Thought Viruses

Limiting beliefs arise from generalizations, deletions and distortions that have become placed in a 'problem frame', 'failure frame', or 'impossibility frame'. Such beliefs become even more limiting and difficult to change when they are separated from the experiences, values, internal states and expectations from which they were derived. When this happens, the belief can become perceived as some type of disassociated "truth" about reality. This leads people to begin to view the belief as "the territory" rather than a particular "map," whose purpose is to help us effectively navigate our way through some portion of our experiential territory. This situation can become even further exaggerated when the limiting belief is not even one that we have formed from our own experiences, but which has been imposed upon us by others.

A fundamental assumption of NLP is that everyone has his or her own map of the world. People's maps can be quite different, depending upon their backgrounds, their society, their culture, their professional training and their personal history. A large part of what NLP is about is how to deal with the fact that people have different maps of the world. A major challenge in our lives is how to coordinate our maps of the world with the maps of others.

For example, people have different beliefs about the body's capabilities to heal and about what 'should be done' and 'can be done' in relation to healing themselves and others. People have maps about what's possible with respect to physical healing and what healing is, and they live according to those maps. Sometimes these maps can be quite limiting; leading to confrontations and conflicts of beliefs.

Consider the woman who, when she discovered that she had metastatic breast cancer, started to explore what she might do to mentally help promote her own self healing. Her surgeon told her that 'all that mind-body healing stuff was 'a bunch of poppycock' which would probably just 'drive you crazy'. This was obviously not a belief that the woman had arrived at as a result of her own experience. Yet, because the man was her doctor, his beliefs exerted a great deal of influence on the decisions made with regard to her health. Whether she wanted to or not, she had to contend with the doctor's belief as a factor in her own belief system (as a person would have to deal with being exposed to germs if the person were around someone else who was sick).

Notice that the belief expressed by the doctor was stated in a problem frame, and not connected to any particular positive intention, sensory data, internal state, nor to any expected or desired consequences related to accepting the belief. It was simply presented as "the way it is." The validity or usefulness of the belief could thus not easily be examined. The woman was placed in a position in which she either had to either agree with her doctor (and thus accept the limiting belief) or to fight with him about it - which could produce negative consequences with respect to her health care.

This kind of belief, especially when presented as the 'right map of the world', can become what could be called a 'thought virus'. A 'thought virus' is a special class of limiting beliefs that can severely interfere with one's own or other's efforts to heal or improve.

In essence, a thought virus has become disconnected from the surrounding 'meta structure' which provides the context and purpose of the belief, and determines its 'ecology'. Unlike a typical limiting belief, which can be updated or corrected as a result of experience, thought viruses, are based on unspoken assumptions (which are typically other limiting beliefs). When this happens, the thought virus becomes its own self-validating "reality" instead of serving a larger reality.

Thought Virus


(Sensory Input)


(Sensory Input)

A 'Thought Virus' is a Belief that has Become Disconnected from the Other Cognitive and Experiential Processes from which it was Built

Thus, thought viruses are not easily corrected or updated by new data or counter examples coming from experience. Rather, the other beliefs and presuppositions upon which the thought virus is based (and which hold it in place) must be identified and transformed. These other, more fundamental presuppositions and beliefs, however, are not usually obvious in the surface structure of the belief.

As an example, the woman mentioned above was working as a nurse for a doctor in general practice. Instead of saying that she was being foolish like her surgeon did, the doctor that was her employer took her aside and told her, "You know, if you really care about your family you won't leave them unprepared." While this was less confrontive than the surgeon had been, it was actually more of a potential thought virus than saying directly "that's a bunch of 'poppycock'".

Because a good deal of the meaning of the message is implied and not stated, it is more difficult to recognize, "That's just his opinion". You think, "Yes, I do care about my family. No, I don't want to leave them unprepared." But what's not stated, what's not on the surface, is that "leave them" means "die". The presupposition of the statement is that 'you are going to die'. And the implication of the statement was that she should 'stop this nonsense and get ready to die' or it would make it more difficult for her family. If you really care about your family, you won't keep trying to get well because you'll just leave them unprepared.

What makes it so much of a potential thought virus is that it implies that the 'right' way and the only way to be a good and loving mother and wife is to accept that you are going to die and prepare yourself and your family for that inevitability. It suggests that to try to regain one's health when one's death is so immanent is essentially just being selfish and uncaring toward one's family. It would build false hope, potentially drain financial resources, and lead to sadness and disappointment. r

Such 'thought viruses' can 'infect' one's mind and nervous system just as a physical virus can infect the body or a computer virus can infect a computer system leading to confusion and malfunctions. Just as the programming of a computer, or a whole system of computers, can be damaged by a 'computer virus', our nervous systems may be capable of being 'infected' and damaged by 'thought viruses'.

