Perceptual space

The mind-space of subjective experience
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Published in Rapport 44, Summer 1999

Space is not ‘nothing’. It may be no ‘thing’, but that is not the same as ‘nothing’. It is probably the most overlooked aspect of cognition. Just as the goldfish in its bowl does not include the no-thingness of its water (or rather, the clarity of its water) in its cognition of things, so we tend to disregard  the space within which our cognitive processes function. I say within which our cognitive processes function, because the evidence is that we do not think within our heads, but within our perceptual space. The totality of human subjective experience would seem to be an intimate interaction between the body , the Perceptual Space and its Generative Source (not considered within the scope of this article). In Personal Space terms the human body is not a boundary. In particular, the human head is not a boundary.

I have taken the term Perceptual Space from an article by Penny Tompkins and James Lawley in Rapport 43, Clean Language without words. Under the heading of Perceptual Space they say:

“We have a ‘mind- space’ which acts as a ‘theatre’ where we ‘see’, ‘hear’, ‘feel’ and ‘act out’ our perceptions. The configuration of this mind-space is revealed by our use of spatially metaphors. In addition, how our body has learned to orientate in space is essential to how we make sense of the world  and understand our place in it. Said another way, cognition is an embodied experience.”

Our Perceptual Space then is a ‘mind-space’ or a ‘mindbody-space’ or even Richard Bandler’s DHE Globe which “acts as a 3-D container for defining the content-free submodality of location of any perception”.1

What strikes me most forcibly in the above references, and what is born out through my experiences in training NLP at both Practitioner and Master Practitioner levels,2 is that our Perceptual Space is an absolutely essential reference base for all elicitation work. It contains every metaphoric response (in VAK terms) that is generated by whatever form of questioning is being employed in the elicitation process. It is especially important for establishing the submodality of location. This is a key submodality. A shift in this submodality can bring about a major shift in the submodality structure of the whole image (metaphor). It seems clear that we should pay attention to the metaphor content of our Perceptual Space.

On the importance of metaphor as a carrier of meaning I quote James Lawley from some recent correspondence on the subject of the metaphoric landscape:

    “metaphor allows us to bring into representation that knowledge which is non-representational (such as most qualitative differences, relationships, patterns, etc.) Bateson says this is ‘non-local’ knowledge and therefore (I say) can’t be represented directly. That doesn’t mean we should ignore it or as traditional NLP says denominalise it (turn concepts into sensory language ). In so doing we loose some of the nature of the ‘wholeness’ that the nominalisation is attempting to capture. This is where metaphor is so important because it allows nominalisations to be examined and their constituent  symbols and processes identified while retaining their wholeness as a metaphor.”

The importance of  developing peoples’ awareness of metaphor as being their naturally occurring ‘imaginative response’ to being engaged in ‘thinking’ lies in its power to change the notion of thinking as being something “which goes on inside our heads.” The way in which our Perceptual Space is intimately connected to our thinking processes suggests that all thinking generates VAK representations of the subject of our thoughts within our Perceptual Space. Furthermore, the Perceptual Space is not a shared space. For this reason I will introduce it from now on as Personal Perceptual Space (PPS). This differentiates between  the PPS and the shared space of our material environment ie. Physical Space .

The metaphor of ‘theatre’ has been used  above to describe the function of  Perceptual Space, and ‘acting out’ as the process by which we are engaged within the Space in relationship to our cognitive functions. Certainly PPS contents are often dramatisations of life experiences and have intimate connections to the person’s belief systems. Both negative and positive scenarios are selective representations of anticipated outcomes with heightened emotional content and a central role for the ‘actor-director’. If theatre is an appropriate metaphor, then it is truly a theatre ‘in the round’, since the PPS is panoramic in the way that an ocean is panoramic for its inhabitants. 

This sense of expansive ’roundness’ is further enhanced by reference to the perceiver’s sense of location within the PPS. This will be called Perceiver’s Point of Perception, or PPoP. This “allows people to have multiple viewpoints, perceptual positions, parts and selves”.3 The perceiver as generator of the PPS, as the Self of the PPS, is inevitably included within its perceptual framework, and the person’s body is the material base which functions to reflect the metaphoric dance in which the person is engaged during the living act of thinking.4

However, the PPS also operates as reference system  with spatial allocations for distinguishing between the many and varied forms of transformational metaphor which we employ in our everyday, and special context, thought processes. Some of these allocations are constantly present for all people (Timelines for example) although the exact arrangement is down to personal factors. There are a number of other spatially reference areas which are found to be consistently present in the PPS of people in general, which I note below. In general, the PPS contents do not represent a constantly present set of images. Rather there is a constantly arising and passing away of imagery in line with a person’s dynamic and constantly shifting thought processes. In the context of the PPS, image is taken to mean any form of representation whatever which can be referred to or accessed by means of  the usual techniques of elicitation with which  NLP is familiar.

As I have indicated above, the spatial arrangements of  the contents of the PPS suggest that there are constant reference areas for people which may be found in the PPS of all people. Of course, the subjective reality of any person’s PPS will demonstrate complexity and diversity so that elicitation is necessarily a high skill rather than a mere ticking off of contents against a speculative checklist. Furthermore, such elicitation skills acquire the element of Metaphor Modelling (note: not Symbolic Modelling). Language for accessing PPS Metaphor Modelling is not as rigorous in its requirements as is the Clean Language model used in conjunction with work in the Grovian Metaphoric Landscape. Accessing the general PPS metaphoric content and its locations is not intentionally therapeutic in its purposes, and a freer form of language use is acceptable and effective.

PPS metaphor locations

    • VISUAL          {Reference to
    • AUDITORY      {Representational System areas
    • KINAESTHETIC {may also have symbolic reference
  • CREATIVE ACTIVITY (Multiple Spaces)
  • TIME

The list is not exhaustive.

Further distinctions may be made with reference to metaphoric images and the different functions they relate to. It seems reasonable to suppose that all metaphors are not symbolic. If I am calling a memory image a metaphor, it  may  just have association to a momentary experience and so arise and pass away without stirring the deep level of response associated with symbolic material.

Metaphor categories

  • EVERYDAY ASSOCIATED IMAGERY  OF ‘REAL WORLD’ EVENTS  (i.e.. Organisation, Planning, Decisions, Judgements etc.)
    • PROBLEMS RELATED (Metaphor Landscape)
  • MUSIC (VAK Synaesthesias)

Again, this list is not presented as exhaustive.

As may be appreciated, any one of the above locations and its contents represents territory for further exploration and development, as has been the case with the Metaphoric Landscape of David Grove and its development through the work of Penny Tompkins and James Lawley.

In future articles I intend to expand and explore some of the Metaphor Locations referred to in the list above, using examples taken from training seminars and the application of Metaphor Modelling to such standard NLP procedures as Timeline elicitation, Swish and Visual Squash.


  1. Tompkins and Lawley, “Clean Language Without Words“, Rapport 43, notes, 9.

  2. Organisational Healing’s Community NLP trainings

  3. James Lawley in our recent correspondence on the subject of The Metaphoric Landscape.

  4. Reference to the body as metaphor, Tompkins and Lawley, “Clean Language Without Words”, Rapport 43.

Photo of Mike WarrenMike Warren is a former FE lecturer (28 years) is a Master Practitioner and NLP Trainer whose most fundamental interests are Life Journey and Goal, Life Purpose and Mission.  NLP interests are the development of metaphor modelling and its application to NLP training in general.
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