An article by Robert Dilts
While his influence goes largely unacknowledged, Gregory Bateson (1904–1980) made many fundamental contributions to the field of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP). For instance, it was Bateson who first put Grinder and Bandler in touch with his friend Milton Erickson in the early 1970s (just as he had introduced Jay Haley to Erickson a decade earlier). Moreover, it was Bateson’s work in communications theory that provided the theoretical underpinnings for NLP as a discipline. The NLP notions of “meta position,” “meta communication,” “meta messages,” and the detection of verbal and non-verbal incongruence, for instance, were derived directly from Bateson’s theories regarding different levels of learning, communication and change.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Gregory Bateson’s ideas and contributions is that they span so many different fields. As an anthropologist, for example, Bateson studied Balinese culture with Margaret Mead (his first wife) and together they published a book on it that was the first to use photography to analyze cultural patterns. These studies led Bateson to formulate the notions of “complementary,” “symmetrical,” and “reciprocal” relationships, along with the notions of “schizmogenesis” and “ethos” within a culture. His observations of non-Western cultures also led him to propose the idea of “kinesthetic” learning. In fact, it was his study of trance dancing in Bali that led Bateson to his first contact with Milton Erickson in the 1930s (through their mutual friend and renowned writer Aldous Huxley – author of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception).
As a systems theorist, Bateson participated in the famous Macy’s conferences (in 1949) that gave birth to the field of cybernetics. In the areas of animal behavior and communications theory, he drew from the work of Russell and Whitehead to identify different logical types and levels of communication and learning that explained many of the problems and anomalies in behaviorism.
As a psychologist, Bateson formulated the “double bind” theory of schizophrenia, and pioneered the process of systemic family therapy. His ideas, for instance, were used by Mara Selvini Palazzoli as the foundation for the Milan School of Systemic Therapy. In 1959, Bateson joined with Don Jackson, Jules Ruskin and Virginia Satir to start the prestigious Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto, California. Together, they created the country’s first formal program in Family Therapy.
Bateson’s researches also included the study of play in animals, and of communication between dolphins and porpoises. Ahead of his time in many respects, some of Bateson’s discoveries and theories are only now being put into practical use.
Bateson emphasized that it was more important to focus on the interactions and relationships between the elements in a system, as opposed to the particular elements themselves. The process of creating a “triple description” between the “perceptual positions” of “self,” “other,” and “observer,” for instance, is one result of focusing on interactions and relationships. Bateson’s emphasis on “levels of learning,” the need for a more developed connection between “mind” and “body,” and the aesthetics of “artistry,” are other examples of this change in focus.
The fundamental tenets of the NLP New Code, encapsulated in the book Turtles All The Way Down (DeLozier and Grinder, 1987), for instance, draw heavily from Bateson’s work in the area of systems theory. Key NLP concepts, such as “states,” “metaphor,” “conscious/unconscious relationships,” “perceptual positions,” “multiple descriptions,” “perceptual filters,” and “levels of learning and change,” for instance, were directly inspired by Bateson’s work.