CRITICAL THINKING AND NEURO-SEMANTICS- L. Michael Hall Ph.D Founder of Neuro Semantics.

If “the map is not the territory” then your mental mapping is only as good as it corresponds, structurally to the territory.  This is obvious when we are trying to navigate the geographical territory.  If my map is that New York City is west of Chicago and so I set out westward from Chicago to find NYC, because this mental map does not correspond to reality, when I go west I will not find NYC.  People will say, “The other way, go back the other way.”  And I will argue with them, “No, it’s this way.  Come join me to go to NYC.”  And they will say, “No, it’s not that way, turn around, go east young man!”  If our map puts NCY to the left of Chicago on our map to represent west, the problem is simple: the map is wrong.  It does fit with the territory.

Mental maps about how to love and to be loved, to create a business, to be healthy and fit, to enjoy one’s work, to patiently listen to a child, etc. can also be wrong.  The mental maps can be erroneous, distorted, contorted, convoluted, and so on.  Where we “learned” whatever we learned can be the source of that error.  Our thinking patterns and the maturity of our thinking can be the source of that error.  So can our cognitive biases to distort things.  There are many factors which can contribute to us ending up with a distorted map that will not take us where we want to go.  So, what’s a human being to do?

In NLP and Neuro-Semantics we begin with embracing “the map is not the territory” premise so that we stop over-trusting our maps.  Whatever model we have in our head about things is just that- a model, an idea that we are using as a map to navigate our way through reality.  No matter how real the map feels, it is just a map.  Those who do not know and appreciate this will over-trust their map.  And because they do, they will not question it or explore it or even test it.  Here is a fundamental cognitive bias- deferring to our mental maps as if they are real.

I say “fundamental cognitive bias” because we all seemed wired to do this- to confuse map with territory, to think our thoughts, ideas, feelings, etc. are “real.”  When children go through this stage, we call it the magical thinking stage.  They give so much power and reality to their thoughts. They are convinced that by thinking something, that makes it so.  As a cognitive bias, they have to learn how to do the critical thinking of distinguishing map and territory.  When they do, they leave the primitive world of world-magic.  And yet many adults still live there.  Maybe not in eveyr aspect of life, but some aspects.  So they are superstitious, or hold to childish “magic thinking” ideas like the so-called “law of attraction,” or various new age ideas or even traditional religious ideas that are nothing more than the same.

Critical thinking starts by distinguishing map and territory, thought and reality, mental mapping of understanding and believing from what’s actual. Critical thinking looks for relationships between one thing and another, “How does this X lead to or trigger this Y?  What mechanism is involved in this?  How does the process work?”  This is the Meta-Model distinction of cause-effect and the questions that explore it.  Critical thinking then moves to precision and specificity as we identify in see-hear-feel terms (empirical) the referents.  “What specifically are you referring to?”

Assuming that words are real is the mistake, that’s the cognitive bias here. They are not.  Words are symbols.  We use a word to stand for something else.  And if a word stands for, and represents something else, then it is not the thing it refers to.

For me, all of this highlights and reveals the power of the NLP Meta-Model of Language for developing, training, and refining critical thinking skills. I wrote about this in Communication Magic (1997/ 2001) many years ago.  At that time I said that when I discovered this, it was so amazing that my sense was that it put into my hands a more powerful tool than everything I learned at University for my Masters Degree in Clinical counseling.  With the Meta-Model of Language, I could discover and understand another person’s
model of the world and help the other change it if they wanted to.

And yet I had more.  Not only did I have a process for challenging erroneous maps and facilitating changing maps that were inadequate, my own and those of others- the process was developing within me true critical thinking skills.

If you would like to learn this highly precision questioning tool, please clear your dates in Aug from 9th-15th,2015 for Bangalore. Click here to get details about our upcoming International Meta NLP Certification program.


In the past weeks I’ve been writing about both Mindfulness and Critical Thinking.  I began with Reflection #46 on the Neuro-Semantics of Mindfulness.  Now I want to put these together.  Both are at the very heart
of NLP and Neuro-Semantics.  How do they connect?  One aspect of mindfulness is critical thinking- being mindful about how you are reasoning, thinking, and using language.  When you are engaged in critical thing, you are expanding your mindfulness.

Mindfulness inevitably builds critical thinking skills for several reasons. First of all because mindfulness requires an openness to experience, an openness to perceiving things from multiple views, to seeing multiple possibilities, and an openness to being wrong.  The possibility of being wrong arises due to the presence of cognitive distortions and biases.  We are all liable to mis-perceive, mis-hear, mis-evaluate, etc.  To not be open is to become less mindful, less aware of our fundamental fallibility.

