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Submodalities Defined

The presuppositions of NLP tell us that all distinctions human beings are able to make concerning our environment and our behaviour can be usefully represented through the visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, and gustatory senses - or if we can say - Everything we do inside our mind and body can be described in terms of things we see, hear, feel, smell and taste.In NLP the five senses that comprise our sensory input channels are also known as modalities.

The richness and diversity of experience available to us as human beings demands that our sensory input channels support a fine level of distinction or granularity, and thus the modalities are made up of smaller sub-components known as submodalities. Any experience that we have in life is going to have a certain set of submodalities and the order, sequence and properties of those submodalities are the way in which we encode that particular experience as we add it to our internal map of reality.

Changing an experience in our internal map can be easily achieved by simply changing the submodalities of the experience to record it. For example, we can take something we dislike and change it into something we like by:-

  • Eliciting the submodalities of the thing we dislike (substance A)

  • Eliciting the submodalities of something that we like (substance B)

  • Recoding our experience of substance A by mapping onto it the submodalities of substance B.

What does behavior change look like in the brain?

Neural pathways comprises of neurons connected by dendrites, are created in the brain based on our habits and behaviors. The number of dendrites increases with the frequency a behavior is performed. It's like a picture of these neural pathways as deep grooves or roads in our brain. Our brain cells communicate with each other via a process called “neuronal firing.”

Psychologist Deann Ware, Ph.D., explains that when brain cells communicate frequently, the connection between them strengthens and “the messages that travel the same pathway in the brain over and over begin to transmit faster and faster.” With enough repetition, these behaviors become automatic. Reading, driving, and riding a bike are examples of complicated behaviors that we do automatically because neural pathways have formed.

Just because individuals have formed neural pathways does not mean that they are stuck with those habits forever. As the person participates in new activities, they are training their brains to create new neural pathways. The pathways get stronger with repetition until the behavior is the new normal.

In terms of repetition, it is estimated that it takes 10,000 repetitions to master a skill and develop the associated neural pathway. It is estimated that it takes 3–6 months for a new behavior to become a habit, though this estimate varies by person. The repetition will pay off when their behavior becomes natural. It is important to understand that every brain is different. Each person has their own unique experiences that have shaped their brain and continue to shape it throughout their lives. Therefore, it really is important for individuals to understand their unique experiences and values in order to help them develop a clear plan for achieving the behavior.

Developing new neural pathways

Connecting a new behavior to as many areas of the brain as possible helps to develop new neural pathways. By tapping into all five senses, we can create “stickiness” that helps form neural pathways.

Everyone has experiences that changed them. We can recall the sensations: the images, smells, how we felt, etc. For e.g.Connect successes or health goals to as many senses as possible.

Visualization can be a very powerful sense that can help individuals build new neural pathways toward behavior change. For example, visualize what optimal health looks like, feels like, and what they would be doing if their diabetes was managed.

The swish

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

- C. S. Lewis

The Swish was first published in Richard Bandler’s book ‘Using your Brain for a Change’ (Bandler 1985) where Richard Bandler described the Swish pattern as a very generative pattern and particularly useful for ‘habit control’ that programs the mind and leads it to a new direction. Swish pattern directionalizes the brain and the behavior has a strong tendency to go in the same direction too. Casale (2012) defines swish as a very useful technique for replacing an unwanted emotion with a useful one. Bandler states in ‘Using Your Brain for a Change’ that the Swish, rather than substituting one behaviour for another, helps the client create a new direction. Using Your Brain for a Change was the first book that discussed submodalities in detail and how the submodalities could be used in change work. The Swish is specifically described as a“submodality pattern” in that book.

The swish pattern is a neurolinguistic programming visualization technique designed to promote rapid, sensory-based change that refocuses people's negatively focused thinking (Andreas, 1986; Bandler, 1985). The swish pattern falls into a category of Neuro-Linguistic Programming called submodalities (VAK model), which refer to the qualities of our inner imagery, sounds, and feelings. Once we understand the structure of our thoughts and feelings, we can change that structure. The swish pattern is one way to alter our inner world that happens to transform unwanted habits. It is most often used to help people overcome automatic habits that are hard to let go. Smoking, nail-biting, overeating, and sudden emotional reactions are a few of the many swish-able problems.

