Some of the basic concepts of NLP have been in use for quite some
time by some unlikely scientific celebrities, such as Nobel Prize nominee
Dr. Jonas Salk (1914-1995), developer of the Salk vaccine for polio.
Dr. Salk used the concept of "perceptual positions" in his work with
viruses and cancer cells. Here are Dr. Salk's own words, from
Anatomy and Reality: Merging of Intuition and Reason (Columbia
University Press, NY, NY, 1983):
"I do not remember exactly at what point I began to apply this way of
examining my experience, but very early in my life I would imagine
myself in the position of the object in which I was interested. Later,
when I became a scientist, I would picture myself as a virus, or a
cancer cell, for example, and try to sense what it would be like to be
either. I would also imagine myself as the immune system, and I would
try to reconstruct what I would do as an immune system engaged in
combating a virus or cancer cell.
"When I had played through a series of such scenarios on a particular
problem and had acquired new insights, I would design laboratory
experiments accordingly. I soon found myself in a dialogue with nature
using viruses, immune systems, and other phenomena to ask questions in
the form of experiments and then waiting for the answer. Based upon the
results of the experiment, I would then know what questions to ask next,
until I learned what I wanted to know, or until I went as far as I could go.
When I observed phenomena in the laboratory that I did not understand,
I would also ask questions as if interrogating myself: "Why would I do that
if I were a virus or a cancer cell, or the immune system?" Before long this
internal dialogue became second nature to me; I found that my mind
worked this way all the time."
Of course, Dr. Salk had no knowledge of NLP when he developed the
polio vaccine since NLP had not yet been created. Nevertheless, he found
himself using "second perceptual position" as a way of acquiring new insights.
In NLP, second position is a particular way of stepping into another person's
shoes. By contrast, when I am in first position, I am fully in my body, knowing
my own feelings, needs and desires. When I put myself in second position with
another person, I imagine what it is like to be that person - with his family
history, employed in his job, being his age, and so on. If done fully and
completely, it provides a rich, full representation of what it is like to be the
other person, providing an understanding of his feelings, needs and desires.
What Dr. Salk did was to go second position with virus cells, cancer cells, and
the human immune system. Clearly, he was able to make use of this skill to
great advantage since it helped him develop the polio vaccine. The vaccine has
likely been responsible for reducing the incidence of polio as much as 95% and
preventing innumerable cases throughout the world.
With NLP, in addition to first and second positions, we also commonly use the
perspective of "third position," which is an enlightened observer perspective -
like the proverbial fly on the wall, but with true knowledge and empathy gained
from having first experienced the other two perspectives.
An NLP process called "Aligning Perceptual Positions" provides a way for an
individual to experience each of these three perspectives to gain insight and
compassion for others, particularly when there is a relationship of difficulty.
I sometimes use this process with clients when they have trouble standing
up for themselves in a personal or professional relationship, or when they
are stuck in one particular position (for example, co-dependence is the
state of being stuck in second position).
I invite your questions and comments on perceptual positions or any other
NLP-related topic. As always, if there is a particular issue you would like to
address with me, please don't hesitate to ask.