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Sensory - relating to sensation, to the perception of a stimulus and the voyage made by incoming nerve impulses from the sense organs to the nerve centers.

Acuity - the level of sharpness of a sense and its usefulness in resolving

fine levels of detail.

In a general way, sensory acuity means how good your senses are at doing what they should do. In the context of NLP, it refers to the ability to use our senses to make accurate observations about ourselves or other people.

Sight, sound, touch, smell and taste are the tools we use to perceive what is going on in the world - both within our own body and outside of it. It stands to reason therefore that the most effective use of our senses will yield the highest quality information. Higher (Better) quality information in turn improves our chances of enhancing our performance.

Our major (primary) aim in the practice of sensory acuity is not necessarily to improve the senses themselves (we can only use the tools we have), rather it is to improve our use of those tools by increasing and enhancing our awareness of the information provided to us by our senses and to improve our abilities to make ever finer distinctions in that information.

From the presuppositions of NLP we learn that the meaning of our communication is the response that we get.

Sharply focusing our sensory awareness to accurately and fully measure the responses that we are getting to our communication and thus verify if we're communicating effectively is one very important use of sensory acuity. Sensory acuity also demands that our representations about the information provided to us by our five senses must be described using purely sensory-based descriptions.

Sensory based descriptions

Probably the best way to explain what is meant by the phrase sensory based descriptions is with a small illustrative exercise:

Take a good look at the guy on the left. In fact, if you want to get a really good look at him click on the image for a larger view. Now, before you scroll down and read the rest of this page, take a pen and paper and write down a description of the guy in the image above (given image). You don't need to write a huge essay; three or (to) four clear descriptive points should do the trick (be good enough). Once you've written your description you can go ahead and scroll down to read the rest of the exercise given below.

Here are some things you could have written to describe the picture above:

The man looks angry, as if he's pointing at (to) somebody or something and shouting at them. He looks scary, as if he's really annoyed.

Now, whilst the picture could lead us to believe that some of these things are true, can we be certain? The answer is no and in fact, what we are doing is what's described in NLP as a mind read, i.e. we've looked at the picture and made certain judgements without knowing the truth.

Another mind reading about this picture could be that the guy is passionately singing opera, or that he's cheering his favorite football team as they score a goal!

A sensory-based description of this image would include only those things which we can verify by comparing with our own senses such as:

His mouth is wide open. His teeth and tongue are visible. There is tension in the skin beneath his eyes and on the bridge of his nose. The skin at the outer edges of his eyes is wrinkled. His left arm is raised. His left hand forms a fist with the index finger pointing towards us. All these behaviours combine to express anger because I would personally do all these things at the same time in anger.

Sensory Acuity - (V.I.B.E.S.)

Some of the things you can notice about people's responses:


tempo )

volume )

pitch } -tone

modulation )

timbre )

-type of words used

Inclination (of the spine; general posture and gesture)

-slumped or straight

-leaning forwards, upright or back

symmetrical/asymmetrical to left or right range and speed of gestures micro-muscle movements




-location in body



-pupil dilation






-muscle tone

-size of areas (e.g. lips)



We can only know things (the external world) through our senses :

Philosophical Understanding

The problem of how we can know the existence and nature of the world external to our mind is one of the oldest and the most difficult in philosophy. The discussion by John Locke (1632-1704) of knowledge of the external world has been proven to be some of the most difficult passages of his entire body of philosophical work.

First, in his main work in epistemology, “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding”, Locke seems to adopt a representative theory of perception. According to Locke, the only things we perceive (at least immediately) are ideas. Many of Locke’s readers have wondered, how can we know the world beyond our ideas if we only ever perceive such ideas?

Second, Locke’s epistemology is built around a strict distinction between knowledge and mere probable opinion or belief. Locke appears to define knowledge, however, so as to rule out the possibility of knowledge of the external world. His definition of knowledge as the perception of agreement between ideas has seemed to many of his readers to restrict knowledge to our own thoughts and ideas. Locke himself, however, emphasizes that knowledge of the external world is neither based on inference, reasoning nor is it based on reflecting on ideas somehow already in the mind. Instead, it is achieved through sensory experience. Thus, knowledge of the external world, even as Locke himself describes it, is clearly not a matter of merely knowing facts about our own minds.

Third, many of the special difficulties of understanding how knowledge of the external world is possible stem from what seems to be devastatingly skeptical arguments against the possibility of such knowledge. Locke’s approach to skepticism, alternately suggests that skepticism cannot be refuted even if we have at least some good reasons to believe it is mistaken, that genuine skepticism is not psychologically possible for human beings, and that skepticism is incoherent.