Biologically, a Virus' is actually a little piece of genetic material. Our genetic code is our body's physical 'program'. A virus is an incomplete chunk of 'program'. It's not really a living thing. That's why you can't kill a virus. You can't kill it or poison it because it's not alive. It enters into the cells of its 'host', who, if not immune to the virus, unwittingly makes 'a home' for it and even helps to reproduce and make more of the virus.

[This is in contrast to 'bacteria' which are in fact living cells. Bacteria can be killed, for instance, by antibiotics. But antibiotics are useless against a virus. Because bacteria are contained cells they do not 'invade' or take over our body's cells. Some are parasitic and can be harmful if there are too many of them. But many bacteria are helpful and in fact needed by the body - to digest our food, for example.]

A 'computer virus' is parallel to a biological virus in that it is not a whole and complete program. It has no 'knowledge' of where it belongs in the computer, of which memory locations are safe or open for it; it has no notion of the computer's 'ecology'. It has no perception of its identity with respect to the rest of the computer's programming. It's primary purpose is simply to keep reproducing itself and making more of itself. Because it does not recognize or respect the boundaries of other programs and data in the computer, it writes over them indiscriminately, wiping them out and replacing them with itself. This causes the computer to malfunction and make serious errors.

A 'thought virus' is similar to these other types of viruses. It's not a complete, coherent idea that fits in with and organically supports a person's larger system of ideas and beliefs in a healthy way. It is a particular thought or belief that can create confusion or conflict. Individual thoughts and beliefs don't have any 'power' of their own. They only get life' when somebody acts upon them. If a person decides to enact a belief, or direct his or her actions according to a particular thought, that person can bring the belief to 'life'; it can become 'self fulfilling'.

As an example, the woman mentioned earlier lived over twelve years beyond what her doctors predicted, largely because she did not internalize the limiting beliefs of her doctors. The doctor she worked for told her that if she was lucky she might live 2 years, and he talked in terms of months and even weeks. The woman stopped working for that doctor and lived many more years entirely free of any symptoms of cancer. Some years after she quit working for him, however, that particular doctor became seriously ill (although his illness was not nearly as advanced as the woman's was). This doctor's response was to take his own life. Furthermore, he either convinced his wife to co-commit suicide with him or perhaps took her with him without her consent (the situation was never fully resolved). Why? Because he believed his death was immanent and inevitable and he didn't want to leave her unprepared'.

The point is that a thought virus can lead to death as readily as an AIDS virus. It can kill its 'host' as easily as it can harm others who become 'infected' by the host. Think of how many people have died because of'ethnic cleansings' and 'holy wars'. It may even be that a lot of the way an AIDS virus kills is through the thought viruses that accompany it.

This is not to imply that the woman's doctor was in any way a bad person. From the NLP perspective, it was not he who was the problem. It was the belief, the 'virus'. Indeed, the fact that he took his own life can be seen as an act of ultimate integrity - if one had his belief. It is the beliefs that need to be judged critically, not the people.

A thought virus cannot be killed, it can only be recognized and neutralized or filtered out from the rest of the system. You cannot kill an 'idea' or 'belief because it is not alive. And killing a person who has acted on the basis of an idea or belief does not kill the idea or belief either. Centuries of war and religious persecution have demonstrated that. (Chemotherapy works a bit like war; it kills infected cells but does not heal the body or protect it against the virus - and it unfortunately inflicts a relatively high number of 'civilian casualties' on healthy cells in the body.) Limiting beliefs and thought viruses must be dealt with similarly to how the body deals with a physical virus or a computer deals with a computer virus - by recognizing the virus, becoming 'immune' to it and not giving it a place in the system.

Viruses do not only effect people or computers that are "weak", "stupid" or "bad". The electronic or biological host of computer or physical viruses are 'fooled' because the virus initially seems to fit in or be harmless. For instance, our genetic 'code' is a type of program. It works something like, "If there is an A and B, then do C," or, "If something has the structure 'AAABACADAEAF', then it belongs in that location". One of the functions of our immune systems is to check the codes of the various parts of our bodies, and the things that enter our bodies, to make sure they are healthy and that they belong. If they do not belong, they are 'cast out' or recycled. The body and the immune system are 'fooled' by a virus, like the AIDS virus, because its structure is similar in many ways to our cells' own code (a type of 'pacing and leading' at the cellular level). In fact, humans and chimpanzees are the only creatures who manifest harmful effects from the AIDs virus because they are the only creatures whose genetic structure is close enough to the AIDs virus' code to be infected by ("paced" by) the virus.

