Monday, June 28, 2010

De-nominalising your world

"The ancestor of every action is a thought"
Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Incorrect use of language leads to incorrect thinking"
Buckminster Fuller

When the developers of NLP, Dr Richard Bandler & Dr John Grinder, were both asked separately if there was anything that would improve every person's life and mental wellbeing. Both said the same thing:

What are nominalisations?

In English, there are two main noun forms -- proper nouns and nominalisations. Proper nouns are persons, places and things i.e. objects you can experience directly. Nominalisations are disguised verbs; processes that we represent as things, as nouns.

For example, the word 'relationship' is a nominalisation of the process of relating. A relationship is not a real thing -- you can't hold one in your hand, you can't buy one from the shopping mall, and you certainly can't fix one with sticky tape or glue when it's broken. The word 'relationship' is a conceptual descriptor of the process of relating. It's a cognitive shortcut we use, where we take a process that is distributed and varying in space and time, and we reify it into a fixed object that we can get a handle on. You can't see a relationship, you can only see the process of two people relating. When people are relating poorly, you can't fix it with glue. The two people need to get clear about their outcomes and then do the behaviours and processes of relating well, for the 'relationship' to be good again.

De-nominalising for sanity

De-nominalising is the process of taking the nominalised noun form (the sneaky disguised verb) and relanguaging it into its true verb form. The import of this is what Korzybski spent his lifetime attempting to explain and share through the deeply insightful field of General Semantics that he created. And I've personally found the insights from General Semantics and from the child it spawned (NLP) to be incredibly powerful and life enhancing.

According to Korzybski, un-sane use of language leads to un-sane thinking and behaviour. When we use words and abstractions that are not well-aligned with the underlying reality they are attempting to represent, we end up making less than sane choices and decisions.

(And please note the number of nominalisations in that last sentence!!! Our everyday language is replete with nominalising!!!)

You'd be surprised I think, how powerful it can be to shift behaviour, by reconnecting how you (or anyone else) is creating their reality and meaning through language, ideas, symbols and words. Words are very much the tools we use to construct, explain and promulgate our model of the world, our reality tunnel. And when we shift how someone is languaging, and connect the tools -- the maps that we use -- to be more aligned with reality, to be more sane, you shift the sequence of meaning at a very deep level in the unconscious mind.

An amazing and true story

I'd like to share with you now a very sad, but amazing story...

I was running a workshop on Conflict Resolution for a large Government department, and as key to this, was explaining the power and import of nominalisation to the participants, in order to denominalise 'Conflict' and 'Resolution' into their more sane and accurate verb forms. You see there is no such thing as 'Conflict' -- there are just people relating and communicating in ways that lead them to conflicting with each other. When you understand this, you get clarity on the underlying processes and issues and open up the possibility of doing the converse, which is 'high quality relating'. However, the details of these life enhancing skills are the topic of a future blog. For the moment, let's return to our story...

At the morning break, one of the participants came up to me and asked if she could share a personal experience with me that related deeply to what we had been covering in the workshop. What she told me was both sad and fascinating.

Approximately 2 years before, her mother had one afternoon developed a herpes 'cold sore' lesion on her back, and the virus had travelled up her nerve pathways and into her brain. Within 24 hours, she was hospitalised and suffering from herpes simplex encephalitis, a dangerous and debilitating condition. During the attack, parts of her brain were damaged, and she lost the ability to understand, communicate or express noun forms. Literally overnight, this normal, vibrant and intelligent woman had her world turned upside down. Before the attack she lead a normal life. After the attack, she could no longer comprehend nouns and the objects they represented -- she could no longer function normally, was unable to work, and had to be guided when she went out of the house. The virus had selectively attacked the part of her brain responsible for noun-ing. She was left with only the ability to do verb-ing.

What an incredible story! I spoke at length with the participant about her mother, asking about what it was like to live and interact with her. For example, we discussed what was it like to go for a walk in the park with her. According to the participant, you could not point at a flower and say "look at the beautiful flower, mum" as the poor woman just couldn't comprehend or understand the object form. But if you said "looking at the flowering" then she would do the looking and appreciating of the beauty of the flowering.

Just imagine what life would be like if you could only do, understand and communicate process... what a different world it would be!

"Our language influences our perceptions"
Peter Senge

Noun versus Verb Processing

The story lead me to researching the neuro-science and evidence for the effect on the brain of verb forms versus noun (and adjective) forms. What I found is that the research shows that very different parts of the brain are activated by nouns versus verbs. And the parts that are activated lead down different paths, open up and connect to different meanings and responses. And of course, this powerfully backs up the insights from NLP on the importance of de-nominalising.

Much of the work has come from observations of aphasic subjects who are selectively impaired in the processing of nouns or verbs due to selective damage to parts of their brains through stroke, disease or other causes. The study of lesion location in these patients has suggested that the left temporal lobe plays a crucial role in processing nouns, while the left frontal lobe is necessary for verbs.

More recent research has focused on using PET and fMRI imaging to examine the effects of noun and verb processing in normal subjects rather than subjects with lesions. For example, in a study by Perani et al. entitled 'The neural correlates of verb and noun processing. A PET study.', the researchers found verbs selectively activated specific left hemispheric areas, including the dorsolateral frontal and lateral temporal cortex. In addition, the study showed that abstract word processing was associated with selective activations of the right temporal pole, amygdala and bilateral inferior frontal cortex. You can see the results of the neural correlates of verb versus noun processing in the following image.