Mindfulness builds critical thinking skills secondly by recognizing the role and predominance of our creativity.  If we become mindless when we go on automatic, operate by habit, live by routine, then we increase mindfulness when we play around with ideas, when we adventure into new and different
ideas, when we maintain our curiosity about how things work.  Mindfulness enriches creativity and yet creativity without reality-testing, quality controlling, checking the facts, and getting feedback from our innovations can become unrealistic, fantastic, and crazy creativity.

What’s the solution?  It is to complete the creativity.  That is, to move from the wild-and-crazy stage of brainstorming to the innovation stage of testing its reality.  That’s where we apply our critical thinking skills. We need both.  When both are working in unison we have creativity-and-innovation and in human personality, we have mind-to-muscle. We not only have great ideas, we also have the ability to embody and
actualize them in lifestyle.

One aspect of mindfulness involves being able to step back, and get the big picture.  Doing this can orient you to your world and enable you to gain perspective.  That takes you up and uses your self-reflexive consciousness in a highly creative and practical way.  But don’t stay there.  Your next step will be to bring that big picture down so that you can see the details of how you can operationalize it in practical actions.  In Neuro-Semantics we call this meta-detailing.  It is one of the prerequisites of genius which is more fully described in the book, Sub-Modalities Going Meta.

Getting the big picture enables you to gain perspective about the details. Yet if you keep generalizing and keep moving up you will over-generalize. Then the categories that you create and the classes that you generate will become less and less useful and can even blind you from the critical distinctions that you need to make.  It’s critical thinking that brings mindful awareness down to the critical details.  This is precisely what we do when we use the NLP Meta-Model of Language.  The “Specifically what …who … where … when” questions focus our attention on the critical details.  And that’s where mastery is- Mastery is in the details.  That’s what distinguishes an expert from a novice.  By specifying the critical success details the expert gets to the heart of things.

Both mindfulness and critical thinking enable us to “come to our senses” in new ways so that we can be here-and-now- fully present to life in the moment we are living it.  And both do this by enabling us to “lose our mind”-the old mind of habit, routine, thinking we “know it all,” and assuming there’s nothing else to learn.  It is that mind which so often blinds us to the here-and-now.  Then we’re not present.  Eyes we have but we see not; ears we have but we hear not.

One tool which I’m constantly recommending to our Meta-Coaches for this is the skill of effective interrupting.  At a very basic level just asking a person to self-reflect as they speak tends to interrupt their “talking off the tip of their tongue” and becoming mindful so they can think critically. “Did you hear what you just said?”  So in Meta-Coaching, the coach will ask this from time to time.  And clients most of the time will say, “What?  What did I just say?”

At a more advanced level, a Meta-Coach may ask, “Did you just hear that resource (or, solution, insight, limiting belief, presupposition, etc.)?” And again, this will interrupt most clients and they  will have to ask you to repeat what they said so that they can begin to hear what they are saying and what’s hidden in their words.  I’ve even had clients question me, “Did I say that?  Really?  Are you sure?”  The interruption interrupts their mindless chattering and calls them to a mindful awareness.

Another coaching interruption that we often do relates to a pattern of behaviors.  This occurs when we ask someone if they have noticed that they have now used a particular expression or linguistic phrase three or four or seventeen times.  “I’ve noticed that you have used X-pattern some five times now, are you aware of that?  Are you aware of how this may be limiting (or enhancing, empowering, sabotaging, etc.) you?”

We often do this with the linguistic distinctions which the Meta-Model of Language offers.  That’s because each distinction has the possibility of creating mindlessness.  Unspecified nouns and verbs do this which is why we ask, “What specifically are you talking about?”  The speaker may think he’s clear, but his words do not create precision.  This is even more true for nominalizations, lost performatives, cause-effect statements, complex equivalences, and presuppositions.  Inside of these types of linguistic patterns we can really become mindless- so much so that when we are interrupted and asked to explain ourselves- we can’t!  “What are you referring to when you say X?”  “What exactly do you mean by Y?”

This is where learning and using the Meta-Model enhances mindfulness.  It enriches your ability to be present and to engage in critical thinking about how you have and are mentally mapping things in your world.  I mentioned this with regard to some of the language used by the media in Ferguson (Reflection #48) and in the metaphorical language of calling the heart a “brain” (Reflection #49).  In the next Reflection I will do this with regard to one of the most inflamatory subjects on planet Earth.

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.
Neuro-Semantics Executive Director