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INLPTA Article - mBraining NLP

mBraining NLP: The Autonomic Nervous System and Your Multiple Brains

By Grant Soosalu (M.App.Sc., B.Sc.(Hons), Grad. Dip. Psych, INLPTA Master Practitioner), and

Marvin Oka (INLPTA Board of Director and INLPTA Master Trainer)

 [Published in the October 2012 INLPTA Journal]


Bringing the Neuroscience of Multiple Brains to NLP

In our previous article we introduced recent neuroscience findings highlighting how we have complex, adaptive and functional neural networks - or ‘brains’ - in our heart and gut, (the cardiac and enteric brains respectively). In conjunction with our head brain, these multiple brains are involved in specific competencies and processes that have significant implications in how we use NLP.

Over the last two years, informed by these neuroscience findings, we have conducted action research using behavioral modeling to unpack the unconscious processes of how we use our head, heart and gut brains to create meaning, enact decisions and construct our subjective reality. We call these unconscious multiple brain processes ‘mBraining’.

And we have subsequently developed a suite of techniques and models for harnessing the innate wisdom of our multiple brains for greater generative consciousness. We’ve called this growing suite of techniques and models ‘mBIT’, for ‘multiple Brain Integration Techniques’. A growing number of mBIT practitioners who have attended our trainings have found mBIT brings a feast of new and powerful distinctions that significantly advance what is possible in NLP.

Following on from our previous article, we’d like to share with you the next set of key mBIT distinctions that you can use to powerfully enhance your core NLP skills and overall effectiveness.


The mBIT Prime Functions

To recap from our previous article, it's important to know whenever working with your or another person’s multiple brains that each of the brains has its own set of Prime Functions. Each brain has a fundamentally different form of intelligence, they utilize different languages for communication, and they have different goals operating under different criteria. In other words, your head, heart and gut have different ways of processing the world with different concerns and domains of competence.

The Prime Functions of each neural network are:


  • Emoting – emotional processing (e.g. anger, grief, hatred, joy, happiness etc.)
  • Values – processing what’s important to you (and its relationship to the emotional strength of your aspirations, dreams, desires, etc.)
  • Relational affect - your felt connection with others (e.g. feelings of love/hate/indifference, compassion/uncaring, like/dislike, etc.)


  • Core identity - a deep and visceral sense of core self, and determining at the deepest levels what is ‘self’ versus ‘not-self
  • Self-preservation – protection of self, safety, boundaries, hungers and aversions
  • Mobilization – motility, impulse for action, gutsy courage and the will to act


  • Cognitive perception – cognition, perception, pattern recognition, etc.
  • Thinking – reasoning, abstraction, meta-cognition etc.
  • Making meaning – semantic processing, languaging, narrative, metaphor, etc.


 The Significance of the Autonomic Nervous System

In order to work effectively with your three brains and their Prime Functions, you also need to understand the role of your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). Curiously, traditional NLP completely misses any focus or mention of the ANS. NLP largely works with the head brain and the Central Nervous System (CNS), although it is now expanding into the area of somatics. Even so, the role of the ANS is critical to making sense of what you are calibrating in your client, in diagnosing and designing an intervention/facilitation, and understanding what constitutes a resource state for that client given their current mode of ANS functioning.

 Put simply, the mode in which your ANS is operating affects the quality of the way your multiple brains function. For example, your heart brain may be attempting to fulfill its Prime Functions in a particular situation by emotionally expressing either sadness or joy. These are two very different expressions that are based on the same Prime Function. What accounts for the difference? And what can we do to shift from a debilitating expression to a more empowering one? To answer these questions, we need to look to the details of your ANS.

Understanding the ANS

Your overall nervous system has two major divisions, the Voluntary and the Autonomic. The Voluntary System is mainly concerned with movement and sensation. The Autonomic Nervous System on the other hand is responsible for control of involuntary and visceral bodily functions.

The functions it controls include:

  • Cardiovascular
  • Respiratory
  • Digestive
  • Urinary
  • Reproductive functions
  • The body’s response to stress

It’s called ‘autonomic’ because it is operates largely automatically and outside of conscious control. It’s divided into two separate branches — the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. These two branches work in a delicately tuned, reciprocal and (usually) opposing fashion. Simplistically, the Sympathetic system can be considered to be the ‘fight or flight’ system. It allows the body to function under stress and danger. The Parasympathetic system is the ‘feeding and fornicating’ and ‘rest and repose’ arm. It controls the vegetative functions of feeding, breeding, rest, recuperation and repose. The Parasympathetic system also typically provides ongoing opposition to the Sympathetic system to bring your total system into balance or homeostasis.

