Review of ‘The Structure of Magic’

We are not going to deal with chants and incantations here, not even with anything resembling their modern scientific analogues. But rather the very opposite — a rational and critical way to examine the presuppositions and assumptions built into how we perceive and deal with the world at large. And even a way to expose ‘mind reading’ and stay away from it.

I was attracted to read this work (volume 1, 1975), co-authored by now famous Richard Bandler and John Grinder, after reading about the use of NLP, or neurolinguistic programming in copy writing and content marketing. After browsing various online resources, I still could not grasp its main concepts. Going back to this work appeared to be a logical choice, so as to know firsthand and from its creators some of its basic concepts.

The Structure of Magic presents a method to professional therapists for dealing with their clients and resolve issues of conflict and growth. The method itself is not a straightforward theory or model, but a more abstract framework that has been distilled out of observing and studying the methods used in various forms of psychotherapy. The authors thus present a meta-model that therapists and clients and the public at large can use to enrich their lives. As the authors say, they wanted to see what successful therapists do right, and the result is this work.

The meta model that connects with
and corrects our maps

The book comprises six chapters that go with the metaphor of magic. The first one, Structure of choice, presents the basic premises.

According to the authors, we do not deal directly with the real world but through our representations of the same that are subject to pre-conditioning and filtering. The filters they identify are neurological (as in we do not see all wavelengths in the light spectrum, but only those that are visible to the human eye), social (as in we are taught by our culture to identify only some colors, not every shade available), and personal (based on our own unique experiences of growing up).

The authors propose that all of us form maps and models through three basic processes — generalization, deletion and distortion. This makes our maps or models skewed, and takes away important choices from us. By identifying and correcting the three, we can increase our choices and enrich our lives. This then is the goal for therapists as well — to bring our maps closer to the territory they represent.

The second chapter, Structure of language, presents the meta model itself, based on the theory of surface structures and deep structures of transformational linguistics. Transformational grammar forms the core of the meta model. The surface structures are how we communicate with each other. But buried underneath is the Deep Structure, which forms the totality of our representation. The Deep structure is itself derived from our actual, real life experiences.

For example, when I say: “I bought cheese”, the surface sentence does not reveal information as to where, from whom, when or how. But the deep structure I carry contains this and more information.

The next chapter, Structure of magic, shows where things go wrong with surface and deep structures, and how to identify and correct them. This involves questioning the client or ourselves to remove deleted information, correct distortions and remove generalizations. The book comprises extensive illustrations in the form of sentences to make the method clear.

Apart from the three, other distortions occur due to nominalizations (where experiences are stated as fixed and not amenable to further change), presuppositions, assumptions caused by mind reading, etc.
The final outcome of challenging and questioning how we or others represent our experiences is what the authors call ‘well formed’ sentences — that are complete and exact compared to our deep structure or actual experiences.

The next chapter, Into the vortex, takes us through a complete therapy session and how the therapist uses the meta model to challenge the above distortions and reveal choices that were earlier not available to the client. In the final chapter, On becoming a sorcerer’s apprentice, we are taken through two more methods — enactment and double bind, that further use the meta model to recover and correct deep structures derived from actual experiences.

Is it really magical?

The method, described in great detail in this work, is based heavily on transformational grammar. According to this theory, we carry deep structures of language inside us that allow us to form a range of meaningful, well formed sentences from our actual experiences. In other words, everyone sees things from their own perspectives and biases. The meta model uses careful inspection of our words to uncover these distortions.

In this sense, it is a rational, critical way of exposing the loopholes and weaknesses in our knowledge and understanding, on which are based our actions and choices.

The meta model method described in the book is riddled with the following limitations and weaknesses:

  • If the territory is identical, how different can be the maps? We live in the same world, and so our maps ought to be very similar, though not identical.
  • The work does not actually present a recognizable ‘meta model’, but rather a process of questioning to uncover distortions in what people say or believe. The only model it talks about is that of surface and deep structures of linguistics, and the associated distortion processes.
  • Much of the questioning it describes is based on common sense. Any listener, who does not know all the facts, would eventually ask similar questions.
  • The method is not based on any specific model of human behavior, which might answer questions such as why we do we act or make certain choices as we do? As a result, it might at best form the starting point of exploring ourselves and others and removing simple misconceptions.

The authors went on to develop the premises of this book in much greater detail in what came to be known as NLP. It has been a subject of much debate and apprehension related to brain washing and encoded messages in marketing, and the antics of Richard Bandler, who appears now as a modern, evangelical reformer curing phobias and fears on stage. That is, a stage magician.