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Words and thoughts can place us in a "good or bad state". They are anchors to a complex series of experiences within us. They have the power to evoke images, sounds and feelings in the listener or reader or in ourselves. They can start or break up a relationship, server or serve diplomatic relationships and provoke or defuse fights.

Yet for most of us, language is used without thought of its consequence. This often leads to distorted patterns of thinking not associated to the event itself. So what is it about our thinking that leads us to that place that we either misinterpret the event or distort our perception of the events or spoken language only to create stories in our minds that may or may not be true. To answer this questions lets look at how we think and how that impacts what choices we make about our thoughts.


Maps & Filters


The world is an infinity of possible sense impressions that we perceive only a very small part. The part we do perceive is often further filtered by how we think in relation to our unique experience of life.


Everyone lives their unique reality built from there individual experiences of life and as such act on the basis of what we perceive in regards to our internal model of the world. Our culture, our language, our beliefs, our values, our interests, our assumptions and the choices we make all influence what part of that information brings meaning to our experience. Think for a moment what "beauty" means to you.  No doubt you will have memories, internal pictures, sounds and feelings that let you make sense of that word. Equally, someone else will have different memories and experiences and will think about that word in a different way.


Considering we only process a very small amount of information that the world offers us, there are other processes in play that allow us to notice and respond to much more without being aware. As mentioned, our conscious mind is very limited and seems to able to keep track of a maximum of seven variables (approximately 134 bits of information out of 2,000,000) or pieces of information at one time. This is outlined by the American Psychologist, George Miller in his book, "The Magic Number Seven", Plus or Minus Two". So the conscious mind is therefore limited to small pieces of information either form the internal world of our thoughts or from the external world of experience.


Our unconscious mind, by contrast, is all the life-giving processes of our body, all that we have learned, our past experiences, and all that we might notice, but do not notice in the present moment. The unconscious is much wiser than that of the conscious mind. The idea of being able to understand an infinitely complex world with a conscious mind that can only hold about seven pieces of information at once is obviously ludicrous yet as human beings we persist in the possibility. Therefore the notion of conscious and unconscious is central to understanding our thinking.




If the loop of understanding our thinking has a beginning it starts with our sense. Our eyes, nose, ears, mouth and skin are only point of contact with the outside world. Even these points of contact are not what they seem. Take your eyes for example. It would appear they are the windows to our world though if look at  what is happening in the process of sight we will come to realize the complexity of the process which ultimately leads to an image that is uniquely yours.


The eyes are made up receptors, rods and cones of the retina, that respond not to light itself, but to the changes or differences in the light. Consider the apparent simple task of looking at the words in a book. If your eyes and the book where perfectly still, the word would disappear as soon as each rod had fired in response the initial black or white stimulus. In order to keep sending information about the shape of the letters, the eye flicker minutely and rapidly so the rods at the boundary of black and white keep on being stimulated. In this way we continue to see the letter. The image is them projected upside down  onto the retina, coded into electrical impulses by the rods and cones and reassembled from these by the visual cortex of the brain. The resulting picture that you perceive is then projected out in front of you, but in essence is wholly created inside the brain.


So in actual fact we see through a complex series of active perceptual filters. The same is true for our other senses. The world we perceive is not the real world. It is a perception made by our neurological make up which is influence by and filtered further through our beliefs, interests and preoccupations.


Our Representational System


What are thoughts? There are many scientific answers, yet everyone knows intimately what thinking is for them. They remind us of the past, help us evaluate the present and plan for the future. When we think about what we see, hear, feel, smell and taste we can recreate these sights, sounds, feelings and experiences inwardly which engage our neurology to re-experience or create an experience without even being there.


Therefore, one way we think is to consciously or unconsciously remember the sights, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells we have experienced. Through the medium of language we can even create varieties of sensory experiences without even having the experience. If you consider describing to someone eating a lemon for example, the very act of that thought and description can elicit neurological and physiological responses as if the fruit was right there in front of you even though the fruit is not present. It's these same neurological pathways to represent our experience inwardly that we use to experience our world directly. The way we take in, store and code information in our minds (seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting) are known as representational systems.


Understanding these representational systems allows us to begin to discover the many aspects of how we think and how it influences not only process within our mind but also the selection of language we use to describe our personal experience of the world both internally and externally to others.