In times of danger or stress, the Sympathetic system, which has a very fast onset and response, kicks in and gets you moving to handle or resolve the situation. The slower acting Parasympathetic system begins to operate after the danger has passed, and brings you back to normalcy. Without the opposing function of the Parasympathetic system your body would stay amped up, burning energy and fuel and eventually exhaust itself.

The ANS and Your Multiple Brains

It’s important to know about the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic systems because they innervate and deeply influence the operating mode of the heart, gut and head brains. There are major connections between the head brain hemispheres, the heart (cardiac) brain, the gut (enteric) brain and these Sympathetic and Parasympathetic arms of the ANS, and since the two ANS components work in opposing ways, the dominance of one or the other leads to very different modes of processing throughout our multiple brains.

For instance, Parasympathetic activity generally slows the heart, whereas Sympathetic activity accelerates it. In the gut, Parasympathetic activity enhances intestinal peristaltic movement promoting healthy digestion and elimination whereas Sympathetic activity inhibits such activity during times when physical exertion requires catabolic (energy) mobilization. The following are some of the main influences of the two systems:

Sympathetic activation

Activation of the Sympathetic nervous system has the following effects:

  • Dilates the pupils and opens the eyelids
  • Stimulates the sweat glands
  • Dilates the blood vessels in the large skeletal muscles
  • Constricts the blood vessels in the rest of the body
  • Increases heart rate
  • Relaxes and opens up the bronchial tubes of the lungs
  • Contracts the sphincter of the bladder and the bladder wall relaxes
  • Shuts down and inhibits the secretions in the digestive system
  • Can lead to involuntary defecation
  • Is associated with Right Hemisphere activation and dominance in the head brain (and therefore concurrent style of cognitive and emotional processing)

Parasympathetic activation

Activation of the Parasympathetic nervous system has the following effects:

  • Constricts the pupils
  • Activates and increases the secretion of the salivary glands
  • Decreases heart rate
  • Stimulates the secretions of the stomach
  • Constricts the bronchial tubes and stimulates secretions in the lungs
  • Stimulates the activity of the gastro intestinal tract
  • Is involved in sexual arousal
  • Is associated with Left Hemisphere activation and dominance in the head brain (and therefore concurrent style of cognitive and emotional processing)


You’ll notice here that a powerful functional principle is in play. That is, two modes of opponent processing are operating for autonomic control across your total system. Consequently, your multiple brains can function in ways that are Sympathetic dominant, Parasympathetic dominant, or some combination of the two [for more details on how these two systems can combine, see our book ‘mBraining – Using Your Multiple Brains to do Cool Suff’]. The end result is that your Sympathetic and Parasympathetic systems dramatically affect how each of the Prime Functions of your multiple brains express themselves to create your subjective world.

Working With Your Client’s Autonomic Mode

Traditionally in NLP, when a client comes to you for help with an issue they can’t resolve for themselves, we often say they are in an ‘unresourceful state’. Depending upon the nature of the issue, we may endeavor to anchor a ‘resource’ state(s) to enable them to work effectively on the issue. But what do these terms mean from a neurological perspective? Understanding how the ANS works brings far greater precision in answering these questions and therefore to your level of NLP mastery.

In terms of your ANS, an ‘unresourceful’ state means being in an overly Sympathetic or overly Parasympathetic mode of functioning in relation to the desired outcome. For instance, let’s say a client comes to you with the issue of a chronic inability to act on their intended outcomes. As a properly trained NLPer, we might calibrate that when the client is talking about their issue they go into an ‘unresourceful state’. But what type of unresourceful state? Are they too apathetic and unmotivated? Or do they go into states of high anxiety and become immobilized by fear? The former relates to an overly Parasympathetic mode of functioning while the latter relates to an overly Sympathetic mode of functioning, and depending upon which it is determines the type of resource state that is required.

From an mBIT perspective, a ‘resourceful state’ can mean one of four things, depending upon the desired outcome in contrast to the present state of the client’s ANS functioning:

  1. A state of autonomic ‘coherence’ where the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic systems are in balance.

    This enables all three brains to fulfill their Prime Functions at their highest modes of expression (we will cover more about ‘autonomic coherence’ and the ‘Highest Expressions’ in future articles in INLPTA NLP News).

