Friday, January 10, 2014

Meaning and Meaningfulness

Meaning and Meaningfulness - the Structure of Human Understanding

[Note: this post was originally written as an article I had published in 'Anchor Point: The International Journal of NLP', August 2004]

In NLP we know that wisdom is supported by multiple distinctions. One useful technique for generating new distinctions is to distill our knowledge and understanding back to the simplest underlying processes possible. This can provide powerful abstractions we can use as tools to explore, filter and understand our world and our selves.

 "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."
Albert Einstein
There are two fundamental processes that we as humans do to make sense of the world, indeed there are two fundamental processes that any neural network utilises in order to build a semantic network that models the world:

The mind/brain is involved in mapping and tracking:
  • Meaning
  • Meaningfulness


Meaning is created through metaphor. According to the Cognitive Linguist, George Lakoff, the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another. Metaphor constructs meaning by linking experiences and objects together. All new experience is made sense of by linking it to something else that is already understood. X is like Y. Thus to make sense of the world, we as patterning systems, build a semantic network where cognitive concepts and deep structure experiences are linked together in a web of interconnected meaning. Metaphor is primary (and as we have found in the new field of mBIT, it is also largely embodied). It is the fundamental tool by which we construct our maps of the world. And language, one of our key mapping tools, is primarily metaphorical in nature.

According to Piaget, a famous developmental psychologist who explicated a powerful theory of cognitive epistemology, our cognitive structures change through the two processes of adaptation: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation involves the interpretation of events in terms of existing cognitive structure whereas accommodation refers to changing the cognitive structure to make sense of the environment. Cognitive development consists of a constant effort to adapt to the environment in terms of assimilation and accommodation. Another term for accommodation is metaphorical extension. We build new metaphorical links that relate new experiences to existing understanding. Assimilation involves interpretation and understanding within the existing cognitive/semantic network.

A great example of these processes at work in life is when a child first learns about 'dogs' and then goes for a drive in the country with his or her parents. "Look mummy," says the small child spying a cow in a field, "a big doggy!" "No," says the parent, "that's not a doggy, it's like a doggy only bigger and instead of saying woof, it says moo." A short while later, the child spys a horse, "Oh mummy, there's a funny shaped cow!" "No darling, that's a horse, it's like a cow only you don't get milk from it and it is used for riding. It says neigh." The child thus learns by assimilating and then extending and accomodating the new experiences and meaning and by linking them metaphorically. X is like Y only different. This is how we construct meaning in our maps of the world.

To summarise: Metaphor is Meaning.


The neural network of the brain is a values driven patterning system. It tracks for and maps what is important, salient and of value. As new experience occurs, the strength of the synaptic connections that are firing during that experience, get strengthened in proportion to the biological (and eventually semantic) salience of the experience.

Gerald Edelman, in his research on the mind and brain has shown in his theory of Neuronal Group Selection, that values are at the heart of how we construct our maps of the world. Meaningfulness drives and determines what gets stored in the neural network of the brain. Metaphors are built through shared links of shared salience. Values sort and prioritise which metaphors, which cognitive structures, will eventually come to live in our maps of the world. Meaning and meaningfulness interconnect to determine how we make sense of the world, how we make decisions and ultimately how we come to live our lives. Lives of meaning and meaningfulness.

Values also are at the heart of what information comes through our nervous systems to impinge on our frontal lobe processes and higher brain functions. The Reticular Activating System (RAS), a core component of our central nervous system, acts as a filter or way-station to information coming from almost all our sensory processes. And the key to the RAS is salience or values. The RAS only allows information through that it deems to be meaningful.

The RAS for example, is responsible for the 'cocktail party effect', this is where you are at a party or restaurant, surrounded by a sea of noise, of music, of people talking loudly and yet you can choose to ignore or switch off the surrounding noise and totally concentrate on the sound coming from the person you are talking with. Yet when someone three tables or groups away mentions your name, or even something that you are keenly interested in, you suddenly hear their voices. Its like your name leaps out of the blur of noise to grab your attention. And yet, up until then you were totally oblivious (consciously) to their conversation. Your RAS has been unconsciously tracking all of the information impinging on your sensory channels and deleting that which is not salient and amplifying that which is of value to you.

Values filter and prioritise the information your nervous system attends to and therefore learns from and builds new maps and metaphors from. Values filter and directionalise learning. The map becomes the territory. Meaningfulness guides the construction of meaning.

To summarise: Unless meaning is meaningful it will be meaningless.

