Dimensions of Sanity

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Dimensions of Sanity. Part 1

Lucas Derks, The International Laboratory for Mental Space Research, 2011

What insights does the clinical use of NLP provide in the structure of mental health? In the articles 2,3 and 4, we will look at some general findings. At the heart of this first part are the methodological considerations.     

Sane thinking; crazy

The backbone of psychiatry, the DSM4 seems broken: insiders like Allen Frances and Robert Spitzer confessed they lost their faith in the manual (Greenberg, 2010). So the medical dream of a clear match between every mental illness and each drug prescription drifts away. The large scale in which mental health workers were moving toward the realization of this vision – stimulated by the pharmaceutical industry – helped to marginalize psychotherapeutic psychiatry (Mojtabai & Olfson, 2008).  The great question is: Without a reliable diagnosis, how else can therapists orient themselves in their work?

And diagnostic un-clarity is not only affecting psychiatric practice, it is the foundation of much therapy research. Since this discipline is tyrannized by the double blind – control group evaluation, of the treatments of certain kind of diagnosis with particular types of interventions, a reliable diagnostic instrument is crucial. This approach often results in ‘world cup like’ competitions between therapy schools; for instance, in a recent contest modern psychoanalysis has beaten cognitive behavior therapy by 0.97 over 0.68 (Shedler, 2010). But how can runners be victorious when they cannot be sure that they raced over equal tracks?

Also the seductive high tech brain scan research – with its hypnotizing computer graphics – that induces sci-fi dreams of nano-tech cures and neural implants, relies on diagnostics. Research sponsors love to pay for this work, especially when there is some mention of a growing understanding of a particular mental illness, like schizophrenia.

However hard people have tried to categorize craziness, it has only provided minute glimpses into the nature of mental health itself. Health as such is a greatly overlooked research subject. But knowing what keeps people sane, may be the key to making that happen. This article explores such an approach.


Waves on the stream of consciousness

William James (1890) recognized that every thought is an unique event, that after it has passed the mind is gone forever. And whenever a subject writes down or vocalizes their thoughts, this only results in transformed derivates of what once were sparks of mental activity. This makes psychology into a science of which the real subject matter plays hard to get. This caused psychologist to feel ashamed about the vagueness of their trade, and they fled into behavioral studies, neuroscience, high tech specializations or questionnaires.

To explore the foundations of sanity for real, one primarily needs ways to monitor unconscious cognition (Bargh, 2006). By the latter, I mean methods to register, record and analyze the unconscious knowledge, that enables a person for example, to orient themselves in space and time and to know who they are. In normal people this unconscious knowledge just runs unnoticed in the background.  There it works automatically and effortless (Schneider & Shiffrin,1977).

The rational scientific discourse is ruled by numbers, formal language, schemes and graphs. However, the band wide (capacity) of this faculty is far too small to describe the vast, swift, parallel, mingling, creative and analog unconscious processes in some measure of accuracy. That is why serious scientists manage to only formulate fragmented hypotheses about this part of the psyche.

For neuropsychologists who want to take on this challenge, the omens are bad. They must deal with the fact that unconscious cognition runs with a minimal action, making it hard to be detected with EEG, evoked potentials and radioactive- or magnetic instruments. These measurements tend to show only conscious, un-habituated, novel stimuli, and relatively slow processes.  Its illusive nature has caused some neuroscientists to interpret the brain to be at rest, at the times when the lightning fast and extremely subtle unconscious background cognition engages in sane thinking.

Metaphorically speaking, brain research into the unconscious is like catching mosquito’s with a sledge hammer. And the crucial role of background cognition in sanity, can best be compared to that of gravity. Gravity is the force in the universe that is holding things together. It was already doing so, way before physics had a notion about it. Apples were just falling, nobody knew why.

Many schools of psychology tend to describe unconscious processes in metaphors: varying from things like the spirit, the deeper self, the higher self, the soul, God, the field, the inner computer or the intuition. The great variety of metaphors applied for these processes, are a main stand in the way, when it comes to understanding them in their literal sense.

Of cause, metaphors are better than none, but they tend also to create a false sense of understanding. Because comprehension of the metaphor (computer, the field) does not automatically imply the understanding of what the metaphor is about (unconscious processes). And at the same time such metaphors may blind one’s view by their enlightening simplicity.


The unconscious as insane

The view on the role of unconscious background cognition, as the main source of mental health, is obscured by concepts that originate from psychoanalysis. Freud discovered, that curing the psyche, was facilitated by the  becoming aware of repressed unconscious content (Singer, 1990).

This useful clinical observation evolved into the oversimplified view that, if we exaggerate, says that the unconscious is the root of all evil.  And that its content needs to be made conscious to become a healthy person. As stated above, this idea was given in by the observation that the awareness of repressed material can give rise to cathartic healing. But tragically, psychoanalysis and related schools, missed the point, when they started in a way, to equal reliving trauma’s, negative emotional release, critical self-reflection and insight in ones developmental disturbances as such with psychological health. The main problem is, there is no end to this process because of the vastness of the unconscious content. So this idea is a fundamental, but often hard to explain misconception. For those who are less indoctrinated with these ideas,  it is often entirely obvious, that people who function well, who are happy and healthy, tend to be unaware of themselves, the miseries from their childhood, their imperfect mental processes and their nonsensical beliefs. They primarily express ‘superficial’ joyful emotions. And for the open minded ones, it does not take that much, to recognize, that being unaware and in the moment (or as Csikszentmihaly (2000) named it, being in flow or as the Taoist call, it in wu wei) is the healthiest human condition. Awareness is at most, an intermediate step on the way to fix certain problems, but not mental health in itself.

To overcome this misconception, we need to redefine psychological problems in the following way: These problems are undesired recurring conscious-emotional events, that when solved, stay unnoticed (Derks, 1985). This implies that mental problem resolution goes from conscious to unconscious. But again, sometimes it takes the awareness of some aspects of a problem, to enable it to finally become habituated into the unconscious.

Seen from the above definition, consciousness can be understood as the monitor of the mind. We only need awareness, if there is a blockade, a dilemma or some thread to take care off. However, the recurring awareness of negative emotions itself is the problem. And also, immediately after we have solved such a problem, we are rewarded with joyful emotions (Derks & Sinclair, 2000). But the awareness thereof wears off, until it is gone. Thus, where once a problem was, there will be nothing left to be aware of in the end. It took a genius like Milton H. Erickson and some modern cognitive linguists to point this out to therapists. But to be honest, William James already captured this and he was citing Frederick Myers (James, 1901). We may presuppose that similar views were held by Tibetan Lama’s, old Egyptians, the Incas, and maybe the Cro-Magnons.

Blinded by the above misconceptions, most theorists entirely overlooked how unconscious background cognition helps to maintain a steady personality. It is just because of its hidden nature that unconscious content stays out of reach for self initiated instability: you cannot mess with what you don’t know. It works just like “no consumer repairs on this part”. For maintaining a healthy mind this stabilizing function works fine. But, wherever insight in ones problems is necessary in order to solve them, the same principle, is a stand in the way.


Failing methodology

In daily life we may call the product of unconscious background cognition: basic trust. When present, this trust enables people to be creative and enjoy their personal and professional lives, instead of being anxious, self concerned or confused. Basic trust, as most mental health professionals will agree, is extremely crucial for a person’s wellbeing. However, just like the majority of scientist, they take basic trust largely for granted. Scientist may measure the amount of this trust with a questionnaire, but that will not tell much about its workings. It is a widely held opinion that this trust may be the product of being raised in a safe environment; this is probably correct for as far as it deals with the thrust in other humans (Greenspan, 1997).

Clinical research is often defined as the process of drawing general conclusions out of unique therapy cases. It was Freud’s original method. Under the dictatorship of the methodology of the natural science in psychology, this method is dishonored. The wish to make psychology a “real science” comes at a high price (Bateson, 1972). Insights from clinical work are only accepted when reduced to graphs and numbers.  Alternative approaches, like in this article, where not single- but many cases are used as data, are still easily frowned upon, because for many contemporary academics only statistics count.


Kicked out angry young men

Not all clinical traditions have the analysis of unconscious cognitions at their hearts. However neuro-linguistic programming, NLP, does. It is a branch of psychotherapy that also attracts a lot of criticism. It was developed in the late 1970ties in the periphery of academia (Walker, 1996). Bandler and Grinder (1979), the co-founders, ridiculed therapeutic and academic traditions, which was a noble thing to do for critical scientists in these days. Already ten years later it helped most psychiatrists and clinical psychologists to distance themselves from NLP (Walker, 1996). And the personalities of the founders combined with the widespread commercialization of NLP among entrepreneurs and new age circles, complicated it’s acceptance by therapist who desire to identify with what they do. From the point of view of society at large, with its great need for efficient mental health care, this can be called an ongoing tragedy, because 35 years of relative neglect went by. In the mean time NLP methods did infiltrate many newer systems with different names.

In matter of fact, NLP is no more than a bundle of guidelines for therapists and coaches. Some of these guidelines deal with the therapeutic relationship, others with the attitudes that lead to greater effectiveness. Most of these ideas can be traced back to the work of well accepted examples like Virginia Satir, Milton H. Erickson and Fritz Perls; that indeed inspired the creation of NLP.

