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A submodality in neuro-linguistic programming is a distinction of form or structure (rather than content) within a sensory representational system. For example, regardless of the content, both external and mental images of any kind will be either colored or monochrome, and stationary or moving. These parameters are submodalities within the visual sense. Similarly, both remembered and actual sounds will be mono or stereo when experienced internally, so mono/stereo is a submodality of sound.

NLP asserts that far from being arbitrary or unimportant, these submodalities often perform a functional role, as a means by which emotions, related memories, felt-sense perceptions such as "importance", and so on, are presented to consciousness by the unconscious mind, along with thoughts or memories.

NLP asserts that amongst the many possible submodalities, there will often be a handful of so-called "critical" submodalities which can functionally effect large-scale change, and that they differ between people, and can be identified by observation and inquiry. NLP states that a change within these critical submodalities will often correlate with a near-immediate subjective change in the emotion or other felt-sense with which a mental impression presents itself.

Submodalities are therefore seen in NLP as offering a valuable therapeutic insight (or metaphor) and potential working methods, into how the human mind internally organizes and subjectively 'views' events.


The concept of submodalities arose in the field of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), that human beings 'code' internal experiences using aspects of their different senses.

Specifically for most people, research within NLP states that the brain often uses these structural elements as a way to 'know' how it feels about them, and what they signify internally. The link is stated to be bilateral - that is, emotions attached to a mental experience are affected by certain submodalities with which it is associated, and specific submodalities can also be affected if the emotional significance changes.

Definition of a submodality

Submodalities refers to the subjective structural subdivisions within a given representational system. For example, in visual terms, common distinctions include: brightness, degree of colour (saturation), size, distance, sharpness, focus, and so on; in auditory: loudness, pitch, tonal range, distance, clarity, timbre, and so on.

Ordinarily, one can establish these by asking questions:

  • "This image - is it bright, or dim? Coloured or black and white? How much colour? Is it big or small? Is it near or far? In focus, or out of focus?"
  • "This sound - is it loud or soft? Is it high pitched or low pitched? Does it have a range? Is it near or far? Is it one point source or spread out? Where is it coming from? Is it clear or muffled?"
  • "That feeling in your body - where exactly is it? Does it have a size? A temperature? Does it stay the same, or does it move at all? Does it have a texture? Is it hard or soft?"

A more extensive list of common submodalities is given below.

NLP views of submodalities

According to core NLP research, each person's brain seems to code emotional significance differently through variations in mental "image" or representation. Examples found include people whose unconscious minds place black borders around bad memories, people for whom visual images seen dimly are less compelling than those seen brightly, people for whom a subjectively "good" memory is accompanied by one kind of sound whilst a "bad" memory is accompanied by another, and so on.

For most people, there will be a handful of such distinctions which are 'critical' to emotional perception, and thus to their mental processing. For example, these might be submodalities that distinguish optimistic thoughts from depressive ones, or which distinguish compelling and important thoughts from less compelling ones. For any given individual, a submodality that turns out to be critical in how a given memory or thought is subjectively experienced, is known as a critical submodality.

The discovery that the emotion associated with a thought is often functionally linked to the submodalities with which that thought is presented to consciousness, led to a variety of brief therapy NLP interventions based upon change of these key submodalities. In effect, voluntary change of submodalities on the part of the subject was often found to alter long-term the concommitant 'feeling' response, paving the way for a number of change techniques based on deliberately changing internal representations. NLP co-originator Richard Bandler in particular has made extensive use of submodality manipulations in the evolution of his work.

To match these subjective distinctions, Eric Robbie (an NLP trainer) claimed in 1984 that sub-modalities could be reliably distinguished from external behaviour - in the case of visual submodalities, subtle changes in the eye and facial muscles surrounding the eye were good indicators of specific submodalities; in the case of auditory, subtle changes in the muscles surrounding the ears performed the same function, and in the case of kinesthetic, subtle changes in the musculature of the body revealed subjective variations in that modality.[1]

List of submodalities

Examples of distinctions that are embedded within sensory impressions include:

Representation system Examples of submodalities
(sight, images, spatial)
  • Location: to the left, right, top, bottom
  • Size
  • Distance
  • Brightness
  • Color or monochrome
  • Framed (nature of frame?) or panoramic
  • 2D or 3D
  • Clear or fuzzy
  • Shape: convex, concave, specific shape
  • Movement: still, photo, slideshow, video, movie, looping
  • Style: picture, painting, poster, drawing, "real life"
(sound, voice)
  • Mono / stereo
  • Qualities: Volume, pitch, tempo, rhythm
  • Variations: looping, fading in and out, moving location
  • Voice: whose voice, one or many
  • Other background sounds?
(propreceptive, somatic)

See also


  1. Technical explanation: The human body continuously responds to mental events, even the event is "internal" (as all subjective experience is). For example, people often slightly cock their heads if listening, even if only talking to themselves inside their heads. When an image is seen or a sound heard in the head, the body still reacts to it in a minor degree, even if the event was internal. Careful body language observation of the small muscles around the sensory organs can often allow a skilled observer familiar with a subject to identify submodalities being experienced internally by that subject.
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