Submodalities – a key for change

Prior knowledge required: Representational systems

The representational systems are visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory, gustatory and auditory digital. These are sometimes referred to as the major modalities.

If we break each one down (NLP calls this chunking down) with finer distinctions, we get submodalities.

Consider a picture – say, your screen saver or a favourite photograph. It has properties, such as bright or dim, or somewhere in between. It could be in black and white, sepia tones or full vibrant colour; blurred, soft focus or crystal clear, and so on.

These distinctions or properties of an internal representation are called the submodalities. It is simply not possible to have a thought without it having a submodality structure, and yet we are largely unaware of these fundamental components of thought.

Programming language of the mind

The submodalities form the basic building blocks of how we think. The effect that these specifics have on our thought processes, and hence how we feel and react about certain things, people or events, is far from random. Submodalities are, in essence, the programming language of the mind.

I think, therefore I am.


Recognising this means that we can work directly with the submodalities to change how we are thinking. And this, in turn, opens up a huge range of opportunities for us, since how we think is the major factor in what sort of results we get in life. In other words, if you change the detailed and specific way you think about something – its submodality encoding – you will find yourself thinking about it in a different way; you will change.

So would you like to start re-programming your brain?


Imagine in your mind a TV or film character you feel neutral about.

You probably have a picture in your mind of the character.

Expand the image in your mind so it is much bigger and closer and brighter, and notice how you feel about the character.

Next, reduce the image to a small fuzzy dot on the distant horizon, and notice how you now feel about the character.

Now put the character back as it was when you started.

Choose something else, such as a place or town you feel neutral about, and do the same exercise.

What did you notice?

What most people notice with the above exercise is this:

  • When a picture in the mind appears closer, brighter and bigger, the content of the picture is more compelling, maybe more appealing or perhaps even frightening
  • When it is far away and just a dot, it is not worthy of attention.

Notice that the submodalities of distance, brightness and size controlled how compelling or not the object in the picture was. The submodalities controlled the meaning you attached to the picture, regardless of the content.


Now practise with as many different people or events as you can.

When an event has happened, it is past. We cannot change it. We can no longer interact with the event itself, only with our memory, or internal representation of the event, which can be changed.

Make sure you put things back to the way they were when you started: for now, we are not seeking to change anything permanently, we are just experimenting and practising.

If you are not visual

Some people have not learnt to manipulate images in their mind quite so easily as this, and would prefer another modality. No problem: you can do the same thing with sounds by making them closer and louder, or quieter and far away, or you can change feelings by making them warmer and softer, or colder and harder. The name of the game here is to experiment.

How we code meaning

If you have done the exercise above, you will have had an experience of the way submodality changes can change meaning.

Now consider this from another perspective. Think of pumpkin soup. Yes, pumpkin soup. Do you like it? How much do you like or dislike it on a scale from minus ten to plus ten. Let’s assume you like it plus five on the scale.

How do you know you like it precisely that much?

You know because you have stored the idea of pumpkin soup with submodalities that equate to exactly plus five. You will find that other foods you like about the same amount will be coded with very similar submodalities. A food you dislike – with a score of, say, minus five – will be coded differently.


Consider a food you like. As it comes to mind, notice the location it appears to be in your mind. Is it in front of you, to the side, above, behind, at an angle or where?

It will seem to be somewhere at a certain distance from you and in a specific direction.

If this doesn’t seem to be the case, notice how you react when I say this ‘It is directly above your head’. Chances are, you will ‘sense’ that this is wrong. Now do the same for other directions until you find the place that does not produce this ‘sense’ of wrongness.

Take a note of this location.

Now consider a food you dislike, and notice where this is located.

In your mind’s eye, swap these two foods over, so each is where the other one was. Just for now, snap an imaginary lock on them to keep them there.

Now imagine someone bringing you a plate of the first food. How do you react inside?

Someone then brings you a plate of the second food. How do you react inside?

Now undo the lock and put the foods back where they were.

Experiment with other foods, including ones that you adore and ones that would make you sick.

Most people find that the foods they really like are clustered around one location, and those they dislike are in another. The submodality of location is very often the most important one relating to how much we like a food.

The above principles, which explain the way submodalities encode meaning, apply to everything, not just food and, with this realisation, the raw power of submodalities to govern your existence becomes visible. Submodalities underpin what we believe, and what we hold to be false. They underpin what is important to us, and what is not. They underpin who or what we like or dislike. They underpin our motivation, our moods and our emotions.

The really good news, as you have discovered in the exercises, is that you can change them in a purposeful and controlled manner.

All the submodalities

Every thought we have is composed of the six modalities, V  A  K  O  G  Ad

Each of these is made up of a whole raft of submodalities. Below is a table with the most common ones.


Think of a memory of an event, and then go through the list below and notice what the submodalities are for each item in the list. Note that some may not seem relevant or important for this particular memory.

Now do it again for a range of different memories: perhaps a ride on a roller coaster, playing in the surf on a warm beach, that romantic dinner for two, or maybe that argument you had or a time when you were embarrassed about something.

You can also play with changing the submodalities and learning how they work for you. Are the default ones what you would want? Do you remember choosing them; if not, would you prefer to have some say in the matter?

If you change the submodalities of a memory and you prefer it the new way, just leave the new submodalities in place. It really is your choice.


  • Black and white or colour?
  • Bright or dim?
  • Location: in which direction is it?
  • Distance: how far away is it?
  • Size of picture: life size, or smaller or larger?
  • Associated or dissociated?
  • Focused or defocused?
  • Framed or panoramic?
  • Movie or still?
  • If a movie: fast/normal/slow?
  • Focus: sharp or blurred?
  • Focus: changing or steady?
  • Contrast: high or low?
  • 3D or flat?
  • Angle viewed from: the top, side, front or some other point?
  • Number of pictures: single picture or montage?


  • Location: in which direction is it?
  • Distance: how far away is it?
  • Internal or external?
  • Loud or soft?
  • Fast or slow?
  • Pitch: high or low?
  • Tonality?
  • Timbre?
  • Pauses?
  • Cadence?
  • Duration?
  • Uniqueness of sound?


  • Location: where is it?
  • Size?
  • Shape?
  • Intensity?
  • Steady?
  • Movement/duration?
  • Vibration?
  • Pressure/heat?
  • Weight?

You may have noticed some of the following points.

  1. Some submodalities just did not seem at all relevant for a particular memory.
  2. Some of them seemed far more important than others. That is, they had a greater impact on the meaning of the memory than others. These are sometimes called critical submodalities.
  3. There are actually many more than this, particularly when you also add in those for taste and smell. This is just a list of the common ones.
  4. You had to keep going quite fast as the memory kept changing. Thinking is quite a mercurial process.
  5. Some submodalities are either on or off, yes or no – they have only two possible states. Others are variable over a range – for example, brightness or distance.

Listen for them in language

As you become aware of submodalities, you will hear them referred to when people speak. They will use phrases that are literal descriptions of what is going on for them at a submodality level, so you will hear things such as

  • Put it behind us
  • Loom large in front of us
  • Small and insignificant
  • It is a heavy problem
  • She is a warm person
  • Let’s get this in focus
  • We need a different perspective
  • He is distant
  • Larger than life.

Get used to listening out for these, as they can be good pointers to what is going on internally for someone else.