The Article of the Month

by Robert Dilts.

Synesthesia and the Structure of Beliefs

In NLP, the phenomenon of "overlap" has to do with the connections between the senses. We can "overlap" an image and a sound together, for example. Sounds or images may also be overlapped onto feelings. Overlap is possible because our sensory experiences become mixed together in our nervous systems. It is this connecting together of information from the different senses that makes creativity and learning possible. The process of overlap, for instance, makes it possible to form cognitive strategies in which sensory processes and representations are linked together in a particular sequence.

Experiences which involve an overlap of the senses are usually more rich and powerful than perceiving something through a single sense alone. Certainly, many of the most powerful experiences in our lives (such as 'religious' or 'spiritual' experiences) involve an integrating together of the various senses.

The process of overlap is used in many NLP processes in order to create or enrich a particular experience. To create a resource state, for example, a person may be instructed to, "Visualize how you would look if you were able to act effectively and resourcefully." When the person is able to form an image, the picture may be overlapped onto the kinesthetic representational system by suggesting, "As you watch yourself in that image, notice what feelings and body sensations would accompany those actions." The image and feelings could be overlapped onto the auditory system by asking, "If you had those feelings and sensations in your body, how would your voice sound? What sort of tone and rhythm goes with those feelings?"


As the phenomenon of overlap demonstrates, not all of our mental experiences are clearly distinguishable in terms of the five senses. Sometimes experiences become connected and overlapped so completely that it is not possible to easily distinguish one from the other in a causal relationship - they are both there simultaneously but each needs the other in order to be there. Feeling moved by a piece of music or art would be an example of this. The feeling could not exist without the art and the art could not exist without the feeling.

In NLP, such a connection is called a synesthesia. The term literally means "a synthesizing of the senses." Synesthesias are usually more rich and powerful than perceiving something through a single sense alone. Synesthesia patterns can also be a very important factor in determining the ease or effectiveness in which certain mental functions are performed. As with the development of the senses themselves, the strength of the various synesthesia relationships vary for different people.

Thus, synesthesia has to do with the interconnection between representational systems, characterized by phenoma like "see-feel circuits," in which a person derives feelings from he sees, and "hear-feel circuits," in which a person gets feelings from what they hear. Any two sensory modalities may be linked together.

Synesthesia links have to do with the mutual influence between sensory representations. Certain qualities of feelings may be linked to certain qualities of imagery - for example, the intensity of a feeling may be linked to the brightness of an image; the color of an image (red or blue, for instance) may influence the temperature of a feeling; people may feel the impact of a particular image at different locations in their bodies depending on its quality of movement; and so on.

Synesthesia is at the basis of our appreciation of art, our ability to feel compassion for the misfortunes of others, and is a core quality of genius. They are also the basis of the so-called "fuzzy functions" in NLP.

Fuzzy Functions

"Fuzzy Functions" were defined by John Grinder and Richard Bandler in The Structure of Magic Volume II (1976) as a connecting or overlapping of our sensory representational systems. Technically, Grinder and Bandler define "fuzzy functions" as:

Any modeling involving a representational system and either an input channel or an output channel in which the input or output channel involved is a different modality from the representational system with which it is being used. In traditional psychophysics, this term, 'fuzzy function', is most closely translated by the term 'synesthesia'.

Hearing a loud noise (auditory input channel) and feeling startled or frightened (kinesthetic representational system), for example, is a "fuzzy function" because the sound has overlapped onto physical and emotional sensations. Seeing internal imagery while listening to music, or having emotional responses to seeing various facial expressions would also be a results of "fuzzy functions." Fuzzy functions are typically characterized by terms such as "see-feel" or "hear-feel" circuits.

According to Grinder and Bandler, fuzzy functions are the way in which our experience acquires meaning, but can also be the source of confusion and stress. Fuzzy functions create problems when they lead to stuck states and when we have no choice about them. Problematic fuzzy functions can be dealt with by sorting and separating the representational channels that have become fused or confused. This can be accomplished a variety of ways. Accessing Cues and Submodality interventions can be used to help people clarify and influence different aspects of their sensory experience. The Failure Into Feedback process, for example, employs the use of both eye movements and submodalities to sort and restructure fuzzy functions related to the experience of failure.

Failure Into Feedback Strategy

One of the core presuppositions of NLP is that "there is no failure, there is only feedback." Another variation of this is the notion that "there are no mistakes, there are only outcomes." The implication of these statements is that the results of our attempts to reach our goals may be interpreted in different ways.

Depending upon the nature of a particular outcome, it may take more or less effort to accomplish a particular goal. In many instances, our ultimate success is not a function of immediate results; it is a function of an ongoing feedback loop. Sometimes you even need to do something that you know probably won't work in order to get the feedback necessary to progress.

A good illustration of this is the example of an inventor who had developed a very complex three dimensional imaging device. It had taken him years to complete it, and he had made many versions that had not worked. During an interview he was asked, "How did you manage to deal with all of the failures you encountered along the way?" Initially the inventor appeared confused by the question. Finally he said, "I guess I didn't consider them failures. I just figured they were a solution to a problem other than the one I was working on at the time." And, in fact, something that hadn't worked at one stage in the development of the device, was often a legitimate solution at another stage.

Another example is that of the man who invented xerography, Chester Carlson. In an interview he said that at several points he had to make a machine that he knew would not work in order to get the feedback he needed to know what to do next. You might say he had to make a 'grander failure' than the earlier version.

Yet, while most of us may agree that it is better to interpret lack of success as "feedback" rather than "failure," changing our feelings about an unsuccessful situation is "easier said than done." The Failure Into Feedback Strategy is a process that uses the NLP concepts of 'synesthesia' and 'accessing cues' to help transform experiences of failure into productive learning experiences. It was developed to address limiting beliefs about capabilities. An assumption of the process is that a "belief" is more than a particular representation of an experience. Rather, it is a synesthesia, or "synthesis," of several representations which form a kind of "molecule" of experience. In order for us to form a belief about an experience, we must not only, say, visually remember the external details of an event, but also have feelings, and/or self talk, mental fantasies, recalled messages from others, etc., attached to the memory. When these various forms of representations are detached from one another and considered in their elemental state, they do not have any particular "meaning."

The words, "Be careful," for instance, are just words until we associate them with feelings and images. If we connect those words to a feeling of anxiety and a remembered image of a situation in which we failed to achieve a desired outcome, they may form the core of a belief "molecule" relating to avoidance. If, on the other hand, we add to this "molecule" a fantasized image of the desired goal and put in the additional words, "Be careful...and be wise, and you'll make it OK," and the meaning of the molecule is transformed. The anxiety may shift to being more of a sense of anticipation and alertness that helps us to approach our desired state rather than avoid failure.

The Failure Into Feedback Strategy offers a method to identify and "break up" limiting "molecules" of experience, and then to enrich and reassemble the cluster of experiences into a more useful and appropriate model of a situation.


The Structure of Magic, Volume II; Grinder, J. and Bandler, R., 1976.
Changing Belief Systems With NLP; Dilts, R., Meta Publications, Capitola, CA, 1990.
Strategies of Genius, Volume I; Dilts, R., 1994.

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