However disputed – NLP has produced an impressive set of clear formulated, goal directed and step by step protocols for problem resolution. The designers thereof, tried to describe these as unambiguous and fool proof as possible. This makes them easy to transfer in books and seminars. Because NLP is popular and open, everyone interested can acquire these skills – which works aversive for certified academics who don’t appreciate laymen amongst their ranks.

The NLP algorithms were not designed as research tools, but as recipes for brief therapy. However, thanks to their robust nature, these protocols enable us to replicate parts of psychotherapeutic treatments and to compare the effects thereof among cases. For instance, most experienced NLP users have applied a protocol like change personal history (Bandler & Grinder, 1979) with hundreds of clients, and can compare and predict its effect.


No research data, no NLP?

From the start, effectiveness and efficiency were central values in NLP. In the 1970ties, humanistic ideals of acquiring self realization and happiness were more important than neo liberal values like economic success and making people fit to get back to work. Convincing the scientific establishment of the usefulness of NLP was not on the agenda at all.

Currently, when prominent NLP people talk about research, many primarily point at proving the effectiveness of the method. Until now not much of that could be presented – largely because the central organizational structure failed and for the other part because NLP was rejected by the U.S. National Academy of Science in 1986. The latter reduced the chances for academic initiatives to start such projects. My colleague Jaap Hollander called it a catch 22 situation. Since the current generation of psychologist are raised in such a manner, that the lack of effect studies justifies them to neglect NLP as a research object.    Some years now, the so called NLP Research and Recognition Project is active (lead by Frank Bourke www.nlprandr.org ). This group aims at demonstrating to the academic community that NLP works.

All effect studies in psychotherapy ask for the ruling out of the creative variation of the therapist. In NLP this is certainly one of the main ingredients. The problem with effect studies into NLP comes also from that it does consists of a package of methods, that is difficult to evaluate in its totality. And the question becomes: Is the NLP package indeed more effective than other packages, like hypnotherapy, systems therapy, cognitive behavior therapy for instance; with which NLP shares many ingredients. The expected answer to that is ‘yes, absolutely’. But the necessary research design compares to: Is a client from Whole Foods healthier than a Wal-Mart customer?

Testing the entire NLP package looks maybe troublesome, the evaluation of the effect of one method at the time on one type of complaint (change personal history, PTTS) seems feasible – for anyone with time and money. For this to be meaningful, one should pick a most characteristic NLP technique to test. And the NLP Research and Recognition Project (www.nlprandr.org) exactly aims for that. Recently Hollander and Malinowski (2010), conducted a clinical effect study with a broad spectrum of complaints treated with a limited range of interventions. The outcome was in support of NLP. When the Finnish psychologist Markku Ojahnen (1999) compared the results of NLP-trained therapist with other therapists, the NLP users could stand their ground.

However, it is not justified that NLP enthusiasts claim that all of NLP works, because a few ingredients were experimentally shown to be effective, and skeptics cannot claim it to be all mumbo gumbo when some elements are disapproved of.  And since NLP combines many ingredients of other respected schools, like psychoanalysis, behavior therapy, gestalt therapy, client centered therapy, rational emotive therapy, hypnotherapy, systems therapy and cognitive behavior therapy, it sounds logical to also respect NLP because of its valuable components.

Others who speak about NLP and research, point at all the existing (often neuropsychological) research that supports the NLP practice. Between 1995 and 2003, the New Zealander Richard Bolstad wrote many articles along these lines. Other NLP proponents, armed with recent news paper abstracts and popular brain books and journals, may state: ‘Now scientists found, what NLP knew already thirty years ago.’ A claim that is correct in many instances, beside that it also applies to a wider range of treatment methods than NLP. For instance Lakens and Stel (2011) found support for synchronous movement enhancing the perceived rapport between people. Also recent research into mirror neurons fits to NLP’s notion of rapport and learning by inner imitation. However, these ideas are not unique to NLP.

A little heard voice calls NLP practice itself a way of doing research. Suzie Linder-Pelz (2010) called it researcher-practitioner, where the clinician is for instance part of a network that evaluates their therapeutic results.

I myself recognized the research potential of NLP in the mid eighties. I called my practice a laboratory where I experiment on living humans, on the base of detailed protocols for solving their problems. One can collect a variety of data by applying the same technical algorithms on many clients. Beside about the effectiveness of the treatment, one learns about patterns in unconscious thinking, because that is in what NLP really excels. The exploration of what is going on below the threshold of awareness, is what NLP therapist become very good at.  In the articles 2, 3 and 4, I present some of my findings.



Since the days of William James, psychology tried to establish itself as a science. Psychotherapy is often seen as an application of this science. Scientist themselves may think of this process as a one way street in which one must drive from research to application. They hope that their research projects will feed therapy with new tools. Besides that, scientist like to play the role of judge for the already existing practice. Most psychological researchers have very limited hands on clinical experience. They have no dirty hands, and present themselves as the fact finders that keep others safe from misconduct and superstition. That is a beautiful position to be in. In this articles I plead for opening the other track on this road and adjust the traffic rules. In the following articles I take you on a drive from therapy to theory. The ultimate goal is to find a way around cripple psychopathological diagnostics.



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  • Bateson, G.,(1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Ballantine, New York.
  • Csikszentmihalyi, M., (2000) Beyond boredom and anxiety: Experiencing flow in work and play. Mendeley: Jossey-Baas, pages: 231.
  • Derks, L. & Goldblatt, R.,(1985) The Feedforward Conception of Consciousness: A Bridge between Therapeutic Practice and Experimental Psychology. The William James Foundation, Amsterdam.
  • Derks, L., & Sinclair, J. D.,(2000) Expanding the Neuro in NLP. NLP World, Vol. 7, No. 2, july 2000.
  • Greenber, G., Inside the Battle to Define Mental Illness, Wired Magazine, januari 2011.
  • Greenspan, S. I.,(1997) The Growth of the Mind and the Endangered Origins of Intelligence. Nederlandse vertaling: (1998) De Ontwikkeling van Intelligentie. Uitgeverij Contact, Amsterdam.
  • Hollander, J., & Malinowski, O., (2010) The effectiveness of NLP: Interrupted time series analysis of single subject data for one session of NLP coaching. www.iepdoc.nl
  • James, W.,(1890) The Principles of Psychology. Dover Publications, New York. James, W.,(1901) Frederick Myers Service to Psychology. The Popular Science Monthly, august 1901, pp. 380-389.
  • Mandler, G.,(1979) Thought Processes, Consciousness and Stress. In: Hamilton, V., & Warburton, D.M., Human Stress and Cognition. Wiley, New York. 1.
  • Mojtabai, R., Olfson, M., (2008) National trends in psychotherapy by office-based psychiatrists. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008;65:962-970.
  • Lakens, D., Stel, M., (2011) If they move in sync, they must feel in sync: movement synchrony leads to attributions of rapport and entitativity. Social Cognition, Vol. 29, No. 1, 2011, pp. 1-14.
  • Linder-Pelz Suzie, (2010) NLP-Coaching: An Evidence-based Approach for Coaches, Leaders and Individuals. Kogan Page Ltd, Australia
  • Ojanen, M., (1999) At the Finnish NLP conference, of that year. Title in Finnish.
  • Schneider, W, & Shiffrin, R.M.,(1977) Controlled and Automatic Human Information Processing; Detection, Search and Attention. In: Psychological Review, 84, 1-66.
  • Shedler, J., (2010) The Efficacy of Psychodynamic Psychotherapy. American Psychologist, Vol. 65, nr. 2, page 98-109; februari-march 2010.
  • Singer, J. L.,(1990) A Fresh Look at Repression, Dissociation, and the Defenses as Mechanisms and as Personality Styles In: Singer, J. L. (Ed.) Repression and Dissociation. The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London.
  • Walker, W.,(1996) Abenteuer Kommunikation. Bateson, Perls, Satir, Erickson und die Anfaenge des Neurolinguistischen Programmierens (NLP). Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart.



Dimensions of Sanity. Part 2

Lucas Derks, The International Laboratory for Mental Space Research, 2011

When people are able to orient themselves in space and time, can trust their beliefs, use suitable social roles, keep up a good enough model of their social world and can maintain their mental unity, chances are slim they end up in psychiatry.

Space, time and certainty

Among all the techniques found in NLP, there are formats for improving clients‘ unconscious representation of time, for changing their limiting beliefs, for improving their maps of the social world, for reorganizing their self experience,  for solving their inner conflicts, for dealing with their phobia’s and emotional stuck states, for reorganizing their value systems, for dealing with their traumatic experiences and for reconnecting them to their spiritual resources. All these are laid out in step by step protocols (Bandler & Grinder, 1979, 1982; Dilts et al, 1990; Andreas et al, 1989, 1994; Andreas, 2001; Derks, 2005). By applying these formats with many subjects, a lot of general data about the psyche came to the surface. For most people, this magnificent source of insight is just a byproduct of change work. To me it was my main goal. Helping people to change their minds proves to be an exquisite form of psychological experimentation that leads the explorer beyond the overgrazed paradigms. What unconscious dimensions support mental health?



People, like all things, exist in space. It is probable that the mental representation of that space starts with the onset of prenatal learning. Cognitive linguists (Fauconnier et al., 1998, 2002) gave the name mental space to the representation of physical space in the mind. Mental space is like a three-dimensional black board on which the cognitive map of reality is drawn.