Here, the individual "swish” away negative, unwanted visualizations or images (e.g., the suicide of a child) while concurrently refocusing on positive, desired visualizations (e.g.;memories of a favorable shared time with the child before the suicide). Such neuro-linguistic programming visualization techniques have been used and described by some of the most recognized founding people in family counselling,including Virginia Satir (1988, 1989), Milton Erickson (Haley, 1985), and Jay Haley (1973). In addition, Masters, Rawlins, and Weidner (1991), reported, “Metaphorically, the swish directionalizes the brain toward a desired self- image, using both conscious and unconscious resources” (p.82). It’s a way of telling our brains “This not That” and replacing something we don’t want with something we do want.

Finding the "context" of the Problem Behavior

All behaviors take place in a specific context. This context may be a place, an activity, a social setting, another person, or even another behavior. It may be a group of people with whom the behavior takes place. It is important, for all sorts of reasons, for us to understand the context of a behavior. When it comes to the Swish Pattern, the context is important because you need to be able to associate the client into their behavior. If you do not do this successfully, you may not get the correct trigger picture. And how do you know if you have been successful? Look at the client’s reaction when they see the trigger. Their Posture may change, their facial expression may change, and their breathing may change.It will be more difficult to test your work if you do not have the correct context. You will also not be able to do a “future pace” (a mental rehearsal of the next time the client will be in the situation where they want the new behavior) if you do not have the correct context. So getting that context, with as much specificity as possible, is really important.

For example of the client who came in to stop smoking. When specifically does the client smoke a cigarette? The more precisely you can answer this, the easier the change work becomes. It is much easier to run the Swish on a specific cigarette that the client smoked at 8:30 in the morning on Thursday than on every cigarette she has ever smoked in herlife. Some people think that it would be easier to take all the client’s experiences and change them all at the same time. After all, if you only change the client’s experience of the cigarette that they smoked on Thursday at 8:30, then won’t every other cigarette they smoked still be a problem for them? The answer is no. As you begin to repeat the pattern on various experiences and various cigarettes, the client’s unconscious mind begins to generalize the change. The human brain likes to categorize things by grouping similar experiences together. So, for example, the brain may link all the cigarettes that are smoked first thing in the morning as one set of experiences,and the cigarettes that are smoked after dinner as a totally different set of experiences. Or the client’s unconscious may view the evening cigarette as being the same as the cigarettes she smoked in the morning. In any case, the mind will categorize the experiences into groups, and you must deal with each group in order to create lasting change. Once the client has chosen a specific event at a specific time and place, then you can begin to associate them and this associated context forms the foundation within which the Swish will take place.

Finding the "Trigger" Picture

Once you have identified the context, you can begin to search for the trigger picture. This is what the client sees in the outside world immediately before he or she engages in the problem behavior. In the example above, it is the pack of cigarettes. With a nail-biter, it might be a small nick or imperfections in the nail that “needs” to be bitten off. In order to do the Swish accurately and effectively, you need the correct trigger picture.Sometimes the trigger picture will not be easy to find. For example, a client might seek help because he habitually gets angry with his spouse, but not all the time. So it is not his spouse who triggers the anger; it is something more specific. It might be something that his spouse says, or a facial expression that his spouse has, or something similar. If you do not use the correct picture,then you will not be attaching the outcome picture to the correct trigger. You Might not be lighting up the correct neural network, and the change work might not be so effective.

The swish pattern - Step by Step

1. Think of a recurring behaviour or habit that you would like to change. Clearly identify the context in which it occurs. You may want to see, hear and feel again what is happening in this situation.

2. As you imagine that you are just about to perform the unwanted behaviour, identify what it is you are seeing that triggers it. Ensure that this is an associated picture, seen from the perspective of your own eyes. Once you have it, set this cue picture aside.

3. Now create a resourceful; dissociated self-image of you who no longer has this behaviour or habit. How would you look, sound and feel if you had already resolved this issue? What particular qualities would you be exhibiting? Ensure that this outcome picture is both attractive and compelling - something you are really drawn towards.

4. Now go back to the original cue picture and, as you do so, simultaneously see the resourceful picture as a small dot on the distant horizon, with no detail yet visible.

5 Now perform the swish! Make the original cue picture go black and white and zoom out into a small dot in the distance. Simultaneously, allow the resourceful image to expand rapidly into a big, bright, close, colourful image that fills the whole screen of your mind.

6. As Soon as you have done the swish, do a 'break state' by blanking out your mental screen or opening your eyes. Repeat the swish at least five times, breaking state in between each one. Do each swish as quickly as possible!

