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Markova stacks: sensory systems and NLP

Summary: Dawna Markova has discovered 6 natural patterns of human intelligence that strongly influence how you and your clients process sensory information, think, learn, and communicate. Her model greatly enriches NLP and what you can do with it.


Dawna Markova's model of sensory modalities complements NLP's. Once you understand what I (Jan) named "Markova stacks," you'll be able to

Markova's book explores how to utilize the 6 sensory patterns. Highly recommended. Buy used at Amazon.
  • Enhance communication and rapport
  • Take people into and out of any level of trance conversationally
  • Match metaphors and hypnotic inductions to people's natural information-processing strategies
  • Use your NLP "tool kit" more precisely and effectively

In her book The Open Mind: Exploring the 6 Patterns of Natural Intelligence, Dawna Markova examines the details of how people use sensory modalities. 1  Working first with children labeled learning disabled, and later with thousands of workshop participants, she discovered that people learn and interact in radically different ways depending on how they process visual, auditory, and kinesthetic information.

Using Markova's work as a jumping-off point, I developed distinctions that make her model more useful for doing NLP. Before I describe the specifics, let's learn how to recognize the patterns she discovered.

Conscious, subconscious, and unconscious modalities

Markova found that each person uses one sensory modality to process information consciously, a different modality to process subconsciously (with both conscious and unconscious access), and the third for unconscious processing.

If you use visual as your conscious representation system, your subconscious mind processes either auditorily or kinesthetically, but not visually. If you use V and A for conscious and subconscious processing, your unconscious uses the third modality, K, making your Markova stack VAK. There are six possible combinations: VAK, VKA, AKV, AVK, KVA, and KAV.

How a person uses each modality depends a lot on whether it's their conscious, subconscious, or unconscious representation system. Attending to a particular modality tends to shift people to the corresponding type of processing — conscious, subconscious, or unconscious — and from alertness into trance.


Markova modality stacking

Markova stack diagram

In your conscious modality you have the finest control, and the most ability to filter information and "tune out" what you don't want. You also have the narrowest focus, and think in the most linear ways. This is your normal, attentive, alert sensory system, and putting your attention on it tends to wake you up.

Your subconscious modality is less filtered, less linear, more broadly focused. Because you have both conscious and unconscious access, you can use this sensory system to process huge amounts of information. It also lets you multi-task, for example watching inner and outer pictures simultaneously, or listening to two conversations at once. Concentrating your attention on it tends to put you in light trance.

Your unconscious modality thinks primarily in wholes and patterns. You may experience little conscious control of it, yet display astounding unconscious competence. Because you filter this sensory system least, you are sensitive to it in subtle ways. It is probably your most creative modality, and your most sacred. You can also get stuck here, generating endless possibilities yet never satisfied because the unconscious has no destination. Putting your attention on this modality tends to put you into deeper trance.

Foreground and background awareness

Think of these patterns as influencing what you foreground and background in your attention, rather than as distinct divisions. You aren't necessarily unaware of the modality you use for unconscious processing; you're simply aware of it differently.

For instance, most people find internal representations hardest to access in their unconscious modality. Yet they may be highly aware of sensory input in that modality, usually in a selective way. Top gymnasts typically have a VAK stacking, with great body awareness but dissociated emotions. 2  Other K unconscious people are exquisitely aware of their own or other people's emotions (and often can't screen them out), but background body awareness enough to find athletics difficult. And some seem oblivious to both bodily sensations and emotions.

You probably favor predicates from your conscious modality, which for most people corresponds to NLP's "preferred modality." Yet you may notice your subconscious or unconscious modality more, because you can't filter it as much. When Wilma switched her Markova stack from VKA to KVA, she became less aware of feelings (and better able to control them), but more aware of visual detail (and less able to screen it out).

Part 2: A quick overview of the patterns > >

— Jan "yon" Saeger and W. Keppel
© 2004, some rights reserved
posted July 2004
Creative Commons License

Jan Saeger and W. Keppel are NLP Master Practitioners, NLP Health Practitioners, and NLP developers.


  1. Dawna Markova. (1996) The Open Mind: Exploring the 6 Patterns of Natural Intelligence. Berkeley, California: Conari Press. ISBN: 1-57324-064-8. Out of print; buy used at Amazon. Jump back
  2. Personal communication from Dr. Michael Harris, who coaches gymnasts using NLP and hypnosis. Contact him at Jump back


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