Eye movements as indicators of specific cognitive processes is one of the most well known, if controversial, discoveries of NLP, and potentially one of the most valuable. According to NLP, automatic, unconscious eye movements, or "eye accessing cues," often accompany particular thought processes, and indicate the access and use of particular representational systems.
The notion that eye movements might be related to internal representations was first suggested by American psychologist William James in his book Principles of Psychology (1890, pp. 193-195). Observing that some forms of micromovement always accompany thought, James wrote:
In attending to either an idea or a sensation belonging to a particular sense-sphere, the movement is the adjustment of the sense-organ, felt as it occurs. I cannot think in visual terms, or example, without feeling a fluctuating play of pressures, convergences, divergences, and accommodations in my eyeballs...When I try to remember or reflect, the movements in question. . .feel like a sort of withdrawal from the outer world. As far as I can detect, these feelings are due to an actual rolling outwards and upwards of the eyeballs.
What James is describing is well known in NLP as a visual eye-accessing cue [eyes moving up and to the left or right for visualization]. James' observation lay dormant, however, until the early 1970's when psychologists such as Kinsbourne (1972), Kocel et al (1972) and Galin & Ornstein (1974), began to equate lateral eye movements to processes related to the different hemispheres of the brain. They observed that right-handed people tended to shift their heads and eyes to the right during "left hemisphere" (logical and verbally oriented) tasks, and to move their heads and eyes to the left during "right hemisphere" (artistic and spatially oriented) tasks. That is, people tended to look in the opposite direction of the part of the brain they were using to complete a cognitive task.
In early 1976, Richard Bandler, John Grinder and their students began to explore the relationship between eye movements and the different senses as well as the different cognitive processes associated with the brain hemispheres.
In 1977 Robert Dilts conducted a study, at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute in San Francisco, attempting to correlate eye movements to particular cognitive and neurophysiological processes. Dilts used electrodes to track both the eye movements and brain wave characteristics of subjects who were asked questions related to using the various senses of sight, hearing and feeling for tasks involving both memory ("right brain" processing) and mental construction ("left brain" processing). Subjects were asked a series of questions in eight groupings. Each grouping of questions appealed to a particular type of cognitive processing_visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and emotional (visceral feelings). Each was also geared to either memory (non-dominant hemisphere processing) or construction (dominant hemisphere processing). Dilts' recordings tended to confirm other tests which showed that lateralization of eye movements accompanied brain activity during different cognitive tasks. This pattern also seemed to hold for tasks requiring different senses.
As a result of these studies, and many hours of observations of people from different cultures and racial backgrounds from all over the world, the following eye movement patterns were identified (Dilts, 1976, 1977; Grinder, DeLozier and Bandler, 1977; Bandler and Grinder, 1979; Dilts, Grinder, Bandler and DeLozier, 1980):
Eyes Up and
hemisphere visualization - i.e., remembered imagery (Vr).
Eyes Up and Right: Dominant hemisphere visualization - i.e., constructed imagery and visual fantasy (Vc).
Eyes Lateral Left: Non-dominant hemisphere auditory processing - i.e., remembered sounds, words, and "tape loops" (Ar) and tonal discrimination.
Eyes Lateral Right: Dominant hemisphere auditory processing - i.e., constructed sounds and words (Ac).
Eyes Down and Left: Internal dialogue, or inner self-talk (Ad).
Eyes Down and Right: Feelings, both tactile and visceral (K).
Eyes Straight Ahead, but Defocused or Dilated: Quick access of almost any sensory information; but usually visual.
This pattern appears to be constant for right handed people throughout the human race (with the possible exception of the Basques, whose population appears to contain a fair number of 'exceptions to the rule'). Subsequent studies (Loiselle, 1985 and Buckner, Reese and Reese, 1987) have supported the NLP claim that eye movements both reflect and influence key cognitive componants of thought. Many left handed people, however, tend to be reversed from left to right. That is, their eye accessing cues are the mirror image of those of the average right hander. They look down and left for feelings, instead of down and right. Similarly, they look up and to the right to remember visual imagery, instead of up and to the left, and so on. A small number of people (including ambidextrous and a few right handed people) will be reversed in their some of their eye accessing cues (their visual eye movements, for example), but not the others.
To explore the relationship between eye movements and thinking for yourself, find a partner, ask the following questions, and observe his or her eye movements. For each question keep track of your partner's eye movements in one of the boxes (following the questions below) by using marks, lines or numbers that represent the sequence of positions you observe.
It is important to keep in mind, as you are observing and tracking eye movements, that many people will already have habitual eye movements, related to their primary representational modality. A highly visual person may tend to look up and to the left or right, regardless of which sensory modality is assumed by your question. If you ask such a person to think of his or her "favorite song," the person may visualize the cover of the record, tape or CD in order to remember the name of the song. A kinesthetically oriented person may look down and check his or her feelings to determine how he or she feels about several songs in order to know which one is his or her "favorite." Thus it is important to ask people what they actually did in their minds as they were answering the questions in order to get an accurate sense of what their eye movements signified.
Once you feel confident in eye movements as accessing cues, and in your ability to "read" them, there are many ways they can be used. As was mentioned earlier, habitual eye movements reflect a person's preferred sensory modality. If you ask someone, "What is something that is really important to you? Think of it now," the placement of the person's eyes as he or she is answering your question will probably tell you a lot about that person's most valued representational system.
Eye movements can also be used to determine how truthful or congruent a person is being. If a person is describing an event that he or she has witnessed or participated in, for instance, the person's eyes should move primarily to his or her left (if the person is right handed), indicating memory access. If the person looks up and to the right a lot, however, it is likely that the person is constructing or reconstructing some aspect of the experience he or she is describing. This may indicate that the person is either uncertain or being untruthful about what he or she is saying.
The most common application of eye positions in NLP is to determine the representational strategies a person is using in order to think or make a decision. Since many aspects of people's thinking processes are unconscious to them, spontaneous eye movements can be an extremely important part of eliciting and modeling a person's inner strategies for decision making, learning, motivation, memory, etc.
Patterns of the Hypnotic Techniques of Milton H.
Erickson, M.D. Vol. II,
Grinder, J., DeLozier, J. and Bandler, R., 1977.
NLP Vol. I, Dilts, R., et al, Meta Publications, Capitola, CA, 1980.
Roots of NLP, Dilts, R., Meta Publications, Capitola, CA, 1983.
Eye and Head Turning Indicates Cerebral Lateralization; Kinsbourne, M., Science, 179, pp. 539_541, 1972.
Lateral Eye Movement and Cognitive Mode; Kocel, K., et al., Psychon Sci. 27: pp. 223_224, 1972.
Individual Differences in Cognitive Style_Reflective Eye Movements; Galin, D. and Ornstein, R., Neuropsychologia, 12, pp. 376_397, 1974.
The Effect of Eye Placement On Orthographic Memorization; Loiselle, Fran_ois, Ph.D. Thesis, Facult_ des Sciences Sociales, Universit_ de Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, 1985.
Eye Movement As An Indicator of Sensory Components in Thought; Buckner, W., Reese, E. and Reese, R., Journal of Counseling Psychology, 1987, Vol. 34, No 3.
You also may want to visit the Anchor Point Page. Anchor Point is the practical journal of NLP.
For information on Robert Dilts’ products and services, please see Upcoming Seminars or Robert’s Product Page or return to Home Page. If you have problems or comments concerning our WWW service, please send e-mail to the following address: email@example.com.
This page, and all contents, are Copyright © 1998 by Robert Dilts., Santa Cruz, CA.