When speculating about prenatal life, visions of how an embryo will be confronted with its body limits come into sight. It must experience that some sensations stem from within (stomach, guts, heart) and others from its external senses (mouth, eyes, skin, fingers and feet). The recurring similarities in these sensations will automatically be laid down into memory traces. These enable the embryo to differentiate between what is within and what is around. When we reconstruct the onset of cognition in its broadest sense, it must start with the formation of two (preverbal, multisensory) spatial concepts: here and there (Derks, 2005). And although it is difficult to prove, the core of the here will start in the abdomen, where a great number of neurons are active in prenatal digestion. Later this area of awareness probably transforms into what we will call the feelings of self. These feelings become the spot from where people position themselves in the world – their location of existence.  The there on the other hand, represents the rest of the universe, which at first starts just beyond the skin. These two notions of here and there must be at the heart of every neural model of the world. And by the wired-in neurological forces of distinction and generalization, they will expand into the knowledge that one needs to become an independent organism.

Severe alcoholics, patients with removed right hemispheres, victims of concussions and frequent travelers may wake up wondering: Where the heck?! When there is no answer to that, panic is inevitable.  Keeping track of where we are, is quite essential. What horrors can happen when our inner navigator lays flat is vividly dramatized in some abduction thrillers, in which victims are cut off from all orientation. Knowing where, of course, depends on an adequate mental topography and the correct interpretation of landmarks. Most of the time, spatial orientation goes without any awareness, and therefore exemplifies clearly what unconscious background cognition is about.

Not knowing where they are is rarely an issue for my clients, however, most basic cognitive functions are in one way or the other derived from the primary skill to orient oneself in space.

What linguists came to call mental space is a generalized representation in the nervous system of the physical space that surrounds us. This real space contains tangible material objects. In mental space these objects are represented in an abstracted, categorical manner. And the properties we perceive in real space (like distance, direction and size) are translated into their mental equivalents: psychological distance, direction and size.  Humans have little restrictions in how to create their mental space. For instance, some individuals surround themselves with billions of light-years of parallel universes, while others fill only tiny spots. Some keep it simple where others strive to copy the cosmos in all its details. Clinical work shows, that these general characteristics of one’s model of the world have an enormous impact on an individual’s life and personality.

The International Laboratory for Mental Space Research (ILMSR), for which I work, officially aims at the exploration of this three dimensional mental imaging and its pragmatic consequences. This research has shown how mental space is primarily filled with concrete memories and future projections that do depict unique events: mental photographs. These types of images largely originate from concrete sensory experiences. However, the mind tends to automatically generalize this tangible level into broader and more general concepts. We may call these, general background abstractions. Without the ability to distillate experience into general concepts, our mental model of the world would be fragmented and fairly useless. So, broad generalizations are supporting normal people’s models of reality.

But there are also abstract concepts, like science, society, justice, history or the market, that have no material existence in the real world – that are abstractions from the start. These are also conceived of in mental space; as three dimensional schemes (Lakoff et al., 1999). And when a person is thinking of one of these concepts, these pictographic images are experienced as slightly accentuated areas somewhere in the space around the person. However, such pictures may be of very brief duration, vague and tend to stay below the threshold of regular consciousness. Studying these phenomena is based on a solid trust in what the subjects report about their subliminal awareness during trance states. The ability to work with this level of knowledge is widespread among practicing NLP- , imagination- and hypnotherapists.

Abstract concepts consist of vague multisensory representations that resemble ‘holographic 3D-drawings’. When people speak, they tend to make gestures that match the shapes of these images.

Abstract concepts are communicated in language. Words help to activate these spatial constructions in both speakers and listeners.

The current line of research in the International Laboratory for Mental Space Research (ILMSR) concerns the pragmatics of general background abstractions, like space, time, truth, identity, power and society. These form in a way the background of the background, and they seem to be the all decisive cognitive undercurrent in normal life.  Our research into this area brought us to postulate a number of so called hypotheses of normality; ideas about the ways in which well functioning individuals tend to represent these general background abstractions in their mental spaces. Knowledge about how people represent crucial abstractions is also put in a cultural historic frame (see Oetsch on this website).

The term hypothesis of normality raised frowns among some colleagues. And they expressed concerns that individuals could become appointed misfits by such standards. Such ethical concerns have much to do with how one envisions these hypotheses of normality will be used. To us (Derks & Walker), they are just orientation marks that give guidance in otherwise too complex change work. If a client functions in an incomprehensible way, a hypothesis of normality gives a direction for improvement. If for instance a depressed client sees no future, the hypothesis simply tells us that he would be better off if he did see one. Then next, we can work in that direction. Remember that current clinical psychology has only had eye for the dimensions of abnormality but no idea about the dimensions of sanity. In the accepted (DSM4) view, mental health is implied by the lacking of diagnostic criteria on all axes. By looking at what is normal, psychological diagnosing is changed from an avoidance process into an approach mode – from away into towards.


The normal dimensions of time

Since Einstein’s conception of time-space, psychologist too noticed the entanglement of these ideas. To conceive of an invisible thing like time asks for more sophistication than for the more tangible space. Most theorists assume that a fetus starts with an innate ninety minute activity cycle based on its biological clock. On top of that, an unborn will start to distinguish between sleep and wakefulness and other cyclic patterns. Times of feeding and being cared for will be laid down by the neonate in duration patterns. Then, days passed will be distinguished from the present and the days to come. These early distinctions will be refined when toddlers are confronted with the complexity of time in language: later we buy you an ice cream, tomorrow is your birthday, Santa will be here in four months and 13 days, or in 135 nights of sleep….

Clinical NLP shows (just as cognitive lab-research) that the fundamental abstractions past, present and future take their meaning from projections in mental space (Andreas et al, 1992, James and Woodsmall 1988). So, when we ask a person about the future (or the past or the present), they may naturally respond by gazing and gesturing towards the locations where they unconsciously project these ideas. The implications of how one constructs time around oneself are enormous. For instance, how long, far, broad and bright an individual visualizes the future determines their expectation of life. And my colleague Wolfgang Walker found that some clients may have limited visions of the future (none, short, distorted, broken off, scattered and dark).

According to Lakoff and Johnson (1999), the spatial representation of present, past and future develops out of primary bodily sensations. When a child crawls, it automatically conceptualizes movement from the one place to the other. The abstraction of moving forward through space, may be used a little later as a conceptual metaphor for the passing of time. Thus, moving from the chair to the table may be used as a model for going from today to tomorrow.

How time eventually becomes represented varies a lot. Some individual’s sophisticated mental calendars enable them to review precisely in what year, month, day and hour a particular event took place and also the exact chronological order in which things happened. Others are virtuosos in planning ahead: like one real-estate broker I once met, who saw with one second of eyes closed that he had one free Wednesday afternoon in three months time. Others are less fortunate. Their time representations produce stress, because they struggle with losing, wasting, forgetting and miscalculating time. These differences in the representation of time are quite often mistaken for innate personality traits.

I have a colleague trainer who failed to show up fifteen times when he had a class to teach. People called him sluggish, egoistic, stupid, reluctant etc. When we checked his representation of time, we found that he experienced both past and present as irrelevant areas pointing down and backwards from under his armpits. However, the man is a very present and charismatic public speaker. He senses the present as a huge area in front and around him. His strength lays in the now and he fears losing that power badly, even more than being fired and disgraced ‘some time’ for missing too many appointments!

Over the last twenty years and under the title, the personal time line, NLP-ers, linguists, anthropologists and philosophers studied the subjective representation of time. The general conclusion is that the way in which an individual has constructed his or her personal time line, decides largely their planning skills, the way they motivate themselves and their ability to reflect on their lives. And cultural differences seem to parallel the individual variations. For instance the Aymara Indians in the Andes seem to generally hold the future behind them and the past in front. They are supposed to be very connected to their roots and to learn much from their mistakes; however, investing money and effort in a future is probably not so easy for them. Any human with a similar time line will be a bit like that.

When exploring personal time lines with psychiatric clients, Wolfgang Walker (ILMSR) found many of them to divert from ‘normality’. In general, people have the present in (or close in front of) their bodies and project the near future, close by and the far future, at a great distance. Memories are located in a way that largely ranks them in chronological order, with the recent ones near and the long ago ones far away. Some of Walkers subjects didn’t use such a linear structure; past and future events seemed to be scattered around at random. The regular logic of representing long ago as far away, and recent as near, was found absent. This explained why planning, goal setting, doing homework assignments and reflection on their life was so hard with these clients.

However, Walker also found that these clients were not at all doing this at random but used their own alternative coding rules. Some clients, often severely traumatized ones, had the tendency to organize their memories not on the base of when things had taken place, but primarily on the emotional impact thereof. The strongest emotional experiences were held closest or furthest away, varying with the type of depressive symptoms: emotionally numb verses overwhelmed.

From therapeutic practice we know that emotions may function as a fast link to certain memories in all people. Walker’s clients however do not use the long ago is far away coding in their mental space, but use distance only to mark out emotional intensity. To them their horrific memories were the easiest to recall because they were so near. However, in other clients, Walker found an opposite strategy where they had placed their traumatic memories so far away that these seemed almost forgotten.

Most of Walkers clients could tell, with a reasonable accuracy, when in their lives something had taken place. But they had to reconstruct this on the base of historic facts. For instance: That was just prior to my mother’s death, so it must have been somewhere in March 1987. The more intuitive manner of sensing a life’s episode that is based on a location on a linear timeline (as most people do) works faster and takes less effort.

