of the f1 transforms.

As human beings we have voluntary and involuntary responses. The somatic nervous system (SNS) mediates our voluntary response and autonomic nervous system (ANS) our involuntary responses. (Both are part of the Peripheral Nervous System). The SNS includes neurons that are connected with the sense organs and neurons connected with the skeletal muscles. Skeletal muscles affect voluntary behaviour. A voluntary movement begins with an ‘action potential’ in neurons in the motor cortex that conveys messages along the spinal cord. From there, messages are sent to motor neurons that instigate a contraction of skeletal muscles and the deliberate movement of a body part. This is an example of an excitatory response. The voluntary movement is mediated by the neural network.

We also have involuntary responses within our experience. Examples are heart rate, respiration rate, diameter of blood vessels, salivation, sexual arousal to name a few that are mediated by the ANS. If danger is imminent, the heart beats faster, blood flows to muscles to increase strength, pupils dilate, and lung capacity expands. This is known as the fight or flight response where the nervous system reacts to provide maximum strength and awareness for an individual in a potentially threatening situation. The fight or flight response is also known as a ‘sympathetic arousal’ or the ‘sympathetic nervous system’. The opposite to the sympathetic nervous system is the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’ where the heart rate and breathing slow down and blood flows to the gastrointestinal area which is important for digestion. Within the autonomic nervous system behaviours such as aggression linked with fight or flight are mediated by the sympathetic arousal system and behaviours such as relaxation are mediated by the parasympathetic system.

State and it’s variations of related emotions and behaviours are major part of NLP. There are many techniques and formats in NLP designed to manipulate state, anchoring and New Code NLP formats come to mind. As NLP Practitioners we do not need to be aware of what is occurring in our client’s Central Nervous System when we do our interventions. So what is happening in our minds and bodies when we experience a state change? Chemical shifts at the synapses can cause change in neural systems. For example a neurotransmitter that impacts emotional state and behaviour is serotonin. Low levels of serotonin have been linked to depression. Pharmaceutical companies have created drugs such as Prozac to increase levels of serotonin being received by postsynaptic neurons in the brain. However recent research has shown drugs prescribed for depression are only effective in the most extreme cases. (University of Hull, cited on

NLP for years, has proposed there are far more effective ways of treating depression than drugs and now it seems parts the mainstream psychological community are in agreement. Parkinson’s disease has been associated with low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Sufferers of Parkinson’s have been prescribed drugs to increase the level of dopamine in the nervous system and the effects are a reduction of tremors. An interesting case was explored three years ago where researchers tested a placebo that had the same effect in increasing dopamine than a dopamine related drug. In these two cases, the objective is to increase the low level of neurotransmitters and thus create a change in emotional state, behaviour and cognition.

In this article I have given examples of how our nervous system processes and reacts to information from the world around us in the formation of our mental maps. I summarised how neurons in different parts of the nervous system communicate with each other creating either excitatory or inhibitory responses. The messages within the neurons are electrical impulses and the means of communicating with other neurons is chemical. I explained how behaviour is mediated by the nervous system. Neuro transmitter shifts in the brain mediate emotional state. The somatic nervous system mediates our experience with the outside world; the autonomic nervous system mediates our inner experience.

Neurons within the central and peripheral nervous system form intricate networks to mediate human behaviour. In NLP we simply say we experience the world through our five senses, we form mental maps based on experience and filters and we code through language. I think it’s interesting to explore multiple descriptions and this article has provided the reader of Neuroscience perspective on the human mapping process.



Korzybski A: Science and Sanity. Lakeville, Connecticut: The International Non Aristotelian Library Publishing Company, 4th Edition, 1933

Grinder, J. and Bandler, R: Structure of Magic II, 1975, Palo Alto, California, Science and Behaviour Books inc,

BBC quoted research from Hull University

* VAKOG: Visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, gustatory

** Whilst transmission within an individual neuron is electrochemical, transmission between neurons is chemical

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