7. After a moment or two's distraction to allow the change to settle in, try to get the original cue picture back. If you cannot, or if it fades and is unstable in some way, or you immediately get the outcome picture instead, then you have finished.

Important Factors while performing Swish

  • Size and Brightness

The studies which led to the development of NLP techniques found that when we visualise images, the strength of the feelings we associate with the images can be directly affected by submodality distinctions such as the size of the image and the brightness.

Big, bright images up close in our field of vision usually trigger stronger feelings than small, dark images which are off in the distance. (This couldn't be why action movies are so much better on the cinema screen or why TV screens are growing in size almost daily, could it?)

Try it out - think of something that excites or scares you. Make the picture big and bright and pull it towards you until it's really, really close - you'll probably find the feelings you associate with the picture get stronger as it gets nearer, bigger and brighter. Now gradually push the picture off into the distance. As it recedes into the distance it gets smaller and darker until it's hard to make out the detail of the image at all. As it slides away you'll probably find the effect it has on your feelings getting less and less.

Swish leverages these findings - we push the undesired image further away, which in turn makes it smaller and darker and less emotionally significant to us. In so doing we provide a clear instruction to our neurology that we wish to move away from this state / behaviour. Then the desired image comes rushing back in at high speed to replace the undesired state / behaviour with the desired state / behaviour. This too is an element of the swish that is vital to its success. Whatever we take away - in this case the problem state / behaviour - must be replaced with something else - the desired state / behaviour. Our unconscious mind doesn't like gaps and, in the absence of something better, it will tend to fill the gap by replacing the problem state / behaviour right back where it came from.

  • The speed

The swish works best when it's done rapidly. Why? Because brains don't learn slowly - brains learn quickly.

Imagine being shown a picture on the first page of a small pad of paper and then, a week later, being shown the second page containing the same image again with some small changes. Imagine this process spanning several months, each week being shown subsequent pages with the image changing slightly each week from the week before. If you were shown the pad in this way you would probably find it unremarkable, relatively meaningless and quite disinteresting. It would only be when you were shown all of the pages in rapid succession that the greater meaning would become apparent as, through persistence of vision, your brain would connect all the disjointed images, see the pictures moving and realise that the pad was in fact a small motion picture in the form of a flick book.

Just as we can only fully understand the flick book when the pages are accessed quickly, our brains learn better when they are able to make connections between pieces of information quickly - which is why the swish works best when it's done at high speed.

  • Direction

So every time we see the trigger picture, we ‘disappear’ it and replace it instantly with the desired picture. We do this quickly, because that’s how the brain learns to make a link between one image and the next. When you condition that in a few times, the first picture has become an anchor for the next – your mind is expecting the next picture and so brings it up.

By the way, the condensed version of the desired picture, the little dark postage stamp, starts in the lower left and expands in the direction of the upper right. Why? …. Well, thinking in terms of eye accessing cues, where is your Visual Construct? That’s it – for most people, your upper right is where your Visual Construct is. So it’s easier to bring the picture up that way. Of course, if you are working with someone who is ‘reverse wired‘, you could place the ‘postage stamp’ in the lower right and expand it to the upper left.

  • Clear the screen (break state)

The direction of the swish pattern is the old picture -> new picture -> clear the screen. Why do we clear the screen each time? Why not just switch back and forth between the two pictures?

We use the swish pattern to program our neurology to take us in a new direction - toward the desired state or behaviour and hence the process is sequential - step 1, step 2, step 3.

Simply accessing the two pictures repeatedly, one after the other, would suggest bouncing back and forth between the two or looping around constantly between the problem state / behaviour and the desired state / behaviour - which is absolutely not the outcome we are looking for. The process needs an exit point so that the unconscious knows that the end of the process has been reached. In NLP this exit point is known as a break state.

The clear screen step in the swish is a simple break state. By introducing the clear screen step the pattern becomes move from the old state -> to the new state -> then exit, which is exactly the outcome we wish to produce.

When does the Swish Technique doesn't work?

No NLP technique works for everyone, all the time! Swish pattern not working? Perhaps your client would be better doing it kinesthetically with anchoring or the client doesn't want the result and gives up on the process.

When the individual is creating an image of themselves as someone who no longer needs the habit, that image must be both real and inspiring. They need to feel the inspiration when they see themselves as a non-doer of the habit. If they don’t, it doesn’t matter how well one executes the technical pieces of the swish pattern itself.