The general concept of living a life, that has started somewhere and moves in a certain direction, belongs to the basics of normal unconscious thinking. People without such an idea lack the grip and the overview on their lives in the broadest sense. The scale people use to code one year backwards and one year ahead, the size and location of the present they use, the amount of overview it provides them with, the discrimination and clarity that they sense in their representations, all together can be used as references to improve personal time lines with clients.



After experimenting twenty years with belief change techniques (Derks, 2005), I found confirmation for the (in a way) obvious notion that people tend to trust the beliefs they learned early in life more than the ones that came later. In brief: old convictions overrule newer ones when they deal with the same issue. Thus, when a person is confronted with a new idea, this is immediately refuted when he already holds an older one that contradicts it. However, without any prior ideas, reasonable new ones can instantaneously be accepted.  It is this very principle that makes breaking loose from early religious and political indoctrination so hard. It also slows progress in politics, education and the sciences. But it is also the way in which the mind protects itself from swallowing nonsense.

I also found, that individuals who divert from this principle, who for instance give priority to novel ideas over earlier views, often maintain a more generalized belief that tells them to respond that way, in order, for instance, to be progressive. Their progressiveness acts as a higher order identity belief that dictates how to go about new opinions. Then there are others who pick their opinions on the base of what is expressed by significant others. A great authority and high status of the source person can add a lot of credibility to a belief. However, for individuals without such social criteria, the rule that older beliefs are truer than newer ones works reliably. Note, that if this system was fully rigid, one could never ever change one’s mind about something – It would seem that people are seldom coerced by reason; preconceptions prevail when it comes to deciding what to belief (and clerics, politicians and sales people know what effort it takes to ‘brainwash’ someone).


Time code of mind

A logical conclusion from the above is that the mind must have a way of knowing the age of its beliefs because otherwise it could not date and evaluate them on the base of chronology. When we ask a client within the framework of therapy: When at first did this idea occur to you? They tend to answer this question within seconds. So how do they achieve that?

My best evidence for a time code of mind comes from a technique called convincing your younger self, that I applied on several hundreds of subjects with great results.

In this approach the client imagines talking to his younger self with the aim of teaching his younger self an alternative conviction, to replace the one that is currently blocking him. Whilst talking to their younger self in their fantasy, clients can be very certain about whether or not their younger self is accepting the offered alternative view. They just tend to see this in their imagination – the younger self may shake his head, mutter or protest loudly.

When the alternative belief is rejected by the younger self, there is one very reliable standard solution to that. In that case we ask the client to imagine their younger self to become even younger and then tell that younger self the same thing again. It is striking that this now more naïve younger self tends to accept the alternative belief often without hesitation.

For instance, a client was stuck with the belief: I am not good enough. When asked for it, she said she had acquired this idea at age 6. Then the therapist helped her to create a better belief. This happened to be, I am good the way I am. The therapist guided her to imagine herself as 5 years of age. Then this client presented I am good the way I am to her 5 years old self. But her younger self was looking away; it seemed not to accept this alternative belief. The therapist assumed that the client had already learned I am not good enough before age 5. In response, the therapist helped the client to act as if the alternative belief was told still earlier, at age 3. Now the younger self of the client smiled. The therapist took this as acceptance. Next the client was asked to step into her 3 year old self, listen to the alternative belief once more and grow up anew, with the alternative in mind. In this case the fresh idea immediately overruled the original limiting belief.

In many cases one can test the effect right away: success means that the client is not stopped by the original belief anymore. This may work even when the client is fully aware of the fact that he or she has just played as if in fantasy. The changes also tend to last very well because clients tend to repeat the new belief numerous times after the session.

The above technique helps the client to start to behave as if a belief which was introduced within the actual therapy context (in other words in the here and now) was learned way back in the past.

The striking reliability of the above principle made me think of a time code of mind. In technology (computers and digital video), a time code means that every new file of data is labeled with the moment of input. So this sparks off the question: How does the mind register when its beliefs were formed? This method must be such that it shows in a reliable way, which input came before or after another input. The mind needs this coding for deciding what to believe. What form of coding is likely?

In contrast to the time code in computers, the time code of mind must be analog. I hypothesize that it must generally operate in the same way as any searching and finding processes in the mind. So first we need to look at how a ‘mental Google’ works.

To retrieve a certain piece of memory from our mental data base, we first need to have a concept to start searching from. This concept must create the link to the one that is searched for. If this link is sufficiently strong and clear then something will come up. In everyday language and in the history of psychology, this process is called association.  How does association work?

The link from the searching concept to the one that must be found is based on resemblance. Here this means that it has similarities in (sensory) qualities, like color, emotional feeling, shape, size, spelling, rhyme, structure, sound etc. The configuration of these sensory qualities helps to pick out a piece of memory content which is partly matching these qualities. So it can match on a combination of similarity in colors, emotions, structure, size, sound etc. Just like in a Google search string, the more relevant characteristics we enter, the more accurate the targeting. When we deal with memories that have a traumatic quality to them, the emotional link seems to have the priority.

When we want to retrieve a memory from a particular period from our life (e.g. the name of our primary school headmaster), we may use several characteristics of the relevant context in question. So we may think of the shape of his face, typical colors, his car brand, smells, feelings, names, the blackboard, etc. These characteristics may help us to get to his name.

However, we also may look at WHERE our primary school episode is located in mental space. In the latter way we use our personal time line directly for targeted recall. During such a search, and before a person gets access to this bit of memory, the memorizing person may gaze and gesture at the spatial location where this episode is sensed.

The normal heuristics for recalling a designated memory will be by using all the leads a person can find. This means to search with the help of all relevant sensory qualities that come up combined with the location of the episode in mental space. The time line however will foremost help to date it in relation to other memories.


Fooling the time code

We return to the technique convincing your younger self, since this is my major piece of evidence. As explained before, this approach brought many hundreds of clients to imagine that they learned an alternative belief prior to the belief that was hampering them. And when all went well this alternative belief was accepted without resistance and overruled the problematic one.     However, when the client’s younger self seemingly objected to the alternative belief, this was interpreted as a signal that the new belief was being offered to late in life. The younger self then was assumed to already hold another contradicting idea. As explained above, the therapist solves this by asking the client to move further backwards in time and then again teach the same alternative belief to an even younger, younger self. And it appears in a very reliable way (in at least 95% of the cases) that when the age used is sufficiently young, the alternative is now accepted.

In a variety of therapies, ranging from Janet’s (1889) supplementary method, Erickson’s (1967) February man case up to previous life therapies and other kinds of hypnotherapeutic regressions, we see how the mind can take up new information easily when it is presented as if it is stemming from the past. It looks as if the neural connections are running from the past to the present – like the hairs of a pet go from the head to its tail. Change personal history is the NLP name for a process that demonstrates this very clearly (Bandler & Grinder, 1979). Convincing your younger self is a variation on this process, aimed at changing limiting beliefs.

The difference between the great effort it takes to make changes from the present to the past (like in insight directed psychodynamic therapies) and the ease by which this goes from an imaginary past towards the present (like in all manners of regression therapy) is quite dramatic. The mind is built in such a way that lively fantasies, when played out as if one re-experiences an improved past (enriched with resources), have a great potential for positive psychological change. It is my view that an objective look at reincarnation therapy will show that this has a great impact – but only when additional positive resources are applied. It may, of course, work counterproductively if the client only gets the previous life-trauma as an insight as to where the current trouble comes from. Since then, the insight will start to overrule everything after with a disastrous resistance to further change; as its consequence – defeatism.

As soon as researchers stop disapproving of such unconventional and (to them) irrational methods and look at the mental processes involved, great psychological insights are to be gained (Cladder, 2000).

Thus, even exotic therapeutic practices may tell important stories about the workings of the psyche. The technique convincing your younger self reveals that the time code of a belief is part of what makes it the truth. This is a very useful hypothesis since the experiential facts on which a belief came into being are often hard to check for a person; but by weighting it on its moment of origin, the person has something else to make up his mind. People hold many beliefs that are difficult to verify on the base of facts, and these must be the ones for which the subjective validity test relies largely on their time coding.

How sane people know what is real to them can be learned from the above types of clinical work. It shows something we all know: facts are seldom convincing. Other principles underpin what a person believes to be true. Rationality seems to work only in service of irrational principles – logic is used to create the arguments to support what one prefers to believe. Knowing these mechanisms can help us to change ‘crazy’ ideas.



Imagine what would happen if we trusted all novel ideas that reach us. It is clear that the time code of mind helps to protect people from accepting nonsense (and to maintain their belief in nonsense). However, this nonsense filter can be fooled by just acting as if a belief is older than it really is. When we make the mind believe that something has a different time code than it actually has, the mind is defenseless. By fooling the system in this manner, a brand new idea can overrule every existing belief.  This delicate tool of change – that has some more details to it than we have discussed here (Derks, 2005) – asks for careful application. It suggests that maintaining a set of sensible beliefs is partly dependant on one’s subjective coding of time.



