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Aligning Neurological Levels – a Reassessment

Some Thoughts on Moving Towards an Integral NLP
Peter McNab

The founder and leading light of excellence for all Ltd and one of the world’s foremost trainers in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Peter McNab has been looking at how models, theories and techniques can be integrated for a number of years. He has increasingly proposed and promoted the concept of ‘Integral NLP’.

This article on Neurological Levels was written originally for the Association for Neuro-Linguistic Programming (ANLP) magazine, Rapport (issue no 43), in 1999. A year before Don Beck & Ken Wilber revealed 4Q/8L to the world, Peter was using Wilber’s 4 Quadrants very potently to provide greater insight into Robert Dilts’ model.

The article is republished here with Peter’s full involvement. E-mail Peter or visit to learn more about his work.

I cannot remember the last issue of Rapport that did not contain an article or 2 mentioning Robert Dilts’ ‘Neurological Levels or ‘Logical Levels’. The concept has been taken up within the NLP world with such zeal that it sometimes feels like heresy to challenge it. But that is what I would like to do in this short article.

I can still remember the first time that I went through the exercise of ‘Aligning Neurological Levels’ way back in 1991 on my Master Practitioner Programme, the very last one to be taught solely by Robert Dilts & Todd Epstein. It was an extraordinary experience. The Explorer I was guiding was very tired and very sceptical until we stepped into the space of ‘Spirituality’. By coincidence we also stepped into the Santa Cruz sunshine which had previously been hidden by the building we were working against. As we walked back to the space of ‘Environment’, she was no longer tired and no longer sceptical. She had had what we would probably call a ‘peak experience’.

Since then I have taught the process many times and always successfully. I have also used the process with others with great success. It has also become one of the most written about models in NLP. Given this, it was with some surprise that I first began to question the model some years ago. As I explored NLP deeper and started to look at some of the models related to it, the process no longer made logical sense. And yet, it worked and still works. How can this be?

But first, for the sake of any NLP readers recently returned from the planet Venus, here is a quick summary of the model.

Aligning neurological levels
Apparently adapting ideas from Gregory Bateson (1972), Robert (1990) has devised a hierarchy of levels, which he describes as ‘neurological’. Adding in a quote from Albert Einstein that we can only solve problems by using thinking at a higher ‘logical level’ than the thinking, which created the problem, Robert then – Robert B Dilts, Todd  Epstein & Robert W Dilts (1991) – says that we can only solve problems or resolve issues from the higher levels of his model. The hierarchy that he creates:-

Spirituality / Connectedness – Who / What Else Is Involved?
Identity – Who?
Beliefs / Values – Why? What For?
Capabilities – How?
Behaviours – What?
Environment – Where? When?

To ‘align’ these levels we first have to separate them out and spatially mark them on the floor. Once this is done, the Explorer is asked to reflect on a context to explore and then to step on to the space of Environment thinking about where and when they have been or will be as they consider the problem. The Explorer is then invited to take a series of steps ‘up’ the Logical Levels as they answer a series of questions: “What are you doing?” “How are you doing it?” “What do you believe?” “Who are you?” “Who or what else is involved?” Having considered these questions and probably answered them internally, the Explorer then walks back towards Environment noticing how each space changes as she or he brings the preceding space into the current one, basically collapsing the previously set anchors.

In our world of NLP we pride ourselves that everything in NLP has a logical structure which can be explained to non-NLPers and, if necessary, defended. But these ‘levels’ are not ‘neurological’, not ‘logical’, and not ‘levels’ and yet this model has not received the same intellectual rigour that we give to other new developments. I suspect that this is because it works and no explanation is needed if we can get people to go through the process.

My own quest for understanding began as I started to look at the exercise assuming that it is logical and that there are levels included within it and, therefore, a hierarchy. And the person I know who has written most about hierarchies and holarchies is Ken Wilber.

A brief history of holons
In ‘Sex, Ecology, Spirituality’ (1995) and again in ‘A Brief History Of Everything’ (1996),  Wilber introduces us to the concept of ‘holarchies’, which are basically hierarchies of ‘holons’. First coined by Arthur Koestler (1967), a ‘holon’ is a ‘part/whole’. Everything is at the same time a part of something else and also a whole in and of itself. For example, an atom is a whole thing in and of itself and yet it is also a part of an element, and is also comprised of molecules. A letter is a whole thing and can also be part of a word which is also a whole thing and yet could also be part of a sentence.