Psychological Understanding

Humans possess powerful sensory capacities that allow us to sense the kaleidoscope of sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes that surround us. Our eyes detect light energy and our ears pick up sound waves. Our skin senses touch, pressure, hot, and cold. Our tongues react to the molecules of the foods we eat, and our noses detect scents in the air. The human perceptual system is wired for accuracy, and people are exceedingly good at making use of the wide variety of information available to them (Stoffregen & Bardy, 2001). In many ways our senses are quite remarkable and in some people, one sense is remarkable than the others.

Psychophysics is the branch of psychology that studies the effects of physical stimuli on sensory perceptions and mental states. The field of psychophysics was founded by the German psychologist Gustav Fechner (1801-1887), who was the first to study the relationship between the strength of a stimulus and a person’s ability to detect the stimulus.

Measuring sensations : Even when all our cognition is working at 100 percent, we still miss a lot.

Mcgurk effect

It's pretty easy to spot a badly dubbed foreign film. The sounds that you hear coming out of the actors' mouths don't seem to match up with the movements of their lips that you see. In other words, even when our vision and hearing are being stimulated at the same time during the film, our brains do a really good job of picking up on which lip movements go with which speech sounds. But the brain can also be fooled.

McGurk and MacDonald (1976) reported a phenomenon using audiovisual speech. It is a very powerful multisensory illusion called the “McGurk effect”. In the classic formulation of the illusion, a movie was recorded on a speaker saying the syllables “gaga.” Another movie was recorded on the same speaker saying the syllables “baba.” Then, the auditory portion of the “baba” movie was dubbed onto the visual portion of the “gaga” movie. This combined stimulus was presented to participants who are asked to report what the speaker in the movie said. McGurk and MacDonald (1976) reported that 98 percent of their participants reported hearing the syllable “dada”—which was in neither the visual nor the auditory components of the stimulus.

These results indicate that when visual and auditory information about speech is integrated, it can have profound effects on perception. When people are having a face-to-face conversation, the brain is engaged in complicated activity as it tries to decide how to put lip movements together with the speech sounds that are heard. And it can result in the perception of an entirely different message. It has been replicated many times, and it has sparked an abundance of research. The reason for the great impact is that this is a striking demonstration of multisensory integration.


Psychophysics is the branch of psychology that studies the effects of physical stimuli on sensory perceptions and mental states. The field of psychophysics was founded by the German psychologist Gustav Fechner (1801-1887), who was the first to study the relationship between the strength of a stimulus and a person’s ability to detect the stimulus.

The measurement techniques developed by Fechner and his colleagues are designed in part to help determine the limits of human sensation. One important criterion is the ability to detect very faint stimuli. The absolute threshold of a sensation is defined as the intensity of a stimulus that allows an organism to just barely detect it.

The problem for you is that the very faint signals create uncertainty. Because our ears are constantly sending background information to the brain, you will sometimes think that you heard a sound when none was there, and you will sometimes fail to detect a sound that is there. Your task is to determine whether the neural activity that you are experiencing is due to the background noise alone or is the result of a signal within the noise.

What Is the 7-38-55 Rule?

The 7-38-55 rule is a concept concerning the communication of emotions. The rule states that 7 percent of meaning is communicated through spoken word, 38 percent through tone of voice, and 55 percent through body language. It was developed by a psychology professor Albert Mehrabian at the University of California, Los Angeles, who laid out the concept in his book Silent Messages (1971). In the years since the publication of Mehrabian’s book, his principles have been applied by others to explain the ways humans communicate their feelings.

How to Use the 7-38-55 Rule to Effectively

The best possible outcome in face-to-face communication is generally a win-win situation with mutual gains for all parties. If you’re only listening to the words spoken during a communication without looking for clues in nonverbal channels, you’re likely going to misinterpret what your partner is communicating, and your chances of finding common ground diminish. Studying the 7-38-55 rule will vastly improve your communication skills and make you better able to read the room.

Here are some tips for applying the 7-38-55 rule in a communication context:

Observe your counterpart’s body language.

According to the 7-38-55 rule, 93 percent of meaning is communicated nonverbally. Your tone of voice and body language are much more important than what you’re actually saying. If your counterpart’s body language indicates that they are about to lose their bearings, speak calmly and plainly to soothe them and slow the pace of the communication. In effective communication, you should try to build a working relationship with your partner (the person) and find ways to defuse tension when possible.