  • Andreas, S., (2001) Building Self-Concept. Anchor Point Magazine, july, 2001, Vol. 15 No. 7.
  • Andreas, T. & Andreas, C.,(1994) Core Transformation; Reaching the Wellspring Within. Real People Press, Moab, Utah.Andreas, S. Andreas, C.,(1989) Heart of the Mind. Real People Press, Moab, Utah
  • Bandler, R., & Grinder, J.,(1982) Reframing; Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Transformation of Meaning. Real People Press, Moab, Utah.
  • Bandler, R., & Grinder, J.,(1979) Frogs into Princes. Real People Press, Moab, Utah.
  • Cladder, H.,(2000) Oplossingsgerichte korte psychotherapie. Swets & Zeitlinger, Lisse
  • Derks, L. (2005) Social Panoramas, Crown House Publishing Ltd. U.K.
  • Derks, l., Video, Time code of mind: www.socialpanorama.com
  • Dilts, R., Hallbom, T. & Smith, S.,(1990) Beliefs, Pathways to Health and Well-Being. Metamorphous Press, Protland, Oregon.
  • Erickson, M. H.,(1967) Advanced Techniques of Hypnosis and Therapy. Selected papers. Edited by Haley, J. Grune & Stratton, Inc. Orlando, Florida.
  • Fauconnier, G, & Turner, M.,(2002) The Way We Think; Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. Basic Books, New York.
  • Fauconnier, G.,(1997) Mappings in Thought and Language, Cambridge University Press. New York.
  • James, W.,(1890) The Principles of Psychology. Dover Publications, New York.
  • James, T., & Woodsmall, W.,(1988) Time Line Therapy and the Basis of Personality. Meta Publications, Cupertino, California.
  • Janet, P.,(1889) L’Automatisme Psychologique. Felix Alcan, Parijs. Heruitgave: 1971, Societe Pierre Janet, Parijs.
  • Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M.,(1999) Philosophy in the Flesh. Basic Books, Perseus Book Group, New York.
  • Walker, W.,(1996) Abenteuer Kommunikation. Bateson, Perls, Satir, Erickson und die Anfaenge des Neurolinguistischen Programmierens (NLP). Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart.


Convincing your Younger Self

Pre-conception, as presented below, is a version of Convincing your Younger Self, that enables universal application and thus the use in groups. This version is well suited for experimental use.

  1. Determine Goal X, which is what the client wants to do but cannot manage.
  2. Ask the client to assume that Goal X is being blocked by Decision B, which he made sometime in the past.  It is not necessary to know what this decision is.  It is enough to assume that a decision is the root cause of the blockage.  (Decision B is an unknown, limiting belief)
  3. Have the client ask his unconscious mind for the Positive Intention Y behind Decision B.
  4. Make sure that both Goal X and Positive Intention Y are named in short, clear key words.
  5. Ask the client to visualize the sperm and the egg that he once was.  (It doesn’t matter whether or not this is biologically correct.)
  6. Help the client to consider the following question:
  7. What lesson must the sperm and the egg learn, before conception, to make it possible for you to achieve both Goal X and Positive Intention Y in your life?
  8. If necessary, you can suggest a couple of examples, such as ‘You’re OK as you are’, ‘Trust your instinct’, ‘Be yourself’, etc.
  9. Repeat the question in step 7 several times until the client has the answer.  Ask the client to express the lesson briefly and clearly.
  10. Ask the client to teach the lesson to the sperm and the egg in such a way that it becomes more important than anything.
  11. Check whether the sperm and the egg can accept and believe this lesson.
  12. If not, go back and do the same procedure with the sperm and egg that became his father and/or mother (whichever one did not believe or accept the lesson)
  13. Once this has been successful, go back to the visualization of the sperm and the egg before the client’s conception.  Only continue when both accept and believe the lesson.  If necessary, go back to grandparents or further.
  14. Help the client to visualize his own conception and to visualize the very first cell.  Ask him to associate in this first cell and listen to his adult self repeating the lesson again.
  15. Once the client, in his first cell, fully believes the truth of the lesson, then he can grow up into the here and now.
  16. Test the effect by asking the client “What is stopping you achieving goal X?”  (or, in the above example, check whether the self-image will now stay in the centre).



Dimension of Sanity. Part 3

Lucas Derks, The International Laboratory for Mental Space Research, 2011

When people are able to use suitable social roles, keep up a good enough model of their social world and maintain their mental unity, chances are slim they end up in psychiatry. Twenty five years of clinical experimentation with NLP provides insight into what it takes to stay ‘normal’.

Self and others in mental space

Wherever I go and whatever I do, one thing always comes along with me, and that is myself. But just passively being me is not enough. To successfully navigate in various social environments, I need to be able to present myself as myself. That means that I know my position and role and can clarify these to others. For that purpose, I may vocalize who I am, but normally these things are communicated through non-verbal channels. Moves, gestures, clothes, automobiles, tone of voice, etc. signal an individual’s status and role (Lehner and Oetsch, 2006). For this to work, one primarily needs to know what one can expect from oneself, to next create matching expectations in the others. These complex processes should run completely unconsciously, or else one is likely to be socially handicapped. If so (and in the case that one cannot avoid others) signs of social anxiety may be blushing, muttering, shying away and strange behaviors.

Thus a well functioning ‘self-knowledge generator’ helps a person to be themselves at any time without demanding attention. Since taking on the appropriate role in unexpected encounters can be essential, a system that organizes all of that must be accurate and swift.


Many selves to choose from: pick the right one

How does the self operate? My clinical research shows that most people possess a repertoire of self-images that match the various social circumstances they are used to getting involved in (Gergen, 1998). Such a self-image consists of a vague unconscious picture that captures all that is relevant about what a person believes he or she is in one single image. Systematic experimentation (Derks, 2005) helped to uncover some robust rules that these self-images appear to obey:

1) Self-images function primarily outside awareness; they tend to be totally habituated. However, people will spontaneously describe the self-reflective feelings that these images raise. They may talk about them in a concrete way (I feel super about myself), or sometimes in metaphors (I am the lion king). And when asked for in a special manner (Derks, 2005), they are able to point out the direction of-, the distance to-, the size of-, and the orientation of-, these images.

2) Self-images are connected (anchored, classically conditioned) to specific contexts. When all goes well, this means the appropriate self-image will automatically come to the fore in the right situation. The work context triggers the working self-image, and this may be totally different from that at home. Normally people don’t notice the shifts from the one self-image to another. They may just sense more or less self-confidence with a change in circumstances (e.g. “at the tennis club I feel shy”).

3) Self-images are those which govern who the person is. They do this only as long as they stay connected to the feeling of self. This feeling of self is the other critical part of the self-experience and it is generally located somewhere within the body – mostly in the chest. The feeling of self provides the kinesthetic sense of being. This feeling is from where people position themselves in relationships to others.

4) The critical components of the self are verbally expressed in the sentence: I am X. Here the I represents the bodily sensation of the feeling of self. The am is the mental act of linking the feeling of self with the self-image. The X can be any description of whatever content is depicted in the self-image.

5) Normally, when a person enters a certain context, the appropriate self-image will be activated, and will immediately ‘snap’ onto the kinesthetic self by its mental link. However, without this connection being active, the person cannot get really into his ‘role’ (or ‘self’).

6) The sensory qualities of self-images (their size, distance, brightness and the direction in which they are seen) govern for the better part the strength of one’s self-awareness (and as such, the intensity and extent of the feeling of self and the raised self-reflexive feelings, i.e. how the person values themselves). A strong self-awareness comes with big, close, bright and straight in front located self-images that are solidly linked to the feeling of self.

In spontaneous language, we may hear expressions that signal the ways in which people do adjust their self-experience. Someone may for instance tell you: I was in a difficult situation and I thought; ‘Hey, but I wasn’t born yesterday!’ And then I became very aware of who I am. So I put myself in the foreground and solved it.

The very unconscious nature of this whole self-system makes it difficult to detect. And it is thanks to NLP’s modeling techniques (and a lot of patience) that we have managed to clarify its nature. However elusive, the self-construct has a gigantic influence on a person’s functioning. And the good news is, when people are assisted in bringing their self-imagery into awareness, this process can be brought under their intentional control. In this manner, self-confidence becomes less a matter of chance because people are then able to instantly reshape their self-images at will. Then they become self enhancing, like most well functioning people are.

People who have a difficulty in finding appropriate positions and roles often suffer from social anxiety. In extreme cases this can give rise to presenting ‘strange’ identities. Some clients say they cannot present themselves as they really are, because for others this will be too complex to respond to. To overcome this, they may present simplified, sweet, rude or artificial versions of themselves. Other clients consider their self-images unacceptable because of the negative content. Self-disgust and self-hatred make their self-images hard to use in intimate relations and in public.

What people believe about themselves is largely dependent on what they learned about themselves at an early age. An adult commenting: “Your legs look ugly” or “you are stupid”, may give rise to negative self-images that have malicious effects stretching far beyond what seems reasonable to believe (See also my previous article, Space, Time & Certainty).

Normal functioning people house loads of full size positive self-images. They pick the appropriate ones automatically in the right situations and hold these images straight in front of them approximately a half to two meters distance. This hypothesis of normality gives much potential direction in therapeutic work with identity issues.


Gardening the social landscape

Safe navigation among people takes good social maps. Such maps do exist in people minds, and they tend to be three dimensional and holographic. They are composed of unconscious landscapes filled with social images. I named these social panoramas in 1993.