In another study of subjects with intact brains, the processing of nouns versus verbs was performed using event-related potentials and electrocortical responses. Nouns and verbs were carefully matched for various variables, including word frequency, length, arousal and valence. The study found that cortical representations of nouns elicit visual associations whereas cortical representations of verbs lead to association of body movements. These results are summarised in the following diagrams from the study.

In Summary

As we can see, evidence from both neuro-imaging studies, ERP studies and brain-damaged patients suggests that verbs and nouns are represented in different neurological substrates. Verbs are processed by areas of the brain associated with action, with agency, with purpose, with movement. Nouns on the other hand are processed by areas of the brain associated with objects, with location and with attributes such as size, shape, weight etc.

So when we use a mental representation -- an abstraction -- of an object, our brain applies and ascribes the attributes of an 'object' automatically and unconsciously to the process being represented. Linking back to our example above of the word 'relationship', when we use the verb form, we trigger parts of the brain associated with process, agency and outcomes. However if we use the nominalised form 'relationship', then we trigger and represent the action as if it is a noun. Our brain processes the relating as if it's an object. And this is why we end up taking relationships for granted. Because objects have persistence, they are always there, unchanging. Whereas in reality, the process of relating is a verb, it's an action, and requires focus and clarity of outcome and purpose. Relating is only as good as the competencies, skills and focus that is applied to it.

“Language is the means by which we organise and shape our experience" 
Dr. Annabelle Lukin,
Dep’t of Linguistics, Macquarie University

Connecting the research back to the real world

Let's use another example to wrap up and connect the insights from the research into the real world of daily life.

In the blog post I did on 'O-priming your life' I talked about the psychology of ownership and how greed and attachment are verbs. We talk about them as if they are nouns. We say things like "he has a lot of greed". But that's a very un-sane way to represent it. As indicated by the research above, when we use words as nouns, to represent what in reality are processes, we end up unconsciously applying attributes that more appropriately belong to objects and not processes. And since words organise and shape our experience, and the word forms we use determine the parts of the brain utilised in processing them and directing our decisions, thinking and actions, then we really need to ensure we are using language that is supportive of our outcomes.

So in our example, greed is a 'process'. Greed'ing is definitely an unconscious competency -- a skill. It's not a 'thing' -- a noun. Greed is a verb. It's something people do, it's a doing word. However, in our society and in English, it is 'normally' used as a noun. In the dictionary greed is listed as a noun, referring to "insatiate longing as an atribute of an individuals character". The challenge is that when this abstraction is used as an attribute, as a fixed property of the individual or their character, then the locus of control is relinquished and made external and people give away their power to change.

If you want to see greed'ing for the process and behaviour that it is, and if you'd like to support yourself to overcome that process, then you need to think about it and re-language it to the verb form. That way your brain will support you in focusing on internal locus of control, personal agency and your ability to control and change your processing.

The take home messaging

Words are powerful. They can be life enhancing or life depleting. You construct your ongoing 'reality' through the words you use, and the effects those words have on your multi-mind and on the minds of those around you.

It's vitally important that you learn to listen to the words you are using and to become life enhancingly skilled in using words sanely and wisely.

Nominalisations (verbs turned into nouns) can be very slippery and dangerous tools. Use them carefully and wisely.

According to Bandler and Grinder, the geniuses who developed the amazing field of NLP, one of the most powerful and life enhancing things you can do to improve your life and your mental well-being is to de-nominalise the words you use each and every day.

So the take home message is:
De-nominalise your life! Your sanity and happiness depends upon it.

with life enhancing encouraging and wishes,

To learn more about NLP and the power of language, read these books:

Frogs into Princes - Richard Bandler & John Grinder

Using Your Brain For a Change - Richard Bandler

Reframing: Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Transformation of Meaning - Richard Bandler & John Grinder

Trance-Formations: Neuro-Linguistic Programming and the Structure of Hypnosis

The Structure of Magic: A Book About Language and Therapy - Richard Bandler & John Grinder

The Structure of Magic II: A Book About Communication and Change - Richard Bandler & John Grinder


  1. What an amazing article. Great to see some science backing up NLP. I've really been enjoying your blog.


  2. I came across an interesting comment today about nominalisations: "Nominalising helps us capture a process and makes it easier to grasp it and make sense of it".

    Now, notice the 'capture' and 'grasp' in that surface structure utterance. It's interesting that grasping and capturing are sensori-motor skills, and that they are what we do with objects, we 'grasp' them. So it's not surprising that we find it easier to do this cognitively when we use the parts of the brain that are responsible for representing objects.

    Another example that supports the neuro-linguistic insights of NLP.

    cheers, Grant

  3. Some interesting thoughts. I'm moving towards the term "relating" but it's sometimes hard to convince people to think in terms of "relating" rather than "relationship". The use of "relationship" is just so embedded in our language.

  4. I found this a very interesting and informative post. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and passion for all things life enhancihng. Well done, I really do great enjoying reading your blogging!!

  5. Thank you everyone for commenting and sharing your positive feedback. It is very much appreciated.

  6. Thank you for an amazing article. We are told about the power of our words, it is brilliant to be able to see how your brain processes different words. This information allows us to be more in charge of our lives.

    1. Thanks Laura, truly appreciate your great and supportive feedback.

      smiles, Grant

  7. Here's some great research that further backs up what I've written about in this post:
    Nouns and verbs are learned in different parts of the brain

    "Two Spanish psychologists and a German neurologist have recently shown that the brain that activates when a person learns a new noun is different from the part used when a verb is learnt. The scientists observed this using brain images taken using functional magnetic resonance."


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