Change Work January 2008

The Hidden Code

As I look out of the window on yet another dull, wet day I feel the inevitable lowering of spirits that seems to go with this sort of weather. Wouldn't it be marvellous to see a bit of sunshine?  I know we'd all feel better.

But how does this work?  What links your emotional state to the weather?

One factor is that you are aware of many negative consequences: ruining the garden, falling behind with jobs to do outside, flooding, global warming.  Seeing that it's raining again is an unwelcome reminder of all of these problems.

Additionally, I think it must be at least partially to do with "submodalities".

I've discussed the three main representational systems, based on our senses of sight, hearing and touch (or feelings).  I also described how individuals tend to prefer one or the other system in building their internal "map", although this is only a preference and not an exclusive selection.  In practice, our mental record of an event, a place or a person will contain elements of all three.

Now, each of these sensory "modalities" can be broken down into its submodalities, i.e. the qualities of the image, the sound or the feeling.

For example, when you think of your old school, is the initial mental picture you bring to mind bright or dim?  Is it in colour or black and white?  Is it sharply focused or fuzzy?  Does the picture seem to be near or far?
If the memory includes sounds, are they loud or soft?  Harsh or soft?  If there are voices are they speaking quickly or slowly?  What direction is the sound coming from

Are you aware of feeling hot or cold?  Are you touching a surface that's hard or soft? Rough or smooth?  Is your body heavy or light?

If you focus attention on any particular memory, you will be able to break them down in this way.

So, what's the significance of these submodalities?

They are important because they are the mind's code for how to feel about the memory.  The emotions you experience when you recall a past event depend on the particular set of submodalities that the memory is stored in.

So, returning to my school example, I immediately recall an image of a corridor that is dark, dull green, high-ceilinged, a little more than arm's length away and right in front of me.  As I think of this I feel apprehensive and somewhat depressed.

Now, if I consciously and deliberately change the image by making it much brighter, I can feel my mood lift straight away.  So I turn the brightness back to how it was and focus on the colour.  If I change the paintwork to sunny yellow I get a similar effect.

Putting the colour back I find that moving the image closer or further doesn't change my feelings.  Nor does sliding it off to one side.

Lowering the ceiling makes things a little worse.

Then I can go through the same process with the sounds and the kinaesthetic aspects of the memory - but I'll leave them aside for this illustration.

What I've demonstrated is that brightness and colour are critical submodalities for me, at least with respect to this memory, but probably quite generally.  The vertical height of the image has a weaker effect and the other submodalities mentioned have none.

Not surprisingly, if I think of a happy, exciting time, I find that the memory is already bright and colourful.

It's as though the brain uses the submodalities as a shortcut.  You feel what you feel about something as soon as you're reminded of it.  Even before you've recalled any details.

The structure of the memory dictates what you experience much more so than the content.

So, you can change the way you feel about something by changing its submodalities.
Better still, this applies equally to imagined, future events.  So, if you're dreading that interview take a while to explore the submodalities of the scene that you've created. Compare this with something you're really looking forward to, or to a past challenge that you sailed through.  Identify the critical differences and then change the interview to give it the submodalities of the positive event.

This technique is incredibly powerful and I use it a lot in coaching.

One particular demonstration I've used in introducing this subject to groups is to ask them to think of someone they strongly like and respect.  Then think of someone they dislike, even despise.  Next, I ask them to imagine both people in front of them and, without thinking about it for too long, to point to the respected person's face.  Then immediately point to the disliked person's face.

Most will point first to a place higher than where they are sitting and then to a lower place.  It's no coincidence that we speak of "looking up" to some people whilst (perhaps secretly) looking down on others.

The submodality of height, relative to self, is critical to most peoples' sense of respect.
An interesting corollary to this example is what happens when I ask the group to experiment by deliberately moving the images so that they change places.  Many people report that they find this quite difficult - that they really don't want to feel badly towards their hero!