During decades of clinical research, it became apparent that most humans create images of people with great virtuosity and ease in an entirely unconscious manner. Because they cannot reflect on doing this, most individuals confuse their mental representations with the real human beings. To them the image equals the person. But this is a universal fallacy. The social images were named ‘personifications’; the cognitive constructions that they depict were named ‘persons’ or ‘real flesh and blood humans’.

Personifications are structured around the properties we generally ascribe to human beings, like having capabilities, motivations, emotions, beliefs, self-awareness, names, roots, parents etc. Personifications are largely created by copying what one finds within oneself, onto the images of others. The psychoanalytical term projection is exactly what we are talking about, the only difference is that this is not seen as pathological but as the normal foundation of social cognition (Baron-Cohen,1991).

When all goes well in someone’s social development, he or she creates a social panorama, in which their intimate circle is filled with the personifications of those they love the most. Friends will be circumventing that, relatives and colleagues come next and acquaintances are placed in the outer spheres. Even further are people to whom they maintain neutral relationships and beyond that, most sense mankind at large.

In the vertical dimension people encode power differences (Derks, 2005). When you function well in society, in modern times, you will be at relatively equal level with those that are relevant to you.

Work with clients showed, that when you have the wrong people in the wrong places in your social panorama, your social life will be tough. When this is combined with a crippled self-concept, things will probably be even worse.


A close look at counter identification

Counter-identification is the wish to be different from the person you counter-identify with. For instance, if you came to hate your talkative aunt, you may try to be as unlike her as possible. You may dress differently, eat differently and, of course, speak much less than she. If you can, you will not believe in her religious or political ideologies. But problems may arise, for example, if you need to do an improvised speech somewhere… you might stay silent since you cannot chat the way she does.

Therapeutic practice has shown that the representations we put straight in front of us (in mental space), hold the centre of attention. The most absorbing ideas tend to be located up front. This is analogous to how we focus on physical objects that capture our attention. When people say things like: I will focus on that, I will keep that in mind, I am looking forward to that, we will make this the central issue, these expressions must be taken as literal descriptions of the locations where they project these things in mental space.

Now guess where people who counter-identify locate the personification they dislike? I found most have these straight in front and at about 3 to 10 meters distance, and also a little higher up than their own eye level.

At the same time, the straight in front position is the most common place for keeping self-images. By locating self-images there, knowing who you are is just a matter of one (unconscious) look ahead. In many instances of counter identification, the subjects have their self-image a bit lower and closer than the image of the person they counter identified with. On an unconscious level, this indicates to them who they are and what they don’t want to be, in one and the same look. This seems to weaken their self-assuredness considerably.

Probably, people with a strong identification with some idol, do the same thing. They see their self-image aligned with the image of their hero and may believe an idea, because it fits with what they think their idol believes. A general conclusion from the above may be that well functioning people tend to have useful images straight in front of them. And obvious as it may sound, that which one keeps in the center of attention will shape one’s behavior.


Trust in people

To trust people is just as important as to mistrust them. But how does it work? Working with ‘paranoid’ clients has shed light on that too. Simply formulated, it shows that trust is created by putting the images of trusted people in trustworthy locations. To most normally trusting individuals these places are at arm length for family members and loved ones.  Walker found, that mistrust often comes with the majority of mankind be located at the front, with an empty backside in the social panorama. Where trusting individuals may have people placed all around them. ‘Opinion leaders’ that are trusted tend to be seen above one’s eye level at the front.

Clients with general issues concerning trust will primarily deviate from the hypothesis of normality (that people who are more trustworthy to them are located closer – and more often at the sides and the rear, than the ones who are seen as less reliable). Even when a client conforms to this rule, it does not guarantee a balanced social landscape. For instance, one client trusted only her father and her husband. They were experienced as leaning against her side. The rest of mankind she mistrusted, and they were to be seen to be over 30 meters away and there was nothing in between.

Trusted people can also be stored behind the client. They may form a group of supporters there. Individuals with a strong sense of trust in others tend to feel supported by strong personifications that stand beside and behind them. However, some people put the personifications of despised others behind them or their own shadow parts (to be discussed in a future article on the split of parts).


Normal families

With countless clients, my colleagues and myself explored what we call the family panorama. The important role (in mental health) of family ties and intimate networks is beyond discussion. But what are the patterns found in the spatial arrangement of a family that makes a person function well?

The expected significant influence of early family ties on social development did bring us to explore the spatial configuration of families in regression. With the aid of simple techniques, we help clients to imagine being a child again. Then they are asked to explore, where mama, daddy, their siblings and the other family members are located in mental space.  This gives rise to a number of spectacular hypothesis of normality. However, the complexity thereof takes it beyond the scope of this article.

People tend to live in a way as imprisoned in their family background; they may carry it along as a burden. Because it roots back so far and is so interwoven with who they became, most people tend to be rather fatalistic in regards to how this background limits them on the personality level. By changing these early spatial family configurations, clients create alternative family histories. The effect of this approach shows how probably all people live within an unconscious continuation of their childhood. The roles and positions they take are derivates from what they had as a kid. On top of this they construct their current social lives, but these are still founded on their ancient spatial blueprint.

The family panorama from a person’s early childhood is also the place to regress to when a person is put under stress. Childhood roles are often reenacted by reliving the spatial configuration that was prominent at early age.



Humans are social beings. And many psychologists and psychiatrist have suggested that most mental problems are in one way or another connected to relationships. That is why much of psychotherapy is aimed at the improvement of the social side of life. The unconscious background cognition that organizes social life and that is also responsible for problems has proven to be elusive. NLP’s technology of guided introspection did largely help to get to grips with these structures. The researcher must be tolerant towards the ‘soft’ character of such data. A scientist must adjust his method to his subject matter. Although Paleontologists prefer samples of hundreds of Australopithecus skeletons to draw conclusions from – four teeth, a jaw and half a skull may be all they can get.

How people represent themselves and others in mental space, is decisive for how well they function in society. The analysis of patterns in social panoramas helps to see what it takes to feel at home in the social world. We may expect from this knowledge a great contribution to education, prevention and psycho-hygiene; in other words, in the process of helping people to function normally.



  • Baron-Cohen, S. (1991) “The Theory of Mind Deficit in Autism: How specific is it?” British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 9, 301-314.
  • Derks, L., (2005) Social Panoramas, Crown House Publishing Ltd. U.K.
  • Gergen, K.J.,(1998) The Saturated Self, dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. Basic Books, Harper Collins Publishers, USA, 1991.
  • Lehner, J. M. and Oetsch, O. W., (2006) Jenseits der Hierarchie, Wiley, Weinheim, Germany.



Dimensions of Sanity. Part 4

Lucas Derks, The International Laboratory for Mental Space Research, 2011

Some people, when confronted with unbearable dilemmas, solve them by splitting off parts of their minds. These fast solutions often turn into a long term problems. NLP-psychotherapy shows how such problems can be solved, even decades later. This work shines light on the normal way in which people stay in one piece.

Breaking up with yourself

Insane behavior, as caused by dissociation shows one of the most remarkable aspects of human nature. Intercultural psychiatrists (Fuller Torrey,1986; Giel,1978) pointed out, decades back, how some religious rituals aim at curing dissociative disorders. And also, that the connected notion of possession is only exotic to those of a western scientific upbringing (Bourguignon,1968). In any culture and at any point in history, people were exposed to individuals that lost control over themselves and showed radical personality shifts.

By practicing NLP’s parts work (Bandler & Grinder, 1982), I became convinced – just like most scientist who looked at the dissociative phenomena a bit longer (Singer, 1990; Hilgard, 1977)  – that even the most normal people have some split off areas in their psyche. And that there exist grades in how autonomous these dissociated parts may function; some just force a person to bite nails, but others overtake their entire being and make them do horrible deeds that they are unable to recall later on in court.


Leaving a part behind

When people lack the coping skill for dealing with inescapable emotional dilemmas, blocking out parts of their minds proves often their best option at hand (Beahrs, 1982). Instead of being brought down by mental exhaustion and chaos, now their lives can move on. A strong decision to stop milling around or the acute thread of an emotional breakdown, are the kick off for isolating a mental part. And stopping, leaving behind, thinking away, distancing, doing away, are among terms that people use to describe these processes. The exact mental feat may be diverse in how it is brought about, the result however is always instant relief and an improved chance of survival. But this comes at a price. Since after the splitting, the dissociated part may start a life of its own, outside the person’s control.

Once people discover, that splitting helps to escape from unbearable situations, they are apt to repeat this whenever something similar crosses their path. This may result in very complex individuals with several splits – sometimes diagnosed as multiple personality disorder. Dissociation in its various forms is a common psychological phenomenon and people do not necessarily need to suffer from it; they even may enjoy the extra dynamism. It may even occupy a person like a hobby and can deliver them with an eccentric identity.


Structure of the self

A variety of psychotherapy schools do demonstrate that personality can be worked with as a set of parts (personality parts, alters, ego states).  These parts are each linked to particular stimulus conditions (see also article 3). When these stimuli wake up such a part, this may cause the person automatically to turn into it. This will go together with a more or less notable change in subjective experience and role behavior. Is the part unusual for the person, the change may be strange, weird and even scary for those involved.

