Cognitive Model

Tags: KC CT

The NLP cognitive model

We think the cognitive model is one of the most important concepts of NLP, as itself it illustrates many of the presuppositions and techniques of NLP. The NLP cognitive model is largely inspired by transformational grammar and relates the persons "reference structure" to his "experiences" (perception) and "surface structures" (expression).

Generally, the NLP cognitive model is considered "over simplified" by neuroscience/psychology/etc. We think that just like the NLP presuppositions, the exactitude/correctness isn't really the important point. The important point is that it gives a very useful vision of people's cognitive functioning (even if the underlying details are missing or simplified).

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find a satisfactory full description of this model, as it is generally quickly overviewed in most literature (and it is often mixed/confused with the Meta-Model, which is mostly a tool to explore the "reference structure"). The bellow figure attempts to illustrate the full model with the different filtering phases which take place:

VAKO experiences (i.e. whatever's happening in the outside world and you receive via your senses) are filtered (by what are called the experience modelling universals) a first time before being stored in the reference structure. The reference structure contains everything a person knows, his full life (smells, sights, hearings, successes, failures, traumas, experiences, joys, pains, …). But the reference structure differs from the real experience because of filtering. The reference structure is assimilated to the unconscious level (it is impossible to access your full reference structure at a given moment).

During cognitive activity (thinking, remembering, talking, listening, …) relevant portions of the reference structure are transferred with filtering again to the deep structure. The deep structure is assimilated to consciousness. You can consider anything you're conscious of at a given time is within your deep structure.

When expressing yourself (talking, writing, …) the deep structure is transferred (with filtering again) to the surface structure (talking for example).


In order to better illustrate this model, let's consider a few examples of filtering which can occur in some situations, following the order of description above:

  • While talking (with attention) with a friend you filter out many things happening (despite the fact your VAKO senses receive them). You might not notice the sound of the kettle boiling (but you did hear it physically), or you don't notice a plane flying by (again, you did see it physically). These events will be filtered from your VAKO experience and never enter your reference structure.
  • If you try to remember right now an event of your childhood (a birthday party for example), only some things will come back to you. It might take much harder effort to retrieve more details (if ever). This is an effect of the filtering between reference structure and deep structure. Sometimes a given memory you once tried to retrieve without success can "jump back" into deep structure without any obvious reason.
  • Finally, when relating an event which is held in deep structure, a person will only express certain elements, for example, they might have in mind (deep structure) the weather but will no say it (because they don't consider it important). Note that this filtering is mostly unconscious, even if the filtered information is consciously known, although we of course sometimes consciously filter information.

An interesting number which is recurrent in literature is the "count" of information a person can hold consciously. This number is said to be around 7, this means that at any given time you can only have 7 pieces of information a available for cognitive processing. However, this the granularity of a piece of information is difficult to define making this number little useful.