Visual (V), auditory (A), kinesthetic (K), gustatory (G) and olfactory (O) are the five primary sensory modalities that we use to experience the world around us. As mentioned these modalities are also known as representational systems as they are the primary ways we represent, code, store and give meaning or language to our experiences.

Often, we work with three representational systems which include visual, auditory and kinesthetic. The other primary senses, gustatory and olfactory do not normally play a major role and are often included with kinesthetic as a part of our experience. However, if you are a person who uses and relies on your gustatory or olfactory senses to a large degree, you will often develop thinking in such a way that your senses separate your internal process from a generalized experience of kinesthetic to a considerable more complex representational system which incorporates gustatory and olfactory. For most of us, they often serve as powerful and immediate links to sights, sounds and pictures associated to them. For some individuals, the auditory presentational systems will divide into two components. These are auditory tonal, which is a preference for sound and / or auditory digital for those who experience their world and thinking in words such as discrete verbal symbols or digits. Generally it is considered that visual, auditory and kinesthetic are the primary representational systems used in Western Cultures.

Preferred Representational Systems


We use all of our senses and depending on the circumstances may focus on one or more of them. For example, when listening to a favorite piece of music, we may close our eyes to more fully listen and to experience certain feelings.

While saying that, each of us have preferred representational systems. For example, when learning something new, some of us may prefer to see it or imagine it performed, others need to hear how to do it, others need to get a feeling for it, and yet others have to make sense of it. In general, one system is not better than another. However, depending on the context, one or more of the representational systems may be more effective. An example of this might be a: landscape painter preferring visual, or a musician preferring auditory tonal, or in the case of athletes their preference may be kinesthetic and finally a mathematician may find a preference auditory digital. People at the top of their profession typically have the ability to use all of the representational systems and to choose the one most appropriate for the situation.

Depending on your preferred representational system(s), you may exhibit certain behaviors or characteristics. Before exploring these behaviors, please note that depending on what is going on in your life, or the context, you may change your preferred representational system(s). Hence, it is more useful to notice the representational system a person is currently favoring, rather than pigeon-holing a person.

The following are generalizations on the characteristics of people with a preference for visual, auditory tonal, kinesthetic or auditory digital. Remember, with all generalizations, there are always exceptions.



People with a visual preference will tend to:

• Be organized, neat and well-groomed. Why? Because they want to look good. And what do they expect from you? Yes, the same thing!
• Use visualization for memory and decision making - often getting insights about something.
• Be more imaginative and may have difficulty putting their ideas in words.
• Speak faster than the general population. Why? Because they have a picture(s) in their mind and if it is a moving picture, there is a lot to tell in so little time!
• Prefer in-person interactions - to see the other person and his/her reactions.
• Want to see or be shown concepts, ideas or how something is done.
• Want to see the big picture.
• May not remember what people have said and become confused if you give them too many verbal instructions. However, if you can draw a map or picture for them, then they can see what you are saying.
• Remember faces more easily than names.
• Be distracted by visual activity and less so by noise.


Auditory Tonal
People with an auditory tonal preference will tend to:
• Be more aware of subtle change in the tone of your voice and be more responsive to certain tones of voice.
• Perceive and represent sequences and are able to remember directions or instructions more easily.
• Learn by listening and asking questions.
• Enjoy discussions and prefer to communicate through spoken language rather than the written word.
• Talk through problems and like to have someone available to serve as a sounding board for their ideas.
• Need to be heard.
• Be easily distracted by noise.


People with a kinesthetic preference will tend to:
• Speak slower than the general population. Why? Because they need time to get in touch with how they feel about the topic.
• Be more sensitive to their bodies and their feelings and respond to physical rewards and touching.
• Learn by doing, moving or touching.
• Dress and groom themselves more for comfort than how they look.
• Make decisions based on their feelings.
• Stand closer to other people than those with a visual preference - to feel the other person’s energy, whereas the person with a visual preference will stand back to see more of the other person (body language, etc.).


Auditory Digital
Auditory digital is devoid of the senses. People with an auditory digital preference will tend to:
• Have a need to make sense of the world, to figure things out, to understand.
• Talk to themselves and carry on conversations with you in their mind. Often they will say they remember discussing something with you, when you actually did not have the conversation. They did, however, in their mind!
• Learn by working things out in their mind.
• Not to be spontaneous, as they like to think things through.
• Have logic play a key role in the decision process as do facts and figures.
• Memorize by steps, procedures, sequences.