Not all parts are belonging to the self. There are other-parts: parts that represent others and they are not considered to belong to identity. They are parts in the sense that they are stored in the person’s central nervous system – in the unconscious background. In fact, all people we are familiar with are represented in our minds as such other parts. When these other parts are activated, the person becomes aware of their presence – which at times can be experienced as just a thought about somebody, the sensation of their presence (James, 1902) or at other occasions even as a spooky encounter (Mavromantis, 1987). People may also step into these other parts on purpose, like shamans do, or on the other hand, be involuntarily overtaken by them, as victims of possession. In the latter situation the self experience is over powered by a more prominent other part – called dominant – personification in the social panorama model.  Prominence here means that the other parts image is taller, wider, shinier and closer than the self-image. Then the representations of the self and the other relate in such manner, that the person has to necessarily identify himself with the other part (Derks, 2005). This effect is responsible for most phenomena of the discontinuity of the self: like losing oneself in the presence of an idol, the acute submission to an authority figure and all shades of possession.

In sum, the person can regard a part as a piece of them self or as representing someone else – or in other words, as an owned or disowned part. One can move by free choice or forced by compulsion into both self- and other parts, with quite different consequences.



Split-off parts are not so different from connected parts. They also jump into action, whenever certain stimuli appear. Without these wakeup signals, both types might stay dormant. However, split off parts can cause uncontrollable and unexplainable symptoms, like fits of anger, fear, tenseness, irritation, somatic symptoms, depression, difficulties with concentration, fatigue, sleeping disorders, and compulsive behaviors like addiction. These parts engage in behaviors that suggest they got stuck in their development at the age they were split off from the rest of the person. To prevent such parts from initiating such activities, or from suddenly overtaking the entire person, they need to be repressed. This can be accomplished by selective attention mechanisms that operate from the prefrontal cortex. Probably these are of the same type of inhibitory neurological structures that are involved in splitting off the parts in the first place. Repression is an inhibitory counter reaction triggered by the same stimuli that do wake up the part. So when these stimuli are perceived the part will be stopped immediately. The repression of a part can become an entirely automatic unconscious process. To an attentive observer, shifts in posture, tics, twitches, shakes, vocal accentuations, frowns and sudden eye movements may signal that this is happening.

But the repression of split of parts is not water tight. Repression is sensitive to lack of sleep, alcohol, a variety of drugs, trance states, hormonal changes and aging (It is probably dopamine and GABA dependent). Repression may suddenly break down when conditions become unfavorable. Then split off parts can cause an acute crisis, that may lead to physical and mental exhaustion and a state of disarray. When the battle with broken loose parts comes with sleeplessness and the use of alcohol and drugs, this can bring one in a life threatening situation: acute psychosis. This is the result of the depletion of inhibitory neurotransmitters, due to overuse (Sinclair and Derks, 2000). The restoration of mental resources – the capability for selective attention and memorization – is needed, before  psychotherapy makes sense. And some antipsychotic drugs  can be of service here.



Most successful therapeutic approaches I know of, first aim at identifying and familiarizing the client with the split offs: this takes also away the often existing fear. The next thing is to explore the original problem situation, and the type of coping skills that the client lacked at the time before splitting. In every successful cure, the client is guided to still develop appropriate coping for the situation that gave rise to the split. As soon as the client can deal with the original traumatic situation in his or her fantasy, the most crucial step is taken. Experience shows that by the time the client can deal with the original traumatic situation, they don’t need to continue repressing the split off parts anymore. The split off parts then, may be guided back under their control; the subjects can re-own the parts and feel enriched with their increased competence.

Over the last decades, NLP’s therapeutic technology is slowly progressing to a level where also complex, multiple split off cases are cured. These serve as a source of evidence about the mechanisms involved and give ideas about how people ‘normally’ deal with this type of craziness.


Spectacularly normal

In the case of dissociative symptoms in particular, laymen and therapists alike, can get absorbed by the drama. Isn’t it true, that most of us – secretly – love juicy stories about weird identity shifts and scandalous, violent and disgusting events? And that we feel thrilled by tales of extreme madness and also by incomprehensible miracle cures. My quest for the normal, pales beside this kind of stories. However, the normal is only gray, because we are habituated to it. To me the wacky and the common are just as spectacular when it comes to understanding their psychological mechanisms.

Psychologists who write about dissociative disorders, often imply that the client is forced to dissociate by the nasty nature of the traumatic event as such. In the sense that the experience itself (sexual abuse, violence) was so painful, that dissociation was inevitable. It will take a study where clients who developed dissociative disorders are compared to people who could effectively cope with traumata of similar intensity. To understand the extent in which people are able to successfully deal with the horrific, we must look at how war journalists, fighter pilots, refugees, prisoners, mercenaries, gangsters, climbers, missionaries, police men, firemen, paramedics and other people who are exposed to excessive conditions do cope. Logically speaking, when some can deal with a certain difficulty without splitting, this means that it is not the traumatic circumstances as such that are decisive, but the available repertory of coping skills. It may take the active input from others to activate the available resources in a person. In the same way clients can get over their trauma’s with the guidance of a therapist, they might have done this at the time it happened with the help of a trusted individual.

I personally tend to assume that severe traumatic experiences happen in most lives, and that there is a group that cope with these in a normal coherent manner.


Ideological dilemmas first

Psychologists from various schools have pointed at religion as an effective means of coping. And from an anthropological stance it is all too clear, that believing in gods and spirits unites communities and helps to withstand severe hardship. That spiritual concepts give meaning to lives and help to take away fear, is beyond dispute. On the other hand, religion (ideology) is what authoritarian societies thrive on. To keep ones irrational convictions upright, one needs to repress all doubt in oneself and silence advocates of opposing views. This is most prominent in religious life. Religion remains often beyond scrutiny, because devotees claim it to be to sacred for rational analysis. Thus critical dissection is taboo, that is probably fostered because many sense that really believing in religious concepts strengthens their healing power. Even among therapists, one encounters resistance against the unraveling of the spiritual elements in their work. Blind faith is an essential component of religious life and a placebo factor in all kinds of healing.

In article two (time code of mind) I gave substance to why early indoctrination makes an ideology into a life sentence. But the same brainwashing in childhood may just as well be regarded as a broad spectrum antidote against the unbearable.

At the same time, we find well intending clerics and new age guru’s caught in moral dilemmas: because their spiritual leadership works best when followers believe that the leader owns an unique portal to the supernatural (Alstadt & Kramer,1993). The leader needs to repress the part in themselves that doubts that is true, and that wants to be just a regular mortal.

And for the psychologist/sociologist/anthropologist, religion related research raises another dilemma; if you see the religion of other cultures as a way to cope with life in a make belief manner, you must reach at the same conclusion about your own cultural imprints. You may as well have to repress the part in you, that concludes that you are also fooling yourself.

Once I had the lucky occasion to meet a anthropologist from Nepal, who studied Dutch religious life with an emphasis on the care for the elderly. He told me: “You lock old people in barracks and have professionals take care of them. Culturally, your elderly need to respect each other’s privacy, which condemns them to a life of isolation in these homes. In reality, they wait weeks on end for their grand children to come visit them, and in the mean time they struggle with heartless members of staff.” So even though my eyes were opened for the dehumanizing side of the western care for the elderly, I made up rationalizations that helped me believe this is our best option.  And I could accept to be stashed away myself. Is my response normal?


Spiritual everything

Mental space research showed, that the spiritual concepts that help to solve severe issues, are generally projected large, centrally and high up in mental space (Derks & Hollander, 1996).  They tend to be shiny and bright and have a downwards streaming quality to them that comes with feelings of love, gratitude, connectedness, acceptance, compassion and being part of everything. Most religious people have ways to activate these spiritual resources with prayer, mantra’s or by calling out the names of deities, saints or spirits. And they make use of symbols and rituals that help them to enter strong positive mental states that may dissolve all their fears and dilemmas in an instance.

One can also put forward, that these experiences consist of unifying visions with a great level of abstraction, that tend to be associated with strong positive feelings of warmth, gratitude, love and bliss. It are such mental events that help people through difficult times. The visual elements in these concepts tend to be seen above and around everything, as bringing light to all things underneath. Because their all inclusive nature these experiences help to overcome all polarities, dilemmas and inner conflicts.



The NLP techniques called core transformation that came from Connirae and Tamara Andreas (1994), brought the therapeutic use of spiritual resources into a humanistic, secular tradition. Although most leaders from spiritual traditions teach their followers that the spiritual domain is hard to get at, core transformations proves that it is not. It takes down the myth that one needs to sacrifice, worship, cleanse, meditate on end etc. to get to spiritual resources.  With enough skills on the side of the therapist, these resources are often easily made accessible.

By applying spiritual resources on difficult issues with many clients, a clear insight arose in the normal mechanisms involved. It made plausible, that the majority of ordinary people solve many of their day to day problems with spiritual resources. This is indicated by them going ‘good heavens’  in the midst of trouble, then take a breath and relax. In this form, the resources are of low intensity but still have the quality needed to work. People may as it were do a kind of flash prayer and access a supporting sense as an immediate response.

People may of cause argue whether such spirituality is indeed real spirituality. And this discussion immediately raises another issue: Identification with spirituality and the ownership of spirituality. This identification with spirituality is done by claiming to be spiritual, or to be more spiritual than others, or to be an expert on the spiritual and refusing others to have an opinion about it. Such identification is widespread and acts like a stand in the way in the free communication about this subject. People of all sorts have difficulty to be objective about their spirituality, just because of the crucial role it plays in their coping with life’s difficulties. Identification with spirituality is also a way of coping on the level of identity: it may help to fight off the feeling of social insignificance. Claiming to be totally non-spiritual, can do the same thing.