From these basic building blocks, ‘holarchies’ of ‘holons’, or ‘hierarchies’ of ‘whole/parts’, build up. In the world of NLP we sometimes call this ‘chunking’. So, if we consider a tree as a ‘whole’, we might consider some of its constituent ‘parts’ such as branches, roots, and leaves. On the other hand, if we consider the tree as a ‘part’, we might consider what it is a part of, such as a forest. The tree is a holon and has a very specific part in the holarchy. Another important concept to introduce here is that, if we were to destroy a forest, trees could still exist; but, if were to destroy the holon ‘trees’, forests could not exist.

This is a fundamental point that Wilber makes – there is a direction to ‘development’. Each succeeding holon ‘transcends’ and ‘includes’ the preceding holons in the holarchy. So that ‘forests’ transcend & include ‘trees’ but not vice versa. It is this “not vice versa” which provides us with the direction of the universe (and Wilber very cogently argues that this is the direction towards ‘Spirit’ but that is the topic of a future article).

Holarchies or logical levels?
If we now return to Robert’s model and look at it through Wilberian eyes, what happens?

It is often taught that the way in which Robert’s exercise works is because higher levels are more important and have more influence than lower ones. If I make a change at a higher level then the lower levels will automatically be changed. I have been one of those NLP Trainers who have incorrectly quoted Einstein: “We can only change things by using thinking at a higher level.”

But, consider the example given above: if we change or break down elements, the atoms remain; if we change or break down the atoms, the molecules remain. Healthy holarchies only work if we transcend & include. If we destroy the trees, there is no forest. If we destroy the forest there may be some trees left which may then grow into a new forest.

The starting place for the model is the Environment. Robert says that the model is hierarchical and that when we change something above then what is below will automatically be changed. The most common NLP change techniques learned on Robert’s trainings are at the Belief level. So, let us say that I have changed a disempowering belief using Reimprinting. According to the model, my Capabilities, my Behaviours, and the very Environment itself will now be transformed. This is patently not the case if I were to be dropped off in the Arctic, or an earthquake suddenly destroyed my village, or the train compartment I am sitting in bursts into flames, or I am diagnosed with cancer. Quite clearly, in these examples, if the holons of the Environment are changed or destroyed, the Environment itself will be changed or may even cease to exist; and, if I have no bodily functions or they are greatly impaired, then a belief change process will be of no use to me. If we destroy the Environment, then there will be no thinking or feeling or behaving to change. What we are really talking about here is the context and we know from our NLP Presuppositions that everything is context dependent. The Environment is not a part of the model; it is actually the context in which we consider the model.

Robert’s starting place is the Environment, the context into which we are placing the system. When we take someone through the exercise we start, quite rightly, by getting him or her to consider a context into which to place the experience. So far so good. But where does Environment exist?

There are in fact 4 major areas where Environment exists and each of these gives us a true picture of the situation – but none gives us the full picture. What we get from these four perspectives is true and partial:

It might be in our heart and mind as we tussle with some disempowering belief – “Logical Level Alignment has always worked for me so why am I questioning it?”

It might be a behaviour that we are exhibiting which is no longer helpful to us – “There might be a better way to describe experiences than through the concept of Logical Level Alignment.”

It might be our relationship to the current worldview of the society we live in – “The whole Gravesian Green World of NLP accepts Logical Level Alignment as True.”

It might be the external structures, which have evolved around these beliefs and values – “The best way to learn NLP is at this School where we base everything around Logical Level Alignment.”

The truth is that the Environment exists at all of these levels – it depends on how we are currently looking at it – none of these viewpoints is true or false, they are all partial. To see the whole picture we need to examine the Environment from all 4 perspectives.

The next step in the process is to move to the next ‘neurological’, or ‘logical’, level, which is that of Behaviour which is described as what we are doing at any point in time. If we consider this holarchically (or through the eyes of ‘chunking’ for NLPers), how can we get from the Environment to Behaviours? The answer is that we cannot. We can only get there through one of the 4 perspectives mentioned above and this misses out the other 3. If we stick to this particular perspective we shall get a view which may well be true but will also miss a lot out because it is partial. And so this move from Environment to Behaviour is not holarchical and it is not logical.

