The next time you’re talking to someone with keeps looking from side to side as you talk instead of right at you, don’t write them off as untrustworthy.
They may just be trying to remember your name.
Dr. Andrew Parker, a psychologist specializing in cognitive neuroscience at Manchester Metropolitan University in the U.K., recently presented 102 college students with recordings of a male voice reading 20 lists of 15 words each.
Some of the lists were carefully designed to suggest the presence of a related word, called a “lure” word, which wasn’t actually read aloud: for example, the list might have included words such as “thread,” “pin,” “eye,” “sew” and “sharp,” all of which implied the word “needle”–but “needle” itself was never read.
One third of the students simultaneously followed a computer prompt side to side with their eyes for 30 seconds. Another third followed a different prompt up and down. The final third did nothing.
After that, the students were handed a list of words and asked to pick out the ones they had just heard.
Dr. Parker and associates discovered that people who had flicked their eyes from side to side remembered more than 10 percent more words correctly than those who performed vertical eye movements or none at all. Not only that, they falsely recognized about 15 percent fewer of the “lure” words.
The resulting paper, published in the journal Brain and Cognition, has the typical-of-scientific-studies catchy title of “Effects of bilateral eye movement on gist based false recognition in the DRM paradigms.”
In its introduction, Dr. Parker notes that one theory for why false memory arises in studies like this one is that two types of memory trace are created when the memory of what words were heard is encoded. One is the verbatim trace–specific details of the words heard–while the other is the gist trace, a memory for the general meaning of the event, lacking any detail. False memory arises when the brain, attempting to retrieve its memory of the list of words, relies more on the gist trace than the verbatim trace.
So why should moving your eyes side to side affect recall so strongly? One hypothesis is that moving the eyes from side to side keeps both hemispheres of the brain active, and thus leads to greater interaction between the two hemispheres. Brain scans have shown that episodic memory is associated with just such interaction.
(Interestingly, previous research has also shown that wiggling your eyes can cause childhood memories to come flooding back. Can’t say I’ve noticed that myself.)
In the Daily Express newspaper, Dr. Parker explained the importance of the finding. “Often, we may be confused over whether a memory is for something real or something we only imagined or thought about.
“For example, ‘Did I really lock the door or did I only imagine locking the door?’ Bilateral eye movements may help us to determine accurately the source of our memory.
“This could be important in situations where we feel uncertain, unclear or maybe even just confused about what we may have done or said.
“Our work shows that true memory can be improved and false memory reduced.”
I’ll admit to a personal interest in these results. See, a couple of days ago I made coffee. I ground it, put it in the coffeemaker, put water in the carafe, poured said water into the coffeemaker, turned on the coffeemaker, and went upstairs.
It’s remarkable how far coffee can spread over a kitchen counter and floor when you fail to put the carafe into the coffeemaker.
Thinking back during the mopping-up process (after all, there was little else to do), I distinctly remembered putting the carafe in its place. Except, obviously, I hadn’t.
Had I but shifted my eyes from side to side for 30 seconds at the crucial moment, I might have realized my memory was false and prevented the resulting coffee slick.
One thing’s for certain. As I contemplate my rapidly approaching 48th birthday, I won’t be looking at it directly.
I’ll be shifting my eyes madly for all I’m worth.