Wlliam James already suggested (James, 1902) that the subjective characteristics of spiritual experience can be quite similar among different religious and cultural traditions. These traditions are the things people identify with and they blind them for the often obvious similarities – some traditions like Souffy and Bahai incorporate this uniformity in the human relation with the spiritual level.

Even people who claim to be atheists, may still use concepts and feelings that share many characteristics of what religious individuals apply. Think of states of being in harmony with nature, knowing ones place in the universe, universal gratitude, inner peace, feeling connected to mankind, loving everything and the love for life. To maintain ones unity of mind, it helps to keep spiritual resources at hand. Fast access in the form, my god, good heavens or oh my gosh, seems to be a widespread normal method for dealing with difficult dilemmas.


Personified spiritual resources

Spiritual experiences can be either personified or un-personified. The former are characterized by the presence of a person-like being in the experience, like an ancestor, an angel, the Virgin, God, Buddha or some spirit. An un-personified spiritual experience, as written about above, consists of a moment of all transcending abstract awareness. The widespread occurrence of personified resources leads to the questions: Is that because the universe is full of spiritual entities? Do personified spiritual resources a better job in helping people to cope with their troubles?

Before I give my answer, we go back to personification as a social psychological cornerstone. In article 3 we mentioned, that it is the skill to personify, that allows a person to regard other humans as members of their own kind. This skill is generally mastered before age three and depending on the criteria used, maybe much earlier in life. As stated above, when we represent another human as a personification, we create by definition a disowned part in the classical NLP sense of the word –  in the social panorama model all the others are seen as parts of us (Derks, 2005).

Only after we know how to conceive of real humans in the shape of personifications, we can also start to apply this way of thinking on non-human beings; on anything from toys, dolls, machines, abstractions to pets. Personification implies the attribution of human properties, like logic, feelings, motives, emotions, beliefs etc., to the thing that is personified. For instance, we automatically assume that other people do have feelings and their own perspective on life. When we on the other hand assume that they don’t, they immediately become strange to us. For instance: This is my friend Phil. He has no feelings nor his own ideas… (Phil must be a weirdo!) Or the opposite example: This is my iMac computer, he feels me touching his control key and gets erotic fantasies…

People tend to attribute regular human properties (compassion, creativity, intelligence, speech, love) and also superhuman properties (eternal life, being in more places at the same time, omnipotence) to their spiritual resources. Logically speaking it are these very special properties that expand the potential of these resources and make them far more helpful in coping with difficult issues than just a strong abstract positive state of mind.

A personified resource will be located somewhere in mental space. It may hold a prominent place there – maybe straight up – and can be experienced like a someone with great power and authority. Represented in such a manner one can maintain a permanent relationship with the personified resource, as if it were a super parent or super partner.

The strength of personified spiritual resources lays in their supposed  ability to listen, to relate back and to empathize. And by these means provide a person with highly intelligent social services. In other words, the subject prays and the personified resource answers by giving him or her supporting and comforting social feelings. These personified resources take away loneliness, because of their social nature and continuous presence. Even in the direst of circumstances, when nothing else helps, the personified spiritual resources give comfort. Their very existence creates hope on miracles and supreme interventions.   

In another area of religious practice, the responses of the spiritual resources are regarded as supra human. They are ascribed super natural communicate channels, in the form of divination, oracles, divine inspiration and higher guidance. By assuming that personified spiritual resources are very powerful and possess supernatural capabilities, one raises the expectations about the blessings they can provide. In nearly all religious healing practices, shamans and priest draw on these expectations. And as already stated, when clients and priests alike, both believe these powers indeed exist, their convictions forms an integrated part of the blessings these resources can provide.

Shamans in polytheistic traditions, may draw on a pantheon of spirits and gods. Of cause, when it comes to creating unity of mind, monotheistic religions have the advantage. However, this single mindedness creates more fundamentalism at the same price. Polytheism is often the better method for maintaining moderate attitudes and for representing and understanding inner conflicts; not so much for solving them in one go.

I don’t know of studies that have the calling for ‘mama’ in young children connected to the search for spiritual aid in adults. But ‘my God!’ and ‘mama!’ seem to me to fulfill an identical purpose in coping.

In regular psychotherapy (PA, CBT), one makes little use of personified spiritual resources. The reasons may be found in the acquired negative attitude towards religious and occult practices among academic therapists. In the wake of Sigmund Freud they learned to see psychotherapy as medical science, and will avoid being associated with such primordial activities. Arguments against personified resources are also easily found in catastrophic cultish healing cases and abuse in religious sects (Alstadt & Kramer, 1993), or excesses like alien abduction therapy and Satanism. And indeed, many authoritarian cult leaders can be said to use group hypnosis to induce strong personified resources including the saintly representation of themselves.

However sensitive the public image of therapy may be, it is totally unscientific to turn away from such prominent phenomena, just by the fear that one’s reputation will be jeopardized. But the main reason for this neglect is, as far as I can see, the common blindness for the mechanisms involved.

But what about the future? Maybe psychotherapist will discover the potential of personified spiritual resources in the same way as medical doctors with a good understanding of biochemistry started to re-appreciate the healing power of plants.


A secular approach to spiritual healing

In common NLP therapy, one can observe therapists help their clients to personify problematic parts on a regular base: ‘Visualize the part of you that does the nail biting? What does it tell you about its purpose?’ On the other hand, we see that personified resources are uncommon in NLP. Only in six step reframing we may regard the creative part and in the Disney strategy the positions that way. Dilts & McDonald (1996) personify problems and resources in their enmeshment technique.

However, even without a coach to guide them therewards, clients may still start to personify their resources spontaneously: ‘My self-confidence is a big lady, that moves slow and talks to me with a low voice. She tells me what to do…’ Clinical experience shows, that the personification of resources is nearly always beneficial. The communication with any part, problem or support, opens up a broader range of problem solving possibilities. The reason is, that people tend to house great amounts of social skills, these become included in the problem solving process when parts are personified. As if the social calculation power, that was not used for the problem, now comes into assistance. We see the same mechanism in structure constellations as these are practiced by Varga von Kibet & Sparrer (1998) and types of psychodrama, in which abstractions of any kind, can be represented by life people; who also can play the role of a resource. This is similar to voodoo-like rituals, in which people role-play positive deities.

My colleague Wolfgang Walker is a strong proponent of personified resources in the shape of ‘helpers’. In contrast to me, he is more open to the idea of real existence of spiritual entities – which of course only improves his congruence. In his work, helpers can be given any assignment that moves the therapeutic process forwards. This may be diagnostic at times or advisory in other instances. Such helpers prove most useful in the areas where things become too complex for either client or therapist to keep track. When things become too difficult, one can ask a helper to fix it.

Walker is very successful in having helpers to identify hidden split of parts and also find the necessary coping skills the clients are lacking. He also have helpers to recreate and improve the spatial configuration (social panorama) of family systems in early childhood. Most clients easily understand the notion of ‘helpers’ and although some may frown upon the slightly occult atmosphere, this is dealt with by transparency and humor.

So Walker himself comes up with the idea to mobilize a helper, but the communication with the helper is taken on only over the client. In great contrast to what is common shamanistic tradition, he does not talk with the spirits over the head of the client. For instance in the Surinamese Winti-religion, the Lukku-man oracles to identify the spirit (Winti) that is responsible for the clients’ problem. After that, it is the task of another practitioner, the Bono-man, to pacify the evil spirit. Both shamans make use of their personal helper spirits, to enable them to do supernatural work. This raises the status of the witchdoctor but keeps the client very passive. However, we must assume that the client also knows the pantheon, and has lively images of the spirits. So the client also live through the process in their imagination, be it more dissociated. Shamans compensate for that distance by their dramatic entourage. The procedures that Walker follows, create an accurate fit to the needs of the client. And by being more involved, the client will take credits for the result, which will raise their general self-esteem.


The normal need for imaginary companionship

Technically speaking, splitting of a part and then personifying it, is what many clients with dissociative problems do. And they may attribute all kinds of human traits to such parts. Split of parts may do anything from bringing a person to horrendous deeds to becoming their best friend and sometimes both at the same time. Some parts are dominant authorities that take command over their lives others are savors, servants or lovers.

The use of personified resources confronts us with the psychological similarity between the splitting off and trying to get rid of unbearable parts and the creation of resourceful ones. The extent to which sane people engage in creating personified resources, is visible in their description of their coping with problems. Gods, devils and demons are traditional names for mental creations that play a huge role in creating and solving problems in normal people. Talking to oneself, talking to diseased loved ones, talking to gods, the universe, saints, pets and whatever, may all be part of what normal people do to maintain their unity of mind. And that is why prayer and meditation in all their different forms in combination with personified and un-personified spiritual resources need to be taken very serious, especially in preventive mental health care.


Final conclusion

The understanding of unconscious background cognition is by far the greatest challenge for psychology. In search of reliable psychological research methods, high tech is generally favored and the clinical option is often overlooked. However, psychotherapist work hands on with many subjects. The similarities they encounter among their cases, do not result in numbers, but can be so significant, that only people with academic deformities are able to discredit them.



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