The next move is ‘up’ from Behaviours to Capabilities. The immediate question to ask here is: what are ‘Capabilities’? They are described in several of the books as the way in which we do things and the question to ask to elicit them is: “How are you doing this?” This is the stage in the process, which most often leads to confusion, and the reason for the confusion is that we have something called a category error.

According to the model, we have a hierarchy and we know that hierarchies build up logically. If we return to one of the hierarchies mentioned earlier: put enough of the right letters together and you can form words, and enough of those in the right order and you can create a sentences, and enough sentences in the right order produce a paragraph, and so on…. But it doesn’t matter how many paragraphs we put together we will not get a car. The same is true of Robert’s model: how ever many behaviours we put together and in what ever order we put them together there is no way that we can get to Capabilities. The same is also true of Beliefs & Values. The model starts to break down – and yet, it works, how can this be? The answer emerges when we take a quadronic perspective; but for now let’s return to the model.

Capabilities are supposed to be a transcendent holon built upon Behaviours but we have discovered is nothing of the kind. What is a ‘Capability’? Those things of which we are capable are potentialities and hence do not lie in the present. They might lie in the future as things that we may do then and they may lie in the past as memories of behaviours, sometimes called ‘Skills’, which we have performed previously. If we take this definition then what Robert has very skilfully done is to add the dimension of time to ‘Behaviours’ which is going to be a useful extra dimension in problem solving. Another possibility is that we are taken away from Behaviours completely; and, as we consider potentialities, we go inside to the world of thoughts and beliefs, values and emotions. A good place to go but, again, this is a lateral shift not a holarchical one.

The next step that we are invited to take is from Capabilities, or ‘behaviours across time’ or ‘past skills’ or ‘future potential skills’, to Beliefs. (‘Values’ were added as a later development). As I have already shown, there is no way that we can chunk up from Behaviours to Beliefs or Values. They belong in different realms. We are faced with another category error – a useful one which gets us to shift to another perspective but a category error none the less.

Another way to understand all of this would be to return to Ken Wilber and The 4 Quadrants.

4-QuadrantsThe 4 Quadrants
Since the publication of his first book, ‘The Spectrum Of Consciousness’ (1977), nearly a quarter of a century ago, Ken Wilber has been attempting to integrate eastern and western philosophy and thoughts. When sitting down to write ‘Sex, Ecology, Spirituality’ (Volume One of ‘The Kosmos Trilogy’), he became intrigued once again by the fact that we have so many theories and theorists which are valuable in mapping human consciousness and yet which contradict one another. How can it be that  B F Skinner could disagree with Sigmund Freud who disagreed with Karl Marx who disagreed with….

What Wilber did was to write down all of the theories that he could find on to individual post-its – he ended up with thousands of holarchies – and try to organise them into some sort of structure which made sense. What emerged was The 4 Quadrants Model. This model sets out to discover how each of these models could be true and contradictory. The answer is of course that they are true and partial. The reason for this is that they are looking at the world from a very particular perspective, from one quadrant only.

The 4 Quadrants are the interior-individual, the exterior-individual, the interior-collective (cultural), and the exterior-collective (social).

The most complete published version of this model appears in ‘Sex, Ecology, Spirituality’ and ‘A Brief History Of Everything’ (1995) – see graphic to left.

There is also an edited version of this, which we have been using on the excellence for all Master Practitioner Programme for the past 3 years – see graphic below.

4Q-Basic-CWilber’s aim is to provide a template that will enable us to produce a more integral model than the disintegrated ones that we currently work with. His next book, ‘Integral Psychology’ (2000?), is probably the one which will be of most interest to many readers of this magazine and which points a way forward for therapists and counsellors. ‘The Integral Vision’, Volumes 1 & 2, not yet published, consists of the many practical ways in which Wilber’s ideas have been applied in many different contexts. There will be sections on how NLP has been integrated with Wilber’s work including a section on the work which former EFA students have been undertaking within a variety of organisations. For those of you interested in an integration of Wilber’s work with that of Clare Graves and NLP, I would recommend the Introduction to Volume 7 of ‘The Collected Works’ (which can be downloaded from Shambhala’s website at:

The 4 Quadrants refer back to the 4 perspectives that we can take on the Environment. Within each of these quadrants there are holarchies which provide the thrust or direction for each aspect of experience. But it is only when we examine all 4 quadrants that we have anything which anywhere near resembles the totality. If we only utilise one of the Quadrants we shall have a true picture but one which is partial.