Look for inconsistencies between spoken words and nonverbal behavior.

For example, when you’re at the negotiating table, pay attention to how your counterparts speak and act. Do the words they’re saying match the way they’re carrying themselves? Look at the people who are not talking—what does their body language signal to you? Remember that their spoken words only account for seven percent of their communication and look for nonverbal cues that contradict their words. It’s also important that you make sure your own nonverbal messages are in line with what you are saying. If your facial expressions are painful and you can’t maintain eye contact, you are communicating your insecurity to your counterpart no matter what you say.

Monitor your counterpart’s speaking patterns.

We all have one way of telling the truth. If you can identify how your counterpart looks and sounds when they are being honest with you, you’ll be able to detect any deviations from that pattern that may signal a lie. People who are being dishonest tend to use more words and effort than necessary to communicate their point. Use your listening skills to keep an ear out for such verbosity and gain an upper hand.

Learn to use different vocal tones.

According to the 7-38-55 rule, tone of voice accounts for 38 percent of meaning in communication. Mastering the use of your voice can help you become a better negotiator by improving the delivery of your arguments. In the negotiating room, there are three main tones of voice: Assertive voice is declarative and typically counterproductive. An accommodating voice gently promotes collaboration and should be used most of the time.

Calibrate your own nonverbal communication. Effective communication during a negotiation, conflict management, or problem-solving requires the ability to calibrate how you communicate. Focus on your listening skills, assess how your counterpart is feeling, and adjust your nonverbal communication in response. This will communicate far more about your reaction than anything you could say to them. When debating the main points in a negotiation, try to alter your demeanor based on the signals you are receiving from your counterpart. Even if your arguments themselves don’t change, changing your nonverbal messaging can be effective.

The study of nonverbal communication can help you in a variety of settings including international business negotiations, conflict resolution sessions, and even run-of-the-mill social situations. Learning how to apply the 7-38-55 rule will help you better understand the intention and underlying emotions of your negotiating partners and vastly improve your ability to gain the upper hand.

Focusing on Micro expressions

When single emotions occur and there is no reason for them to be modified or concealed, expressions typically last between 0.5 to 4 seconds and involve the entire face (Ekman, 2003). We call these macro expressions; they occur whenever we are alone or with family and close friends. Macro expressions are relatively easy to see if one knows what to look for.

Microexpressions, however, are expressions that go on and off the face in a fraction of a second, sometimes as fast as 1/30 of a second. They are so fast that if you blink you would miss them. This involuntary emotional leakage exposes a person's true emotions. Micro expressions occur in everyone, often without their knowledge. There is no way to prevent them from occurring. Learning to detect this leakage is critical for emotional intelligence.

Microexpressions are likely signs of concealed emotions. (They may also be signs of rapidly processed but unconcealed emotional states.) They occur so fast that most people cannot see or recognize them in real time. The idea that microexpressions exist has its roots in Darwin’s (1872) inhibition hypothesis that suggested that facial actions that cannot be controlled voluntarily may be produced involuntarily even if the individual is trying to control their expressions.

Research on the neuroanatomical bases of emotional expressions suggests how this occurs. There are two neural pathways that mediate facial expressions, each originating in a different area of the brain (Rinn, 1984). The pyramidal tract drives voluntary facial actions and originates in the cortical motor strip, whereas the extrapyramidal tract drives involuntary emotional expressions and originates in subcortical areas of the brain. When individuals are in intensely emotional situations but need to control their expressions they activate both systems, which engage in a neural “tug of war” over control of the face, allowing for the quick, fleeting leakage of microexpressions. Most recently Porter & ten Brinke (2008) demonstrated that microexpressions occurred when individuals attempted to be deceitful about their emotional expressions.

Findings concerning the existence of microexpressions can help people in a range of professions requiring face-to-face interactions improve their skills in reading the emotions of others. Reading facial expressions of emotion, and especially microexpressions, can aid the development of rapport, trust, and collegiality; they can be useful in making credibility assessments, evaluating truthfulness and detecting deception; and better information about emotional states provides the basis for better cooperation, negotiation, or sales. Health professionals can develop better rapport with patients, interact humanely with empathy and compassion, and make the right diagnosis by obtaining complete information. Teachers can read the emotions of their students to obtain cues about the progress of their lesson plans so they can adjust accordingly and deliver them more effectively. School administrators who read the emotions of their teachers can reduce burnout and maintain and improve teacher effectiveness. Businesspersons and negotiators who can read the emotions of others can nurture mutually beneficial collaborations. Product researchers can improve the qualitative data they obtain from consumers by reading consumer’s emotions when evaluating products, giving hints as to what they truly feel despite what they say about it. Parents, spouses, friends, and everyone with an interest in building strong and constructive relationships can benefit from improving their ability to read emotions.

