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NLP Technique: Mental Sketchpad

By on September 16, 2014

In previous blog posts we have talked about the concept of working memory within neuroscience and NLP. Working memory is made up of a movie screen, sound track, and title. However there is another use of the ‘movie screen’ and that is as a mental ‘sketchpad’. This conceptual space allows you to visualize the relationships between objects or events, and to manipulate objects in space.

In this blog post we will be talking about this spatial sketchpad and how to use it.


Your hypnosis or coaching client comes to see you with their problem. Each time they talk about their issue they gesture to the space in front of them as if the problem is right there, like a solid object.

How to respond:

Your client be showing you how they are using their ‘spatial sketchpad’ to model their problem. in fact using their spatial sketchpad in this way actually fixes the problem in place for them. it turns it into an object, something that is fixed in time and space.

When you have sufficiently explored the problem (so that you know the context and the triggers of the problem), you can use the client’s spatial sketchpad to help to shift the problem. Simply lean over towards them, grasp the problem-object in your right hand and push it over to their left (your right). As you do so say, “So that’s how you been, how do you want to be different?”

NLP theory and neuroscience:

Our brains are designed to be able to manipulate mental objects within a cognitive space. This cognitive space is called the spatial sketchpad. it is very well known within education, and indeed many educationalists refer to the spatial sketchpad as ‘working memory’, even though working memory is actually a slightly wider concept than this (because working memory includes the movie screen of imagination).

We use this spatial sketch pad to manipulate objects in order to solve problems.  For example there is a set of cognitive problems that involves rotating ‘three-dimensional objects’ that are drawn on a computer screen or even a piece of paper.  The problem involves working out which of several objects can be rotated to be the same as another object. Research shows that these problems will be easier for you to solve them if you actually imagine holding the objects in your hands and then rotating your hands through space.

You may have had your own direct experience of working memory when you are considering how to arrange certain objects, perhaps furniture in your house. You may have mentally ‘picked up’ one of the objects and moved it around in space, until mentally you found the perfect position.

It turns out that using this special sketchpad can be beneficial in solving abstract problems, as well as problems involving physical objects. For example, a class of children were shown how to solve a mathematical problem. The children were split into three groups, one group was told how to solve the problem, one group was shown using gestures how to solve the problem as well as being told, in one group was purely shown the gestures. Each group was then tested on solving the problems, and were then tested again after a period of weeks.  What was found was that the two groups you were shown the gestures, included in the group who was not actually told how to solve the problem, were able to retain their problem-solving abilities  in a second, later test.

Suggestions not only helped in problem solving, but also in retention of information. And after all, change work is simply a case of learning a new way of being, and retaining that information long enough for it to become habitual.

Putting this idea into practice:

When your hypnosis client comes into your office, begin to observe how they use the space in front of the them and around them. They may point to mental objects,  they may reach out and touch mental objects, or they may simply look in the direction of mental objects. These metal objects may be abstract, such as events or problems, or more concrete such  as places and people.

Once you have identified where in their landscape they keep certain objects, begin to solidify this spatial map by pointing to, or ‘touching’, these mental objects when you refer to them, and observing to see if your client agrees with the spatial map. Once the map is set in place and agreed upon, you can start to manipulate objects within the map. For example you can push problems into their past (normally toward their left or even behind them). You can also identify and locate resources in place these within the spatial map.

So once again the basic steps are:

  1. Observe the spatial map your client is using.
  2. If your client is not using a spatial map, you can invite them to begin to create one by asking questions like, “And whereabouts is… [that fear, that confidence, etc.]?”
  3. Once the client has built spatial map, make sure you know how it operates by talking about various elements in the landscape and pointing to them or touching them.
  4. Once the spatial map is built, you as hypnotist can start to manipulate the map to create positive change in your client.

Other applications:

Not only can you use the spatial map your client builds for themselves, you can also help them to build a new spatial map. As you build up their resources asked them to place these resources in their spatial map in the space around them. Then begin to ask about the relationships between these resources, and the relationship between the resources and your hypnosis client.

For example, if your hypnosis client needs a sense of confidence, once you have associated them into that confidence, ask them to locate the confidence within their spatial map (bearing in mind that it may be inside of them). Then ask your hypnosis client what happens to that sense of confidence when they need it, in the context in which they want their change. Is a sense of confidence grows or otherwise becomes more powerful than is excellent, if not, you may have some more work to do!

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