We Change When We Change Our Mental Representation


Mental Representation

“Your life does not get better by chance, it gets better by change.” –Jim Rohn

Tony Robbins always said that the most meaningful moment when it comes to change, is the precise moment where we make new meaning.

The change occurs when we form a new association in our mind of what something means, and then our emotions and body follow.  For example, if snake means “fun, slick pets” for you, then you’ll do much better if you happen to land in a pit of snakes, than for somebody who had a different meaning where snake means “fear and loathing.”  O.K., that’s not the best example, but you get the idea.

It’s not what happens to us, it’s how we respond, but the key in how we respond, is how we make meaning.  That meaning is our internal mental representation.  And that mental representation holds our key to change.

I’ve been looking for a great explanation of mental representation, and I found one.  In the book, Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds, Howard Gardner explains what mental representation really is.

Mental Representation

Our mental representation is the ideas, concepts, stories, theories, and skills that make up how we internalize something in our mind.   Gardner writes:

“Generically, mind change entails the alteration of mental representations.  All of us develop mental representations quite readily from the beginning of life.  Many such representations are serviceable, some have notable charm, others are misleading or flatly wrong.  Mental representations have a content:  we think of these contents as ideas, concepts, skills, stories, or full-fledged theories (explanations of the world).  These contents can be expressed in words — and in a book, that medium is customarily used.  However, nearly all contents can be expressed in a variety of forms, media, symbol systems: these systems can be exhibited publicly as marks on a page and can also be internalized in a ‘language of the mind’ or a particular ‘intelligence.’”

Gardner says that “the content of the mind is by its nature an open, infinitely expandable category.”  Gardner explains the content of the mind as follows:

  • Concept — A concept is the most elementary unit.  It’s an umbrella term that refers to any set of closely related entities.
  • Stories — Stories are narratives that describe events that unfold over time.
  • Theories — Theories are relatively formal explanations of processes in the world.
  • Skills — Skills consist of procedures that individuals know how to carry out, whether or not they choose to, or even can, put them into words.

So if you’re thinking about change, start with your mental representation.

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  1. Hi JD, I do think that our mental representations are important for change.

    Even if they are the most important part this doesn’t mean they are the best place to start. (This has many educational implications but that is another story.)

    I think the best place to start is what you have energy for (which may be pain reduction).

  2. @ Evan — I like how Tony Robbins makes the crisp point that the actual change is the change of the neuro-association.

    Whether you use it for pain or any other change, or regardless of where you start, the precise point he surfaced is that the neuro-association IS the change, and that the neuro-association is changed specifically by our representation.

    Even more interesting though is how he found this. He was testing across available therapies on the market against real results. He found that what they all had in common is that they resulted in a change in the neuro-association. All the different styles were just different paths to the same end … and some took much longer, than others, and the changes weren’t as sticky.

    Actually, the way he put it is he found *when* therapies work, and that was his breakthrough.

    That’s how he was able to create breakthrough results and speed things up for even severe phobias. He focused on commitment to change, and swapping out the trigger with a new association.

  3. JD, association is not causation.

    Neuro-association is the change. Emotion is the change. Behaving differently is the change. New perception of meaning is the change. All of these involve change in brain states – so yes a brain state change is the change too.

    Gardner’s “ideas, concepts, stories, theories, and skills” are all neuro-associations too.

    I do think Tony’s stuff has valuable content. But I do think he slips into reductionism (‘nothing-buttery).

  4. Good claritifcations, thank you.

    It’s worth elaborating given how important change is in people’s lives.

    Of course, association is not causation. That’s a good thing.

    The point of starting with the mental representation isn’t to cause the change. It’s to understand the current state.

    When you change what something means to you, regardless of the cause, you change your thoughts, your feelings, and your actions. Tony Robbin’s example is how his brother’s love for KFC changed, when his internal representation changed. In another example, Tony shares that Gestalt therapy doesn’t work until the moment you actually believe and behave as if the chair is your Dad, and you’re behaving in a new way toward him. The change in association is the key link between the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors to produce a new response. The association is the empowering part.

    Tony’s ability to reduce complex things into actionable insights that produce effective results is his strength. And his ability to integrate the best thinking in the world, from leaders in the field in an actionable way, amplifies his impact. His depth doesn’t doesn’t lose conceptual integrity in his reductionism. It gains traction.

    The other thing that makes Tony’s approach stand out, is the “conditioning” part. Tony developed neuro-associative “conditioning” so the change could last. It’s similar to how Zig Ziglar says, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”

    The take away should be that when a change does not work for you, look to whether you have actually changed your internal representation, and whether you really want to change.

  5. Hi JD, this will probably sound pedantic but I think it’s important.

    The meaning isn’t other than the content. Put another way, we receive meaning and respond to it, we don’t only create it.

    The difference? A detached observer who has no values and can only make arbitrary choices and decisions vs an individual responding to their environment, adapting and innovating in it in accord with their talents, values, skills and so on.

    If value was only our creation we could assign whatever value we wanted to any phenomenon we wanted. And there would be no way to critique this – all values would be equal. So someone could decide that going postal is equally as admirable as Mother Teresa serving the poor. And there would be no way of challenging this set of values – we could only respond with ‘I disagree’ – but no critique would be possible.

    The association isn’t the link between thoughts, feelings and actions – it is part of each of these and their relation.

    By reductionism I didn’t mean simplicity. I am all for simplicity.

    I’m sorry if this sounds like I’m splitting hairs.

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