Quadronic alignment
You will have by now realised that Robert Dilts’ starting point of the ‘Neurological Levels Alignment’ is Environment which, we now know, contains all of the 4 Quadrants at the same time. In terms of Systems Theory, this is the space in which we explore the system; no System can exist outside of an Environment or context.

For most of us, however, this is too big a picture to contemplate; we need to be able to differentiate before we can integrate. In the process Robert takes us to the Upper Right or Objective Quadrant (UR) to consider our Behaviours first. This is the Quadrant of the Exterior Individual where we exhibit the external manifestations of the interior self.

Having thought about the present, he then has us move up and down within the Exterior Individual Quadrant (UR) so that we can consider the past and the future as well as the present. We are invited to contemplate past behaviours, which might be useful to us again in the future. We are invited to contemplate future potential behaviours that we might exhibit now.

In addition to exploring the Exterior Individual Quadrant (UR) we are also invited across to the Interior Individual Quadrant (UL) where we can look at our Skills which are an internal construction. We stay in the Subjective Quadrant (UL) as we explore Beliefs and Values.

Very cleverly, Robert next invites us to integrate these two sides of the Individual – the Interior (UL) and the Exterior (UR) – by getting us to consider Identity. What is Identity if not a synthesis of the Behaviours, Beliefs and Values of the ‘NLP Pie’ or Mercedes Model? On completing this process we have differentiated and integrated the Upper Halves of the Quadrants (UL & UR) and considered some of this over time.

For complete integration, however, we need to move to the Lower Half of the Quadrants (LL & LR) and consider the Individual in terms of the society and social structures within which we operate as well as the Beliefs and Values of our society. Robert does this by asking us to think about “Who or what else is involved?” at which point our attention shifts to the larger palette of the Interobjective and the Intersubjective. Having now reintegrated that which we formerly differentiated we can now bring this back to the specific context or issue that we wanted new perspectives on.

And so what starts as something, which is (not)neuro(not)logical(not)levels, ends up by enabling us to gain integration at a very deep level and this, I believe, is why the process works. It may also explain why so many of us have accepted the process at face value; we don’t need to understand it because it works.

NLs-4QThe Quadronic alignment process
If we summarise the process in terms of the Quadrants, it would look something like this:-

Environment the context which may contain some or all aspects of the Quadrants.
This is an invitation to differentiate different aspects of the issue. On the 4 Quadrants we find this right at the centre of the map.

The Upper Right Quadrant concerned with objectivity.

We stay in the Upper Right and consider our behaviours over time – past and future and/or we move across to the Upper Left Quadrant of subjectivity and think and feel about our skills.

Beliefs & Values
We stay in the Upper Left Quadrant as we think and feel about our beliefs and values.

In considering who we are and our sense of self there is an integration of Upper Left & Upper Right. Those of us who are more Others Referenced will also start to explore how all that we have considered will affect others and will already have shifted some of our attention to the Lower Quadrants.

Spirituality Or Connectedness
We now shift our attention to Lower Left & Lower Right – the realms of Intersubjectivity and Interobjectivity – and begin the process of integrating them.

Identity, Beliefs, Values, Capabilities, Behaviours
As we collapse the anchors set up there is an integration of Lower Left/Lower Right with Upper Left/Upper Right.

We now return to the context having considered all Quadrants at all Levels and ideally we move towards Integration.

My aim has been to help the more logical of you to understand how and why people are so attracted to Robert Dilts’ process and that those of you who are enamoured of the process may start to think a little more about how and why some of the NLP processes that we all take for granted work. It is only through this deeper understanding of the deeper structures that we will be able to continue the development of NLP. The world tends to allow its children all sorts of leeways but now that we are emerging from our adolescence and taking initial steps into the real world we need to develop more intellectual robustness if we are to survive.

I would welcome comments and discussion on these concepts and ideas.


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