Dilts’ Brain Science
Updated: 5 February 2014
The Neurological Levels model developed by Robert Dilts (1990) is a key concept in NLP and forms the basis for understanding at the Nominal Level in Integrated SocioPsychology. The ‘walking the levels’ therapeutic exercise Dilts derived from the model is regarded as highly effective by a great many NLP Practitioners.
However, Neurological Levels as a construct has received a rough ride from a number of critics on both scientific and methodological grounds. Some of these criticisms are outlined in Peter McNab’s Aligning Neurological Levels – A Reassessment (1999) article.
One aspect of the Neurological Levels concept which is often criticised is Dilts’ attribution of brain anatomy and activity.
It certainly is doubtful whether statements from Robert Dilts & Judith DeLozier’s online Encyclopedia of NLP (p 866-867, 2000) such as:-
◦“The level of neurology that is mobilised when a person is challenged at the level of mission and identity, for instance, is much deeper than the level of neurology that is required to move his or her hand.”
◦‘Forming and manifesting beliefs and value about our capabilities, behaviours and the environment requires an even deeper commitment of neurology…”
◦“Neurologically beliefs are associated with the limbic system and the hypothalamus in the mid-brain.”
◦“While the limbic system is a more ‘primitive’ structure that the cortex of the brain in many ways….”
◦“Because they are produced by deeper structures of the brain, beliefs produce changes in the fundamental physiological functions in the body….”
are entirely compatible with the kind of understanding of brain development which has taken place in the past 10 years. Through the work of such neuroscientists as Joseph LeDoux (1996), we now know Paul MacLean’s triune brain (1973) concept of new layers of brain imposing themselves over previous (deeper) layers is too simplistic.
Nonetheless, Dilts’ partial demarcation of function between the limbic system and the cortex does fit to a considerable degree with current brain science and complements the work of neuroscientists like Mark Solms (who so far has applied a Freudian interpretation to his findings) with regard to the frontal cortex and the limbic system.
The limbic system’s amygdala is the centre of the emotional system. When we feel something (anger, hate, love, peace, etc), the amygdala is at work, usually stimulating the hypothalamus to produce corresponding physiological symptoms (muscle tension, increased heart rate, etc). A key pleasure centre in the brain is thought to be in the medial forebrain bundle of the hypothalamus. The sense we make of all this is the business of the cortex – and thought can often change feeling – but the business of raw emotion belongs to the limbic system.
If we use the rough’n’ready definition of a value as something that is important to us – something that matters – then inevitably there is an emotional component in the valuing. Which means Dilts is quite correct to attribute a challenge to values as having an effect on the limbic system. If someone questions our values – our motivation for what we think and do – then we can find that very threatening. The amygdala is involved because of the emotional attachment to our values. An alarmed amygdala will trigger hypothalamic responses, resulting in physiological and mental stress. The higher someone is in the temperament dimension of Neuroticism – ie, they have a more reactive amygdala – the more alarmed and stressed they are likely to be at a challenge to their values.
More abstracted thinking and reasoning and the learning of linear skills – Dilts’ neurological level of Skills & Knowledge – is the work of the cortex. Thus, cognitive activity which does not centre on values can be conducted in a relatively non-passionate manner.
vMEMES and the amygdala
Of course, in reality the brain is not as clearly segmented as this approach might suggest – and neither is it always that obvious which neurological level a category fits into. (Sometimes they fit into more than one!) For example, making love could be a value, a skill or a behaviour…!
It’s also important to note that, if someone’s RED vMEME is strong in their selfplex and someone questions their knowledge, what should be a relatively non-passionate debate may well invoke a highly passionate response. This is because their RED will have a high level of pride – selfplex investment – in that knowledge. (Muzafer Sherif & Carl Hovland (1961), on whose Social Judgement Theory the Assimilation-Contrast Effect is based, referred to what I call ‘selfplex investment’ as ‘ego investment’.)
So Dilts is pretty accurate in his assumptions that Skills & Knowledge are associated more with the cortical areas while Values & Beliefs are associated more with the limbic area. However, an absolute demarcation would be incorrect and would fly in the face of the newer information on brain science. It is better to think of the brain as being a cohesive whole with some areas more involved in certain activities than others. (Some areas much more so!)