How Is Wiggling Your Eyes Therapeutic?

In the field of NLP, the element of eye-accessing cues fascinates people… That is, when we access certain parts of our brains when thinking or communicating, the eyes go upwards, left, right or down and indicate a number of things… It is of general interest because anyone can understand and use the information and the insight gained by such…

Taking this more than a step further is the field of EMDR… Which stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation Movement.

EMDR is becoming known as quite a controversial treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. In a nutshell, it involves the traumatised person holding a painful memory in mind while simultaneously following with their eyes the horizontal movements of their therapist’s finger…

I have been known to wag my finger in therapy a few times… I had never thought to tell my client to follow it closely… I am learning all the time here… I wanted to think about this process and the connection with the eyes in therapy today for exploration…

As mentioned Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing therapy (from here on referred to as EMDR) is an approach that seems to be beneficial and is even recommended by the U.K.’s health advisory body NICE. However, EMDR remains controversial largely because experts can’t agree on why it works… Maybe it is because ex-spurts rarely like anything to be so simple and easy…?

In this piece of research, cited at ScienceDirect website, the researchers have tested three possible explanations. In all the experiments, students were asked to recall an occasion that made them feel anxious, fearful or distressed… Heck, at least they had to recall their own experiences and the researchers didn’t just attempt to terrify them with their own real-life inducements!

An initial experiment showed that, relative to staring straight ahead, eye-movements increased arousal levels… Ooh-er…

I am going to get big on jargon today… Anyway, this seems to undermine the “investigatory-reflex” account for why EMDR works: the idea that eye movements activate an innate investigatory reflex that inhibits fear and provokes relaxation… Put in basic terms; a certain eye movement that blocks unwanted feelings…

I found that interesting enough on its own, but there is more… A second experiment showed that both horizontal and vertical eye movements reduced the vividness and emotionality of the students’ memories.

Given that vertical eye movements (unlike horizontal ones) don’t enhance hemispheric communication, this finding appears to undermine the “increased hemispheric communication” account for why EMDR works. This is the idea that horizontal eye movements aid interhemispheric communication, thus allowing the more rational left hemisphere to process the right hemisphere’s traumatic memories… Lots of very big words in todays blog… You are to be congratulated if you have not switched off just yet…

Then… A final experiment showed that the students’ memories became less vivid and emotional, not only when they performed concurrent horizontal eye movements, but also if they instead performed a simultaneous simple hearing task… What?! You mean concentrate on more than one thing at a time!? I am a man you know…

Apparently, this undermines the idea that EMDR works specifically by taxing the so-called “visuo-spatial sketch-pad” of working memory. (I got that term from the research, I assure you I did not know it and am not uing it of my own free will) It suggests instead that the mechanism underlying EMDR is a more general effect based on taxing the big boss of short-term memory — the central executive.

If it’s true that taxing the central executive of working memory is key to EMDR’s success — what’s going on? “The experience of holding a traumatic memory in mind, made more palatable by the central executive’s attentional resources being taxed, may ultimately work to foster acceptance of those memories,” the researchers said.

In other words, performing a concurrent task, be it eye movements or some other distraction, while also recalling a painful memory, allows a person to be exposed to that memory, without having the mental resources available to get too upset by it. Over time, this process acts like a form of gentle exposure to the memory, as the person learns that they can, after all, cope with their past.

Soooo… Are the researchers saying that the client just needs to be distracted while simultaneously thinking of the painful memory? Then we just revert to Richard Bandlers wonderful idea of playing circus music in the mind when running therapeutic techniques which always appealed to me…

So can we do ‘self-EMDR’? I mean, if we happen to think of something painful, we just hold that thought, wiggle a pen backwards and forwards in front of our eyes and follow it for a while? I need to explore this some more… Surely things need to be more complex than this… 😉



Maybe that’s similar to the 9 Gamut Procedure in EFT. You’re thinking about the problem while you you continuously tap the gamut point on the back of your hand and perform various tasks, including lots of unusual eye-movements.

Andy Smith

From an NLP point of view I’d be interested to know if the ‘vertical’ eye movements included looking down as well as up. Have you got access to the whole article (ie the bit you have to pay for) and if so could you spill the beans on what if anything it says about that?

Adam Eason

Thanks for the interest Andy… Iwas hoping to generate some interest from EMDR enthusiasts today… Facebook chaps highlighted a couple of people… However, ScienceDirect literally shares the entire research – all chapters, verses, diagrams, notations, bibliography… Many, many thousands of words to plough through and as much as I’d LOVE to do that… I just don’t have the hours… Sorry!

Adam Adams

perhaps it is like a CPU overload, and the over taxing forces a system reboot of some kind, beginning at the last known point, which was not the experience itself, but the experience clouded by other stimuli?

this new ‘boot’ of the experience becomes the default start file for the memory?

Mike Reeves-McMillan

Andy, I have access to the whole thing, and as far as I can see they don’t specify whether the vertical eye movements included looking down as well as up. But since the conclusion of the study appears to be that it’s the distraction rather than the specific form that it takes which is producing the effect, it probably doesn’t matter.

Adam Eason

Nice analogy Adam… Some real NLP computer styling to your thought process there!

Mike – that is great and useful – thank you! :-)


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