  2. A state which provides leverage for the ANS to re-balance itself and re-gain autonomic coherence.

    This form of a ‘resourceful state’ employs the mBIT Principle of Autonomic Affinity which explains how certain states have a neurological affinity with each other due to their autonomic mode of functioning. For instance, depression and sadness have an autonomic affinity with each other due to their Parasympathetic basis. Joy, happiness and enthusiasm also have an autonomic affinity due to their balanced ParaySympathetic/Sympathetic basis.

    You can therefore facilitate your client to neurologically move from an unresourceful state to a more autonomically coherent state through a series of linked states that share autonomic affinity. The classic NLP technique for this is chaining anchors. What mBIT has to offer here are two very important distinctions for designing and facilitating a chain of anchors. The first is, when designing a chain of anchors you need to attend to the Sympathetic or Parasympathetic mode of the present state and leverage the mBIT Principle of Autonomic Affinity to select the succeeding states in the chain accordingly.

    The second is, the design of the chain should ideally lead the client out of their Sympathetic or Parasympathetic unresourcefulness and neurologically move them toward either autonomic balance (coherence) or into the appropriate autonomic mode for their desired outcome (e.g. from Parasympathetic apathy to Sympathetic motivated action, or from Sympathetic anxiety to Parasympathetic relaxation).

  3. A state which blocks or prevents the unresourceful state from occurring.

    This type of resourceful state employs the mBIT Principle of Autonomic Counterbalancing, which says that you can block or prevent an unresourceful state from occurring by putting the ANS into an opposing mode of functioning. Remember that the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic systems run opposing processes.  If your client is in a strong resource state – whether Sympathetic, Parasympathetic or balanced/coherent – while that state is maintained they cannot easily access an unresourceful state that is based on the opposing ANS mode of functioning. Many of Richard Bandler’s methods of ‘inoculation’ against unresourceful states rely on this principle.


  1. An appropriate Sympathetic or Parasympathetic state for achieving the desired outcome.

    This fourth type of resourceful state is what most NLPers think of when considering what ‘resources’ a client needs in relation to their outcome. It is based on the mBIT Principle of Autonomic State Dependency which says that you cannot easily access particular states unless your ANS is in the appropriate mode of functioning to support that state.

    This is why if you are in a depressed state it doesn’t help if someone tells you to “cheer up”. It’s difficult to engage in the Sympathetic state of cheerfulness when already engaged in the Parasympathetic state of depression. By understanding this principle, we know that if a client’s outcome is about being able to take action, they will need resource states that arise from either greater Sympathetic functioning (e.g. states of excitement, eagerness, etc) or from a more balanced/coherent mode of functioning (e.g. flow states, states of ease, etc.).

    Conversely, if your client comes to you in a highly stressed state or with high anxiety, then you know that more appropriate resource states for them will be either more Parasympathetically based (e.g. states of relaxation, restfulness, etc.), or again states arising from a more balanced/coherent mode of functioning (e.g. peacefulness, acceptance, etc.).


Calibrating Your Client’s Autonomic Mode

As in everything you do in NLP, your ability to calibrate is integral to your effectiveness whenever working with yourself and/or others. And as you’ve gathered by now, being able to calibrate the ANS mode of functioning for yourself or for your client is equally important.  Notice that the two lists previously mentioned in this article relating to Sympathetic and Parasympathetic activation also serve as important sensory cues for you to calibrate. They can be used to refine your calibration of either yourself and/or another person about which arm of the Autonomic System is currently activated. Knowing this helps you determine what modes the three brains are operating in and in what direction (i.e. amping up versus slowing down) the person needs to be facilitated to bring them back to balance or coherence. It also allows you to diagnose which mode is required for the outcomes the client desires.


Each of your multiple brains has its own set of Prime Functions with which it is uniquely adapted to fulfill. These Prime Functions can vary greatly in the way they manifest in behavior, depending upon whether they are originating from a Sympathetic, Parasympathetic, or balanced/coherent state of autonomic functioning. Calibrating your client’s mode of autonomic functioning is essential to knowing what is neurologically possible and not possible for your client in any given moment. This enables you to know which NLP interventions/facilitations will and won’t work for your client at any given point in time. Understanding how the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic arms of the ANS interact with each other gives you far greater precision and NLP mastery in how you work with your client’s ‘unresourceful’ states and in establishing autonomically ‘resourceful’ states.

Along these lines, in our next article for INLPTA NLP News we will cover in more detail how to facilitate your client (and yourself) into states of autonomic balance/coherence.

Further info

For further information on mBIT and mBraining or more details on the Core Competencies of the heart and gut brains, go to www.mbraining.com and read our source book for the new field of mBIT: ‘mBraining – Using your multiple brains to do cool stuff’.