NLP jargon alert!

Calibration : What on earth does this mean?

For others (paying attention)

If you have a pair of old fashioned kitchen scales, you know you have to make sure they are set to zero before you measure something. That way, you are starting off from an accurate baseline so you know that when you put the item on the scales, the weight it shows is accurate. When you do that, you are 'calibrating' the scales.

In NLP, "calibration" refers to using our sensory acuity to gauge the mental and emotional state or mood of a person or audience. This ability sharpens with experience, and is a critical factor in the success of any NLP intervention, because when delivering a pattern, timing is everything. It’s about noticing changes in another person’s responses in an ongoing interaction with them. You would notice their posture, voice tone, facial expression, and micro muscle movements at the start of your interaction, which gives you a baseline reading. Then you monitor any changes in those as the interaction continues.

This is essential to being able to use NLP successfully. It’s also essential in successful communication. A bad communicator will prejudge or imagine the internal responses of others - "hallucinate” them as we say in NLP. A good communicator learns to read the external signs of these internal responses, in real time, as the interaction goes on, in other words, you become aware of their reactions to your communication. By watching how they react to you in these minute ways, you can change your communication with them accordingly.

For example, let’s say a manager has noticed that every time a team member talks about feeling ‘unhappy’, a crease appears between his eyebrows, his lips narrow, and his shoulders come up slightly. If at some time later, the manager observes the team member doing this in a team meeting when she’s announcing some new task, those behavioral signals give her evidence that he is not happy with this new requirement and she can respond appropriately. This is just an instance. One might or might not choose to respond as expected. There is also a chance that one might not pay attention and hence, never realise.

The more you pay attention to the other person, the easier it becomes to read their responses. Of course, if you have the opportunity to observe them over a period of time, as with a work colleague or family member, this gives you more information to work with – but you have to pay attention.

You may have worked with people who seem to pay very little attention to people around them. Sometimes they don’t even look at the person as they are having a conversation. You could pick up more information about the people around you in a minute than others notice in several months – if you pay attention.

Note: calibration differs from the study of 'body language' in this respect: we are not making any assumptions about what particular facial expressions, postures or gestures 'mean', as they may be different for each individual. Over time, we may notice correlations for a particular individual between external signs and particular internal states.

Physiological aspect

In interpersonal communication, sensory acuity enables us to notice subtle physiological shifts in those we are communicating with which in turn give us an idea about how our communication is being received, to know if our communication is going on. During interpersonal communication, people constantly make very subtle shifts in their physiology from moment to moment which we often do not consciously notice since the verbal part of the communication takes the focus of our attention. The non-verbal elements of interpersonal communication can often give us insights about the communication that are not provided by the words being spoken, which in turn guide us in how to modify our communication in order to get our desired outcome.

Many physiological changes occur and here we'll look at five major changes which are useful to notice: (noticeable):

Skin color - From moment to moment there are changes in a person's skin color. The shift is usually from a whiter color to a redder color or what is commonly described as a blushing of the skin.

The easiest way to look for this is to imagine the person in black-and-white and look for changes from light to dark. This may sound odd but it's a useful way to monitor the shift from paler shades to redder shades by measuring it in terms of a shift from light to dark. What we must avoid here is applying our own meaning to that color shift based on that shift alone - we must stick to sensory based descriptions.

We may look at a person with a red face and assume that they are embarrassed and of course we could be completely wrong - they could equally be angry or be hot from exercising or the shift could be due to a shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic functioning. The moment we ascribe meaning to a physiological shift we are guilty of mind reading. We must stick to sensory based descriptions in order to use our sensory inputs clearly.

Skin tonus - The tone of the muscles underlying the skin, particularly of the face, is another useful indicator of physiology and non-verbal communication. We are looking to detect here if the skin of the face is tight or loose. Tight skin will tend to look shinier than loose skin.

Breathing - An individual will change their breathing from moment to moment and what we are most interested in is the rate and the location of the breathing. By watching the torso rising and falling we look to detect if the breathing is fast or slow and whether it is high in the chest or low in the stomach.