Submodalities - The Structure of Meaningfulness

As we have seen above, metaphor codes meaning. But what codes meaningfulness? When you picture a belief in your mind's eye, the content of the picture carries and codes the meaning. What is 'in' the picture forms the meaning. And the submodalities (brightness, size, position, colour etc.) code the meaningfulness. Meaningfulness is structured through submodalities.

Submodalities are a discovery from the field of NLP. They’re the building blocks of the senses and as such they structure the meaningfulness of our experiences. For each of our sensory modalities (sights, sounds, feelings, tastes and smells) the sub-components of each modality are its ‘submodalities’. So for sight for example, the pictures in your mind have submodalities like size, focus, distance, position, color/black-and-white etc. 

For example, picture something in your mind's eye that you strongly believe, something you feel very strongly about and that is very important to you. Something you value highly. Now notice how bright and close the picture is to you. Push the picture way, way off into the distance and dim it right down. Notice that subjectively it no longer seems so important, so salient, so meaningful. Now zoom it back in to where it was originally and brighten it up. Your subjective experience of the belief is intrinsically linked to the submodalities you code the image with.

Notice also that those things that are important to you, that you value highly, tend to have pictures that are physically located high in the visual field. They are 'highly valued'. And notice also that this extends into other patterns of how we value our world. Where are the most valued and expensive 'top shelf' drinks stored? - On the highest shelf. Where do we physically place the most important people in an organisation? - The office of the CEO is usually on the top floor, and similarly on an Organisation chart, the most highly valued (in importance and in remuneration terms) people are placed on the top of the chart. Have you ever seen a short Super Model? - Research indicates that tall people are more highly valued, they get better jobs, more opportunities and their median income is higher. Society is replete with examples of the vertical sorting of values.

So the submodality of vertical dimension codes for move towards and move away from values. Up is move towards, down is move away. The higher or lower, the more the towards or away salience.
Distance and brightness combine together, as a means of increasing or decreasing the flux density of photons impinging on the retina, to code for intensity of salience. By brightening an image or moving it closer, you increase the intensity of the meaningfulness. You make it much more meaning-full.
Central and Peripheral physical location also code for meaningfulness. We value those things that are central to us much more than those that are peripheral. (Note however that change in the peripheral view has high salience from the perspective of danger and fear.) Left and right also code for meaningfulness.

These are just some of the many ways we use submodalities to code how meaningful things and experiences are to us. There are numerous others related to time coding, colour coding, patterns of change etc.

To Summarise: Submodalities code meaningfulness and values.

Putting it all together

As we have seen, we make sense of our world, our lives and our selves through an interplay of meaning and meaningfulness. Meaning is coded through metaphor and meaningfulness is coded through values and submodalities. This means that if you want to live a life designed for success, you need to become aware of and a master of the metaphors you are using to make meaning of your life.

You need to become a Metasmyth - a Meta-phor Smyth, a designer and creator of the metaphors of identity and meaning that organise your reality. You need to become an expert on the process of metaphor’ing and how each word is both a metaphor and a literal descriptor of the deep-structure experience it is encoding. (You need to become 'meta' to your own sense of self-ing and how you construct your reality through metaphor.)

You also need to become a Values master. Tracking, designing and flexibly operating from very clear and well-defined and well-formed values. Become a master of how you are value-ing your life. Values aren't something you have, they're processes that you do. How are you valuing your life? Are your values well-formed and clearly focussed? Prioritised in hierarchies that support your life purpose?

By deeply and clearly understanding the importance of these two processes - metaphor and values - and developing skills in tracking and utilising them, you can amplify the excellence of your results, the excellence of your relatings and the meaning you make of your time on this planet.

Meaning and meaningfulness are the keys to the patterns you unfold in your life.

life enhancing wishes


  1. Grant, this is fascinating. It is the first I've ever heard of the RAS. I'm going to go back and follow all the links now.

    1. Thanks Jean, glad you find it interesting. I agree entirely. It's both fascinating and important. When you begin to get insights into the structure of human understanding, it puts you at power to start creating your own meaning and meaningfulness. And that's pretty darn life enhancing :-)

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      smiles, Grant

  2. New and fascinating research backs up what I was saying in this blog post/artcile. The implications are quite profound:

    "At the most basic level, we don’t really perceive separate objects at all – we perceive our nervous systems’ responses to a boundless flow of electromagnetic waves and biochemical reactions."

  3. Is there any special centre that determines whether something is important or meaningful or not and therefore worthy of remembering?


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