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The history of NLP, part 7: Bateson’s Contributions to NLP

The Divided Brain

Written by Michael Hall

In NLP, we consider Bateson as one of the “grandfathers” of this field. He and Alfred Korzybski, along with Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers – perhaps also George Miller and Noam Chomsky – these were key people who provided the content information of NLP when it appeared in the early days (1972– 1976). Yes, NLP has content!

When NLP began at the brand new alternative style College (Kresge College) on the campus of the University of California, Santa Cruz, British anthropologist and systems thinker Gregory Bateson had just been hired as a professor. Before that, Bateson had been into just about everything. He was not only an incredible scholar, but he also danced between many disciplines and was one of the most interdisciplinary persons ever to live.

He began as an anthropologist with Margaret Mead (his first wife). He studied trance  in Bali, dolphins in Hawaii, alcoholism, schizophrenia, cybernetics, biology, genetics (his father was a famous geneticist), epistemology, politics, consciousness… the list goes on and on.

Bateson’s history goes back to the beginning of the Human Potential Movement given that his first wife, Margaret Mead was the protégé of Ruth Benedict—one of Maslow’s first mentors (along with Max Wertheimer, co-founder of Gestalt Psychology). He was also connected to Korzybski since he spoke at the General Semantics Conference in 1969 on “the difference that makes a difference” as he explored what gets mapped onto the map.

Bateson played a crucial role in the creation of NLP. It could well be argued that without his original endorsement, NLP may have never gained the world-wide influence that it did. Grinder acknowledged this in his book Origins of NLP.  

First of all, Bateson was the teacher of almost every one of the original leaders in NLP—they all studied under him. Second, he wrote the Foreword to Bandler and Grinder’s book The Structure of Magic and convinced the publishers about the value of the book. 

Third, he introduced the early leaders to Milton Erickson. Bateson was also a second-generation leader of the Human Potential Movement presenting the second workshop at Esalen in 1963 and moving onto Esalen’s property to become “the Scholar in Residence” there where he died in 1980.

So, what did Bateson contribute to NLP? Bateson contributed a focus on framing, reframing, form, patterning. In fact, it was Bateson, more than any other person, who introduced the terminology frames, framing, and reframing. He discovered this in his anthropological studies, in his original contributions to the understanding of schizophrenia, and to his logical levels of learning and change.

Bateson further contributed systems thinking and was a key pioneer in systems. He spoke at the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics back in the 1940s and 50s. It was that systems thinking that corresponded to the holistic system thinking of Gestalt, of Satir’s Family Systems, and to Korzybski’s Non-Aristotelian system. No wonder systems thinking lies at the heart of NLP! Almost every source of influence to NLP involved systems thinking and working.

From this systems emphasis, Bateson gave NLP an emphasis on flexibility and ecology. Several NLP premises come directly from systems: “In a system, the person who has the most flexibility will have the most influence (control).” And from systems we got our emphasis on feedback and feed-forward.

Bateson contributed logical levels and the terminology of meta. Maslow also introduced the term; he talked about meta-pay and other uses of meta. But it was Bateson who conceptualized how the logical levels work, how higher levels govern and direct lower levels, how the prohibition from moving to a higher (meta) frame explains the symptoms of schizophrenia and how making the meta-move begins to resolve that confusion. From that, Robert Dilts created the Neuro-Logical Levels in NLP, and I created the Meta-States Model.

Long before the Meta-Model distinctions which came from Transformational Grammar, Bateson identified many of the problems with words and labels. He talked about the false concreteness (reification) of some words—what we call “nominalizations” in NLP.  He focused on how words work to describe things and make sense of things and the importance of clarifying our terms:

“The ‘self’ is a false reification of an improperly delimited part of this much larger field of interlocking processes.” (Steps To an Ecology of Mind, Bateson, 1972, p. 331)

Bateson emphasized non-verbal communication, actions that communicate, actions that indicate a negation and via Bateson we recognize that NLP itself is an epistemology. These were the theme of Part V of Steps to an Ecology of Mind:

“Mental process, ideas, communication, organization, differentiation, pattern, and so on, are matters of form rather than substance.” (Steps To an Ecology of Mind, Bateson, 1972, p. xxxii).

There was a lot more that NLP could have learned and developed from Bateson. For example, Bateson’s anthropological thinking and modeling could have really expanded what we do in NLP. This could have led to more of a focus on larger level themes than individuals, i.e. culture, politics, etc. 

His work on words and language led him to write a lot about critical thinking— getting out of muddles, avoiding shoddy thinking, learning to think straight, etc.  These are themes in his 1972 book, Steps To an Ecology of Mind. There also he wrote Metalogues—humorous and imaginary conversations between himself and his daughter that dealt with difficult subjects that addressed “the structure of the conversation as a whole.”


Bateson, Gregory. (1972).  Steps to an ecology of mind.  New York: Ballantine Books.  Reprinted (2000), University of Chicago.

              Hall, L. Michael. (2003).  The Bateson Report.   Clifton, CO: Neuro-Semantic Publications.

              Hall, L. Michael. (2008).  Meta-States.  Chapter 17 “Meta-States Epistemology.”

Hall, L. Michael. (1997).  NLP Going Meta.  Chapter 7.  “Bateson’s Logical Levels of Learning.”


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