Moving your eyes from side to side can help improve the accuracy of your memory. That’s according to psychologists Andrew Parker and Neil Dagnall, who say the beneficial effect could be related to sideways eye movements increasing interactive neural activity across the front of the two brain hemispheres.
One hundred and two participants listened to 150 words, organised into ten themes (e.g. types of vehicle), read by a male voice. Next, 34 of these participants moved their eyes left and right in time with a horizontal target for thirty seconds (saccadic eye movements); 34 participants moved their eyes up and down in time with a vertical target; the remaining participants stared straight ahead, focussed on a stationary target.
After the eye movements, all the participants listened to a mixture of words: 40 they’d heard before, 40 completely unrelated new words, and 10 words that were new but which matched one of the original themes. In each case the participants had to say which words they’d heard before, and which were new.
The participants who’d performed sideways eye movements performed better in all respects than the others: they correctly recognised more of the old words as old, and more of the new words as new. Crucially, they were fooled less often by the new words whose meaning matched one of the original themes – that is they correctly recognised more of them as new. This is important because mistakenly identifying one of these ‘lures’ as an old word is taken as a laboratory measure of false memory. The performance of the participants who moved their eyes vertically, or who stared ahead, did not differ from each other.
“Bilateral eye movements appear to enhance true memory and decrease the extent to which subjects rely or make use of gist based false memory”, the researchers said. These findings for recognition memory build on earlier work showing sideways eye movements improve the accuracy of recall.
There is actually a type of therapy for trauma – eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing – which some people believe works via the connection between eye movements and memory, although this is controversial.
Parker, A. & Dagnall, N. (2007). Effects of bilateral eye movements on gist based false recognition in the DRM paradigm. Brain and Cognition, 63, 221-225.