Lower lip size - A person's lower lip size changes from fatter and fuller (look for lines) to thinner and more drawn out (no lines).

The eyes - Are they focused or defocused? Are the pupils dilated or undilated?


Calibration of metaphors while having a conversation is very important to have effective communication. Metaphors are incredibly important for communication and understanding. These are potentially very useful in communications because they make abstract ideas more tangible, and can wrap large amounts of subtle and complex information, including emotional information, into a relatively small package. Metaphors are doors to deeper understanding - of self and others and underpin our thinking, and bubble to the surface in the words we use. Metaphors are a natural language of the mind, particularly the unconscious mind. The quality of your communication, both in terms of your enjoyment and the results of your communication, is dependent at least to some degree on your ability to calibrate to another person's emotional states, metaphors, behavioral preferences, and patterns.

Examples Where Calibration is Useful

Let’s suppose you’re working with a client and they have anxiety (are anxious) about a situation. You calibrate the anxiety state and a relaxed confident state. After you’ve done your work, you associate them into the formerly anxious situation. They say they feel fine but you notice they have several markers of the anxious state present. You’re doing collapse anchors. You’ve calibrated both states and fired off both anchors. How do you tell what’s going on and if it’s working? (It is ) calibration.

You’ve met someone you’re interested in. You’ve calibrated them to like/dislike. You can use your calibration skills to tailor your message to them to make sure you’re heading in the right direction.

Calibration :

For self (manage state)

The concept of NLP states refers to our mental and physical processes we experience at any moment. Our state depends on our interaction with the external environment, how well our bodies are functioning and our thinking (including emotions).

States act as a kind of filter on our interpretations of our experiences. If we are tired and hungry, we are likely to be less tolerant of challenges. These interpretations then affect behavior and choices. If we are exhausted, we may choose sleeping in over a networking breakfast.

We change state all the time. Body chemistry changes due to food, hydration, oxygen, circadian and other rhythms and external stimuli etc. We move from the unconscious world of dreaming to alert states of consciousness.

For some, changing from sleeping to waking is almost instantaneous, like an on-off switch. For others it is much more gradual like the tide rising. Because states involve bodily changes, they are noticeable on both the inside and the outside. If we are paying attention, we can notice changes in heart rate, breathing, posture and other internal signals within ourselves.

State calibration is the NLP term for noticing changes of state, particularly in others. It is a vital communication skill. For instance, how aware are you of changes in someone’s voice tone or volume or slight changes in their facial expression? These small things impact communication in several direct and indirect ways. We can learn to influence and even change states in particular situations to give us more choices in achieving our outcomes.

Without Calibration Skills, You’re Driving Blind

In the above examples and in many other situations, without calibration, you’d be driving blind. More accurately, you’d be relying on conscious information and ignoring unconscious information. It’s not that people are lying all the time; it’s just that sometimes the conscious mind and the unconscious mind have different ideas or are in conflict about something. While also, the conscious mind can be in conflict with itself on certain ideas.


The more time you spend practicing sensory acuity the more skillful you will become. Set aside some time each day to practice. Often it is useful to focus on one element each day and observe a number of people, i.e. on day one observes skin color, on day two skin tonus or breathing and so on.

Remember at all times that the map is not the territory. Keep your sensory input channels clean by describing your observations purely in sensory based terms. As you practice sensory acuity you will become increasingly aware of things that you just never noticed before. You will become increasingly and automatically aware of all of the subtle changes that people make in their physiology from moment to moment. This in turn will assist you in becoming a master of interpersonal communications as you learn to read just where the other person is and how your communication is getting through.

This article on 'Sensory Acuity' has been contributed by Priya Pandey who is a student of Psychology, from St.Mira's College and peer reviewed by Ishita Vashisht who is a psychology student from Keshav Mahavidyalaya, Delhi University

Priya and Ishita are both part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP), which is mentored by Anil Thomas.

Priya's future plan is to practice as a professional Counseling Psychologist and work in mental health sector. Further she would like to complete the PhD course for the same.

Ishita hopes to pursue a doctoral degree in psychology and understand human behaviour, their attachment styles and clinical disorders through her own lens.

GIRP is an initiative by (International Journal of Neurolinguistics & Gestalt Psychology) IJNGP and Umang Foundation Trust to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.

Anil is an internationally certified NLP Master Practitioner and Gestalt Therapist. He has conducted NLP Training in Mumbai, and across 6 other countries. The NLP practitioner course is conducted twice every year. To get your NLP certification


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