As an illustration, let's say a person's genetic code has a pattern that goes "AAABACADAEAF". A virus might have a structure like "AAABAOAPEAF" which appears similar in some respects to that of the individual's own genetic code. If only the first five letters are checked, the code appears to be identical and will be allowed into the body. Another way that the body and immune system are 'fooled' by a virus is when the virus enters the body wrapped up in a harmless protein coat (somewhat like the Trojan horse). The immune system does not perceive that there is anything wrong with it.

In some ways this may be likened to the doctor's statement that "If you really care about your family, you won't leave them unprepared." On the surface there is nothing obviously harmful about the statement. In fact it seems to fit with positive values; "caring" and "being prepared". It is the context in which the statement is made and what is unstated but presupposed or assumed that makes such a belief potentially deadly.

It is important to remember that a virus—biological, computer or mental—has no real intelligence or intention of its own with respect to the system it is in. A belief statement, for instance, is just a set of words, until it is given 'life' through the values, internal states, expectations and experiences we connect to those words. Similarly, a biological virus is only harmful if the body allows it in and confuses the virus with itself. Infection by a virus is not mechanical and inevitable. We have probably all had experiences in which we were 'exposed' to a flue or cold virus but were not infected because our 'defenses were up'. When a person is vaccinated for a physical virus, his or her immune system is essentially taught to recognize the virus and to recycle it or remove it from the body. The immune system does not learn to kill the virus (because it cannot be killed), lit is true that the so-called 'killer T-cells" of the immune system can destroy cells and tissues in our bodies that have become infected by a virus. But, like chemotherapy, this addresses the symptom more than the cause. In a complete immunization, the cells never become infected in the first place.J A computer 'antivirus' program, for instance, does not destroy parts of the computer. Rather, it recognizes the computer virus program and simply erases it from the computer's memory or the disk. Often, virus protection programs simply eject the 'infected' disk upon finding a virus, so that the computer is not put in any risk.

Similarly, in immunizing itself to a virus, the body's immune system becomes better 'educated' to recognize and sort out the virus. In the same way that a child learning to read becomes more able to discriminate patterns of letters, the immune system becomes better at recognizing and clearly sorting out the different patterns in the genetic codes of viruses. It checks the virus' program more thoroughly and deeply. As an illustration, we've essentially wiped smallpox off the face of the earth; but we haven't done it by killing smallpox viruses. They're still around. We've just developed ways of teaching our bodies' immune systems to recognize them. You get the vaccination and your body suddenly realizes, "Oh, this virus doesn't belong in me." That's all. Again, vaccinations don't kill viruses; they help the immune system to become clear about what's really you and what is not you. What belongs in the body and what does not belong.

Along similar lines, the process of selecting a file on one's computer disk and moving it to the computer's 'trash can' where it is erased is as final but not as violent as thinking in terms of 'fighting' and 'killing' the virus. It is also something that is not only done to protect one's computer. It happens as old programs are updated and replaced by new versions and when old data becomes out of date.

Obviously, this is not a recommendation to go around and try to 'erase' every limiting thought. In fact, the primary emphasis is on really taking the time to explore the communication or positive intention of the symptom. Many people simply try to get rid of or "wish away" their symptoms and experience great difficulty because they are making no attempt to listen to or understand their situation. It often requires a substantial amount of wisdom to recognize and distinguish a Virus'.

Healing a 'thought virus' involves deepening and enriching our mental maps in order to have more choices and perspectives. Wisdom, ethics and ecology do not derive from having the one 'right' or 'correct' map of the world, because human beings would not be capable of making one. Rather, the goal is to create the richest map possible that respects the systemic nature and ecology of ourselves and the world in which we live. As one's model of the world becomes expanded and enriched, so does one's perception of one's identity and one's mission. The body's immune system is its mechanism for clarifying and maintaining the integrity of its physical identity. The process of immunization essentially involves the immune system in learning more about what is a part of one's physical being and what is not. Similarly, immunization to a thought virus involves the clarification, congruence and alignment of one's belief system in relation to one's psychological and 'spiritual' identity and mission.

In conclusion, techniques like Sleight of Mouth allow us to deal with limiting beliefs and thought viruses in a manner that is more like immunization than chemotherapy. Many of the principles and techniques of NLP—such as those embodied by the Sleight of Mouth patterns—could be viewed as a kind of 'vaccination' to help immunize people's 'belief systems' to certain 'thought viruses'. They diffuse limiting beliefs and thought viruses by reconnecting them to values, expectations, internal states and experiences; placing them back into context so that they may be naturally updated.

Continue reading here: Presuppositions

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  • Laiba
    What is a thought virus?
    3 months ago