Magic of Structure

magic brain structure

In the mid 1970s, John Grinder and Richard Bandler, produced a two volume text called; ‘The Structure of Magic’, dealing with; ‘communication and change’. It came to be the foundation of a new discipline called; ‘Neuro Linguistic Programming’ (NLP). In this short piece we look at the magic of structure. Very simply, NLP suggests personal experience has structure and, unpacking this structure,  adjusting it, can reveal the ‘magic’ of lasting change. 

A lot happens within any given personal experience.  The ‘magic’ referred to in the original two volumes was the magic, the seemingly intuitive skills of the most talented, the most revered therapists such as Virginia Satir, and Milton H Erickson.

The structure of experience

The ‘magic’ referred to in this short piece, relies on the potential good to be achieved through the effective exploration of the structure of subjective experience.  In fact one definition of NLP runs like; ‘the study of the structure of subjective experience‘.

When someone has an experience they find difficult or disagreeable, something interesting is happening. There is a structured sequence of responses to some stimulus taking place.  Just as when someone has an enjoyable, pleasurable experience. A sequence is unfolded.

When a person experience anxiety attack, for example, they must set in place a series of activities or thought procedures. Decisions get made. The person experiencing anxiety could not have such an experience if they were relaxing poolside considering the joys of life in general or the specifics of some particularly agreeable experience.  Anxiety is sometimes described as befalling the person, as if the person is somehow walloped in the face with anxiety by some alien force, all while they were just minding their own business, going about their usual day’s activities.

Anxiety usually has some trail of development, some build-up, however brief, or instantaneous it may appear. Such development to an experience of what can be labelled anxiety needs structure and, as is suggested here, structure has magic! Structure has components that can be adjusted, manipulated, orchestrated into something else.

The Structure of Anxiety

The structure of anxiety may look something like this:

  • Thoughts –   of escape and thoughts of lack of personal resourcefulness to meet perceived dangers ahead. Thoughts of losing control. Thoughts, our internal dialogue, give meaning to experience which may not be accurate.
  • Feelings –  of terror, including fear of dying, for example, feelings of dissociation, leaving one’s body, detachment. Feelings of fear of having even more fear – anticipatory anxiety!
  • Sensations –  Pulse increase, fastere breath rate, potential dizziness, chest pain (possibly leading to assumption that one is having a heart attack). Other physical sensations include e.g. perspiration, trembling, and even choking.
  • Protective actions   avoidant behaviours, such as avoiding places where there were previous experiences of fear and panic as well as vigilance to symptoms (strong sensitivity to any signs or symptoms of rising fear, to the point of panic).  These protective strategies may provide initial relief but can diminish quality of life as one withdraws from potentially satisfying and meaningful experiences.

Such an array of elements of structure may be seen to contain some of the ingredients of therapeutic support for the person. The problem, in its structure, in its component parts, it’s sequence, contains the solution!


Some approaches, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), use the structure of the problem as the path to effective support. That is what is meant in our title; The Magic of Structure’.   In therapy, the person may be encouraged to understand the structure of the problem, its elements.  From here, armed with basic psycho-education, the catastrophic thinking can be unpacked to uncover an absence of much real supporting evidence.

For example, if the person is thinking something like; “If I fall down here it will be both embarrassing as well as dangerous”, there is scope for therapy to support exploration of the underpinning thoughts that lead them to anxiety-based assessments of the situation. 

Unpacking and evaluating the structure of the unwanted experience can be very helpful as is allowing the person to access an imagined encounter with the unwanted experience.  When we think, it is usual to make images in our mind.  When someone is sharing a story for example we usually ‘see’ what they’re decribing. At least we see our version of what the describe.

For the person experiencing anxiety who, say, avoids public transport because they find it too fearful, they may in a safe space, be encouraged to imagine being on public transport.  Further, they may be encouraged to imagine not just being on public transport but having an anxiety experience in the usual, or familiar sequence.  This could mean, having frightening ideas, experiencing say, shortness of breath, dizziness, and fearing losing consciousness or even dying.

‘Walking with’ the client through their own sequence of frightening experience, supporting some consideration of possible alternatives to the feared familiar painful structure can help.   The person can, in time, come to realise the validity of alternative assessments to the usual fearful ones.  This can provide a powerful support for a person who is used to regular rehearsal of the same negative expectations in their life. 

The use of clinical hypnosis in providing support for someone whose life is impacted by painful assessments of future experience can be very useful here.    The person can access a measure of relaxation and possibly come to reach refreshing realisations about their prevailing version of reality.   The agreeable present-time absorption and focus can support the suspension of belief that expectation equals reality.

Of course, the discipline of NLP provides numerous techniques aimed at replacing unwanted, limiting thoughts and behaviours.

A very recent addition to the literature from Dr Michael Yapko emphasises ‘process’ over content.  Where we may be very interested in what the person is concerned about or why their anxiety is the way it is, a more important consideration is ‘how’ they go about ‘doing’ their problem.  The person’s insight and awareness around their processes can be powerful keys to their wellness.   


Some links you may find interesting:

  1. John Grinder & Richard Bandler: ‘The Structure of Magic’. Science of Behavior Books Inc. 1976.

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