Why Do People Move Their Eyes When Trying to Remember Something?

Lori asks: When you ask someone a question where they have to remember something, everyone seems to look up and off to the side. Why do we do this?

thinking-womanDown and to the left, straight-head but unfocused, and, of course, up and to the right, when asked a tough question or to recall a long-buried memory, most of us shift our eyes. Although there is no definitive answer as to why we do this, there are two primary theories that attempt to explain why we shift our eyes when trying to formulate an answer.

Wiring in the Brain

Beginning in the 1970s, neuropsychologists in the emerging field of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) began experimenting with the well-known but poorly understood phenomenon of people looking to the side (and sometimes up or down), when trying to remember, or when answering a difficult question (called lateral eye movements or LEM).

Knowing that the two hemispheres of the brain are activated for different types of cognitive processes, the scientists, led by Paul Bakan, began observing test subjects while asking questions that relied on particular types of thinking – visual, kinesthetic, emotional and auditory, as well as memory and construction (making something up).

After years of observing people from across the globe, several consistent patterns of lateral (sideways) eye movements (LEM’s) emerged, although the pattern for left-handed people is the mirror-image of that for right-handed people. (Notably, ambidextrous people would break the pattern for some types of thinking, but not others.)

In any event, the pattern for right-handed people was as follows:

  • Eyes right: constructed imagery (up), constructed sounds and words (sideways), tactile and visceral feelings (down)
  • Eyes left: remembered imagery (up), remembered sounds, words and discriminating tones (sideways), inner dialogue (down)
  • Eyes straight: quickly accessing sensory information (unfocused or dilated)

Not everyone buys into the LEM theory. To test it, in 2012 several psychologists observed eye movements and prevarication to see if the liars displayed the typical LEM pattern for constructed images and words (eyes right and up or sideways), and if the truthsayers showed the pattern for remembered images and words (eyes left and up or sideways).

They conducted three experiments. In the first, they simply observed people talking (both lying and telling the truth), but were unable to see a discernible pattern.

In the second experiment, they told half of the participants about the LEM pattern, and then conducted a lie-detection test. Again, there were no discernible differences in the patterns between the honest and the liars.

For the third experiment, they reviewed and coded the eye movements of people who had spoken in high-profile press conferences (from the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia), where the speaker was pleading for the return of a missing family member. Half of the 52 speakers had been involved in their relative’s disappearance (and were lying about it at the press conference), while the other half had not. The coding produced no discernible pattern among the liars, and there was no difference in the eye movements of the two groups.

Although this was only one study, it certainly calls into question the validity of Bakan’s theory that the type of cognitive process dictates the type of eye movement.

Concentration 

The second theory holds that people look away when trying to remember or answer a question simply to help focus their attention on the problem – and away from visual distractions, similar to why people often turn down the music in their cars when they need to pay particularly close attention to their driving.

Regardless of whether Bakan’s theory is correct, it is well-accepted that some questions cause people to look away, and the more difficult the question, the more likely a LEM will occur.

Many believe this is because people simply have difficulty doing more than one thing at a time. By looking away, whether left or right, a person eliminates distractions, whether it is a person’s face or an image on a screen, and is better able to focus her attention on the issue at hand.

This last theory is bolstered by recent research where people were asked a question but prevented from looking away – and they had a tougher time finding the answer.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Knowing there is some link between recall, cognitive processes and LEMs, some mental health professionals have been experimenting with a therapy called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). During EMDR, the patient recalls a memory in great detail while moving her eyes laterally, back and forth, very fast. Recent research shows it can be an effective treatment for the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the 2011 study, two groups of PTSD patients underwent EMDR therapy, except one of the groups did not perform rapid eye movements (they kept their eyes closed). The group that moved their eyes reported a greater reduction in distress than those who did not. Proponents of EMDR believe it works by “stripping troubling memories of their vividness and the distress they cause.”
  • Apparently more than just visual stimuli can limit a person’s cognitive functioning. In a recent study of novice car drivers, it was found that listening to music the driver chose at a higher volume caused more distraction, in the form of “at least three deficient driving behaviors,” than listening to whatever was on at a lower volume. In a separate study, London researchers found that listening to fast-paced music led to more distracted, and faster, driving.
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  • Barbara Smith

    Just read your article on people moving their eyes to remember something. I was excited because I hoped it would include something I read about years ago in NLP materials. It was a simple exercise to instantly correct bad spelling. It was based on eye movement and it completely works. For years I have looked through NLP books and articles hoping to find that information again and any other instant techniques that may listed with it to no avail.
    If anyone knows of this technique, would they please share with me where they found it.
    The bad spelling cure technique is as follows: If someone is a bad speller, simply ask them to spell a moderately difficult word such as elephant while standing in front of you. You then obverse their eye movement watching for where it is they look up to with their eyes. If they are right handed and they look to the right side of their brain then you have found the problem. They are trying to spell with their creative right hemisphere and not using the logical side of their brain. If you ask them to deliberately look up to the left side when trying to spell the word they will instantly spell the word and most other words after that by using the same simply technique. It’s the same reason why some people say they can spell something if they are able write it down or pretend to write it with air finger. The act of writing for those people engages their logical brain. Amazing stuff!

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