When one is doing a swish pattern, do not overlook this most important element. There should be inspiration on an individual's face when viewing the new self-image. If it doesn't, then the practitioner needs to work on that image to make it inspiring. What’s missing? Is there an ecology concern? A limiting belief in the way? Work it out before you actually swish. Otherwise, an individual is just going through the swishy motions, training to give up a seductive bad habit and replace it with a mediocre sense of self. Not gonna happen.

When it doesn't ‘work’ there are other reasons too and an alternative course of action.

Reason 1: Not enough Rounds/repetitions.

Solution: Repeat for a few more Rounds

Reason 2: The Replacement Though isn't powerful enough for this particular Trigger.

Solution: Select a more powerful Replacement Thought and start from the beginning.

Reason 3: The ‘negative’ thought is really a motivation to do something i.e. to take practical action rather than think differently.

Solution: Re-examine the issue and see if there is something you need to do about the situation.

Reason 4: Secondary gain - Very often, even when a client is paying, they will subconsciously not want the end result. There may be many reasons for this, but the most common is "secondary gain." Secondary gain is when the subject receives a benefit from their problem, which is greater than their desire to release the problem. Secondary gain can also be a component of any behavior, but is an external motivator. An example would be a person who knows that smoking is harmful and no longer socially acceptable, but believes that it’s a good way to relax and look sophisticated or gets injured and gets to feel important because of the attention or love and they want to change? If you give suggestions to change without taking into account the benefits they get from their current behavior, your suggestions will be battling against their internal motivations. The presence of a secondary gain makes the negative or problematic behaviour more likely to continue unless specifically dealt with.

Secondary gain is often outside of conscious awareness, many layers removed from the presenting problem, so it requires some digging to identify the root. As a matter of fact, often, when the idea of a client's secondary gain is brought up, they initially scoff and deny it. Nobody wants to believe that they are sabotaging themselves, but that is, in fact, what is happening on a deep subconscious level. In other words, when the unconscious mind wants the smoker to relax, it knows that smoking is a way to do that. That motivation may be at odds with the motivation to keep from smoking.

Solution: Explore secondary gain with your client. Work with the client to uncover the benefits that he or she gets, regardless of the difficulties and barriers presented by the problem. What pay-off or gain is being achieved that outweighs the pain of having the problem?

By raising their awareness, our clients will uncover some valuable insights and shift from a “problem mindset” where they make excuses and justify their lack of results, into a “solution mindset.” The key really lies in tapping into the unconscious mind more frequently to maximize success.

Once you find out what the secondary gain is, work with the client to help them get that benefit in a healthy way, and the presenting problem will easily disappear with Swish. For e.g., the smoker has a way to relax even more than they would have gotten with the cigarette. A much healthier way to get attention and feel important than the injury is suggested. That way, both motivations and needs are met, a far greater chance of success.

Reason 5: A "Part " in NLP is a functional separation inside the subconscious mind. Think of it as part of the subconscious mind splitting and isolating itself from the whole. A minor Part often presents as a simple conflict: two opposing thoughts, which the conscious mind often feels are eternally mutually exclusive options. A major or highly-developed Part can present as a slightly different, or even entirely different, personality. Depending on how developed the Part is, it can have its own behaviors, beliefs, values, timelines, and even identity. In simple words a parts conflict can manifest when a person has two opposing (or partially opposing) behavioral choices and is motivated to do both. For e.g., they may want to stop smoking, but they like how smoking relaxes them. Or, they want to eat their vegetables, but the pasta looks really good too.

Solution: When you get stuck and NLP just doesn't seem to be working, probe for Parts, or ask to speak to the Part that doesn't want the result. Then you can proceed with your NLP or Swish intervention.

Parts conflict and Secondary gain are both ways to describe what happens when a person feels more than one way about something and those feelings motivate the person to do different things. It’s important to point out that these motivations are not necessarily conscious. Case in point; someone who has accidents and gets attention when they’re injured. It doesn’t mean they consciously “decide” to hurt themselves. But the attention that goes with the injury is a benefit (gain). The unconscious mind has different criteria and makes decisions based on different factors than the conscious mind.

Running the Swish for Bad Habits : Desire for a Cigarette and Desire for Change

There is a reason that the Swish is such a powerful pattern for changing bad habits such as smoking. Richard Bandler has stated that the desire for cigarettes can be mapped onto the client’s desire to become a better person in the outcome picture. When the smoker is thinking of the trigger picture— often the packet of cigarettes—he enters into a state of desire, a state that can be focused onto any outcome. It could be smoking a cigarette, or it could be becoming a new person. In this way, it is the client’s desire to smoke that propels him toward his own future self. Using the Swish in this way allows the problem—the desire for the cigarette (or to bite a nail, or whatever it may be)—to become a resource.