Can you see yourself in one or more of these representational systems, or does one sound better than the others, or do you feel one is a better fit than another or does one just make sense to you?


Language and Representational Systems


We use language to communicate our thoughts, so it's not surprising that the words we use reflect the way we think. Lets now examine the various language differences for the different representational systems. So what is it you first notice about the following sentences?


• You have shown me a bright idea on how to proceed and I would like to look into it further.
• You have told me of a way to proceed that sounds good and I would like to hear more about it.
• You have handed me a way to proceed that is on solid ground and I would like to get more of a feel for it.
• You have provided me with a way to proceed that makes sense and I would like have more details.


If you examine the sentences carefully, the first sentence uses visual words, the second auditory, the third kinesthetic and the fourth uses words that are not sensory based (auditory digital), yet all four sentences convey the similar generalized meaning.

If the words we use describe our thoughts and those thoughts are internally represented of how we think, then if your thoughts are generated by mainly pictures, then you will tend to use more visual words when describing your thoughts. If your thoughts are based on logic or making sense of something, you may tend to use words that reflect the logic of your thinking. Likewise, for auditory and kinesthetic. The words you use reflect your internal thought processes. This is a very important point as this reveal internal thoughts and thought processes to others through the words they choose to use or not use.

The terms, visual, auditory, kinesthetic and auditory digital words are often referred to as predicates. The predicates that a person uses will provide you with an indication of the person’s preferred representational system. The table below gives you a general idea of some of the different predicates. Notice that some words like fuzzy could appear in more than one column depending how they may used and in what context.


Visual Auditory Kinesthetic Auditory Digital
an eyeful
short sighted
sight for sore eyes
take a peek
tunnel vision
bird’s eye view
naked eye
paint a picture
make music
tune in/out
rings a bell
quiet as a mouse
voiced an opinion
clear as a bell
give me your ear
loud and clear
purrs like a kitten
on another note
get hold of
catch on
tap into
heated argument
pull some strings
sharp as a tack
smooth operator
make contact
throw out
firm foundation
get a handle on
get in touch with
hand in hand
hang in there
describe in detail
figure it out
make sense of
pay attention to
word for word
without a doubt


Lead System

Just as we have preferred representational system for our conscious thinking, we also have a preferred means of bring information into our conscious thoughts. A complete memory would contain all sights, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells of the original experience and while saying this we prefer to go to one of these to recall it. Think back to your holiday. What came first? A picture , sound or feeling?


This is the lead system, the internal sense that we use as a handle to reach back to a memory. It is how the information reaches conscious mind. For example, I may remember my holiday and start to be conscious of the feelings of relaxation I experienced, but the way it comes to mind might be initially be as a picture. here my lead is visual and my preferred system is kinesthetic.


The lead system is rather like a computer start up program that searches and opens up programs you wish to use so as to think about the request consciously.


Eye Accessing Cues


It's easy to know if a person is thinking in pictures, sounds or feelings. There are visible changes in our bodies when we think in different ways. The way we think effects our bodies and how we use our bodies effects the way we think. Have you ever noticed that people’s eyes move when they are thinking? This is valuable information that can provide us with clues as to whether they are thinking in pictures, sounds, feelings or talking to themselves. Or in other words, information about their lead and preferred representational systems.

According to neurological research, eye movement both laterally and vertically seems to be associated with activating different parts of the brain. In the neurological literature, these movements are called lateral eye movements or eye accessing cues because they give us insights as to how people are accessing information. To get an idea how your eyes move, ask a friend to consider the following questions. For each question, as they think of the answer, notice the direction their eyes move (up down or to the side) or if their eyes do not seem to move notice if you have a sense that you are looking in a certain direction (even if only for a fraction of a second).


1. What is the color of your front door?
2. What will you look like in 15 years?
3. What does your favourite music sound like?
4. What would your voice sound like if you had marbles in your mouth?
5. When you talk to yourself, what type of voice do you use?
6. What does it feel like to be in a nice warm bath?


