Presupposition #6: Language is a tertiary representation of experience

This presupposition I go back to time and time again. You know the old adage: A picture is worth a thousand words? Well, an experience is worth 1000’s more. In fact most of the time we can’t get the words to explain the experience to someone.

When we experience something, anything our senses are bombarded with 2 billion bits of information but our conscious mind can only deal with 5-9 pieces of information at a given moment. So, there is so much more information that gets filtered out of our conscious awareness.

When we experience an event, our conscious brain sorts from the information it gets the meaning associated with how our brain reacts to this information… so if we get painful feelings our conscious mind says something like “don’t like that, don’t want that to happen again.” Then it goes back and checks the experience and reinforces the meaning associated with it. This is the experience of the experience – A secondary event.

When we put language to the event, we are not putting language to the primary event, we are putting language to the experience of the experience.

These are levels of modeling and have a direct effect on our experience of the world. These levels of modeling could be depicted as layers, which separate us from the world at large. (picture) The three layers are: 1.) our sensory experience, 2.) our experience of experience and 3.) our language. 

Each level of modeling is meta to the level below it. (Meta means moving up to a higher level or awareness of our awareness.) The higher the level at which the modeling occurs, the greater the distance between the model and the world at large. Language is a useful representation of experience, but it is a representation, not the real thing. Which means language is a model of our internally constructed model of reality. The problem comes in when we assume ours or other’s language is reality.

I remember a time when I was asked to take part in an introductory seminar of an organization that used a modified version of NLP to have people sign up and take their course and eventually become zealots for their company. This example was once part of their introductory seminars:  

They called this process “un-collapsing the vicious circle.” They asked participants to find an area of their life when they had experienced being trapped with their job or family. They then drew a diagram of a circle to the left on the board and labeled it “what happened” instead of the “experience.” Then they drew another circle to the right of the first circle and call it the “concept” or the “story” about what happened – which is really the “experience of the experience”.

And then they would explain, “So what human beings do is have an experience, then make up a story about the experience. They then review the experience and then go back again to their story and then back to the experience, over and over and over again until they aren’t living in the experience or what happened. They are living very far away from the reality as a result of the vicious circle.” Then the spokesperson for this organization would say if you sign up for their seminar you will have the experience of un-collapsing this vicious circle so you can always be present to what happened in your life.

Never in their introduction or any where else in their training did they say, this is an entirely human concept – so everyone experiences this. And that there is no way to get out of this process ever because it is the way your brain processes information – by continuously updating our maps of reality!

But there is a way to change the negative feelings associated with experiencing your experiences. And, it is called NLP. The only thing available from these seminars is the illusion of elation or emotional release from going from and environment where you are sitting practically on top of the people next to you to having space around you. Due to their inability to be specific enough in a seminar setting, this company can only at best make a behavior change. But without creating a change in the corresponding belief that supports the behavior, the new behavior doesn’t last. Usually it lasts only for about a week tops…which is precisely how much time they have to get you enrolled in the next seminar.


Tracy Joy is an NLP practitioner, author, and speaker in Vancouver, Canada. She is an international business expert in the area of human systems analysis and thinking change. If you have brain questions, send them Tracy and she’ll answer them on this blog. She can be reached through www.TherapeuticNLP.com