The Swish itself will be run like a Classical Swish. The client will see the trigger picture, embed the outcome picture in one corner or in some detail of the trigger picture, and then be guided by the coach to do the Swish simply by shrinking the trigger picture whilst expanding the outcome picture. It is the shrinking of the trigger picture that will push the smoker away from the act of smoking. It is the increase in size of the outcome picture that will pull the ex-smoker toward her future self.

For habits and compulsions, the Swish should be done quickly to maintain the state of desire. In fact, the faster the Swish is done, the more likely it is that the client will feel the desire that she used to feel for the cigarettes or the nail-biting, now transferred onto a future self.

Research and other perspectives supporting the Swish method

The research article Using Modified Neurolinguistic Programming Swish Pattern With Couple Parasuicide and Suicide Survivors states that the swish pattern was especially helpful with counselling couples who survive a child's suicide or severe parasuicide. Like other clinical interventions, counselors should make certain that the client couple's presenting needs and is used when therapeutically appropriate. Thus, one should not use swish patterns with clients presenting severe psychopathology such as major depression, panic attacks, or suicidal ideation or client couples presenting with reality-testing difficulties or impairments.

In another research article by Afsaneh Moharamkhani, LotfollahKarimi, Seyyed DariushAhmadi The Impact of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) on EFL Learners’ Vocabulary Achievement, in this study it is proved that the experimental group which received the treatment swishing pattern as a neuro linguistic programming technique , had a significant improvement in vocabulary achievement compared with the control group who were not familiarized with the technique. Based on the observations of the teacher in the classroom using swish pattern, helping learners to receive words they learn by using their perception and different viewpoints will result in learning more words and it also helps them to be more comfortable and concentrated in and out of the classroom. Considering the positive results of the study it is stated that swishing patterns as neuro linguistic programming would improve learners’ vocabulary.

Behavioral perspective - replacing one internal representation with another

One of the main actions of submodality processes, especially the swish pattern, is on the initial stimulus, which leads to an entirely different response. This in turn causes a totally different set of consequences to occur instead of the original behaviour. It breaks the classically conditioned reaction, substituting a completely new response when the same trigger is reapplied. If you get the earliest trigger possible, then you will completely bypass the problem behaviour - a neurological short-circuit. There are also elements of operant conditioning akin to a rapid two-step chaining of anchors - directly from the original stimulus to the out-come state. This then becomes its own positive reinforcer of the new directionalised link.

This bypassing of the original problem response results in cognitive restructuring, whereby a new set of thought processes automatically comes into play. It is like installing a new cognitive strategy - the original is now unobtainable. In the case of using the swish to improve on an existing performance, this is essentially the application of skills training. Metaphorically we are saying to our brains 'not this ... but that instead'.

Summing It Up

We can sum up the swish pattern by the key principle upon which it works on.

When you can genuinely see yourself happier and healthier without your bad habit and are inspired by the vision, you will find it much easier to stop the habit by reminding yourself who you want to become.

The goal of the Swish method is to identify mental and emotional triggers of negativity and replace them with an ideal response. When using the Swish technique, you don't have to take any action, but become aware of the alternatives available. You thereby train your brain to set off a “happier mode” whenever negative thoughts and emotions begin to overpower you.


Lewis Walker (2004) ; Changing with NLP: A Casebook of Neuro-linguistic Programming in Medical ; Published by Radcliffe Medical Press Ltd; United kingdom.

Swish pattern

Swish Pattern Study

The Neuroscience of Behavior Change

The Impact of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) on EFL Learners’ Vocabulary Achievement. (PDF)

Parts or Secondary Gain

What to do if nlp doesn't work

The Swish Pattern: An In-Depth Look at this Powerful NLPTechnique


This article on 'SWISH' has been contributed by Priya Dharmendrakumar Pandey who is a psychology student from St. Mira's College for girls, Pune and the article is Peer reviewed by Komal Saloni who is pursuing masters in psychology.

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

Komal's favourite branches in the field are Cognitive psychology and social psychology.

Priya's future plan is to practice as a professional Counseling Psychologist and would like to complete her PhD for the same.

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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