What you will notice is their eyes having a tendency to look up for the first two questions, to the side for the next two questions and down for the last two questions? In general, if you are making a picture in your mind your eyes will tend to go up to the left or the right, for sounds laterally to the left or right, and down to the left or right for feelings or when you talk to yourself. More specifically, if you are right-handed, you may have noticed the following (for people who are left handed, interchange left and right in the following text):


1. Eyes up and to your left. This is a question about something you have seen before and hence you remembered it -- visual remembered (VR).
2. Eyes up and to your right. This is a question about something that I assume you have not seen before and hence you constructed this picture - visual constructed (VC).
3. Eyes on the horizontal plane to your left. This is a question about something you have heard before - auditory remembered (AR).
4. Eyes on the horizontal plane to your right. This is a question about something you have not heard before - auditory constructed (AC).
5. Eyes down and to the left. This is a question about your self talk - auditory digital (Ad).
6. Eyes down and to the right. This is a question about your feelings- kinesthetic (K).


It's important to note that the above eye patterns are how your eyes would move if you are right-handed. The following picture describes the eye patterns for a right-handed person as you look at them. Please note this distinction. These patterns are fairly consistent for most people with odd exception. For many left-handed people, the chart is reversed.


Other Accessing Cues

Eye movements are not the only cues that reflect the internal process of thinking. As the mind and the body are inseparable, how we think always shows somewhere, in particular it shows in breathing patterns, skin colour and posture. A person who is thinking in visual images will generally speak more quickly and higher pitched than someone who is not. Images happen fast in the brain and you have to speak fast to keep up with them. breathing will also be higher in the chest and more shallow. There is often an increase in muscle tension, particularly in the shoulders, the head and face with face becoming a little paler.


People who are thinking in sounds breathe evenly over the whole chest area. There are often small rhythmic movements of the body and the voice tonally clear, expressive and resonant. The is normally well balanced on the shoulders or slightly at an angle as if listening to something. People who are talking to themselves will often lean their head to one side, resting it on their hands or feet. Some people repeat what they have just heard under their breathe. You will often see their lips move.


Kinesthetic accessing is characterized by deep breathing low in the stomach area, often accompanied by muscle relaxation. With the head down, the voice will have a deeper tonality, and the person will typically speak slowly, with long pauses. The idea of representational systems is a very useful way of understanding how different people think and reading access cues is an invaluable skill for anyone who wants to communicate better with others.




So far we have talked about three main ways of thinking, visual, auditory and kinesthetic. These we have referred to as representational systems or modalities. Though this just the first step to understanding what is actually going on in our brain at the time of thought for each of these modalities has finer distinctions..


For example, if you wanted to describe a picture, we could describe a picture as being black and white or colour, or it could also be bright or dim. Sounds could be loud or soft, or coming from a particular direction. Feelings could be in different parts of the body or have different temperatures. As mentioned, we generally we work with only three of the modalities -- visual, auditory and kinesthetic.


Here is a list of the most common submodality distinctions:


Visual Auditory Kinesthetic
Black & White or Colour
Near or Far
Bright or Dim
Size of Picture
Associated / Dissociated
Focused or Defocused
Framed or Unbounded
Movie or Still
If a Movie-Fast/Normal/Slow
3 Dimensional or Flat
Loud or Soft
Near or Far
Internal or External
Stereo or Mono
Fast or Slow
High or Low Pitch
Verbal or Tonal
Strong or Weak
Large Area or Small Area
Weight: Heavy or Light
Texture: Smooth or Rough
Constant or Intermittent
Temperature: Hot or Cold


The visual submodality associated / dissociated is very important and refers to whether or not you can see yourself in the picture (visual internal representation). If you are associated you can not see yourself in the picture. Often we refer to this as ‘looking through your own eyes’. If you can see yourself in the picture, then we say you are dissociated.

If you are associated in a memory, then your feelings about that memory will be more intense. If you are dissociated, this is more like watching a movie of your life rather than being there and any feelings will be less intense or not at all.

Submodalities in coaching and therapy


Submodalities are key components to many coaching and personal development techniques. Submodalities, by themselves or as part of other techniques, have been used to assist people to stop smoking, eat more of certain foods and less of others, address compulsion issues, change beliefs and values, enhance motivation, move from stress to relaxation, address phobias, etc.

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