Eyes: Window to the world
"There's a world out there. Open a window, and it's there."
- Robin Williams
A window is a transitioning point between two worlds. It helps the light pass through, it helps us to see what lies beyond, giving us a sneak peak of the world ahead. The window lets us know when it’s about to rain, it lets us know when the wind has arrived, it lets us know there is someone approaching, just like our eyes. Our eyes tell us what’s in front of us, behind us, beside us, over us, and around us. Our eyes are what allow us to enjoy the color of the blue sky, or the bloom of a fresh rose. Sometimes it even warns us of events that haven’t even happened yet. For example, you see the clouds turn grey and you know it’s going to rain!
Our vision is the most important thing that we own. It is what allows us to experience the world around us. We get most of the daily input from our surroundings through our eyes; they convey more input than any of our other senses. Approximately 80% of human actions are unconsciously controlled and visually monitored in people who have grown up with the ability to see. It is therefore our “main sense” that allows for accurate orientation and quick response in cases of imminent danger. When our sight is bad or we lose it, we find ourselves in a compromised position in which we have to find alternate methods of getting around.
Some even call the eyes the window to one’s soul, which basically means that just simply looking at one’s eyes can speak volumes about that person. We would know, or at least get a slight hint about what they’re thinking or feeling, are they really paying attention, are they speaking the truth, etc. Now of course this doesn’t hold true for everyone, or else Amy, the lead heroine of the popular novel turned movie, ‘Gone Girl’, also a psychopath, wouldn’t be able to fool the entire nation of her innocence after murdering a man in cold blood as well as setting up her husband under fake domestic violence charges. And of course there can be reasonable excuses for the way one’s eyes move, for instance a sudden distraction, looking around to recall what had happened, or just simply being lost in thought. But that being said, it is known that the eye nerves are closest to the brain and recent studies have shown support that the eyes might really be the windows of one’s soul. Let’s come back to this later, and first understand the basic structure of the eye.
The eyes function like a film camera: just like with a camera lens, light falls through the various components of the eye – the cornea is the eye’s window and channels incoming light rays to produce an image on the retina which is the extremely light-sensitive inner lining of the eye, the pupil is an opening in the center of the iris which continuously adjusts to lighting conditions, the iris is the colored ring that surrounds the black pupil and it does not let any light through, the eye lens is a converging len which pencils the incoming light through the pupil, to get a sharp image on the retina, and finally the optic nerve, a massive bundle of nerve fibers which passes the information from the retina to the visual center at the back of the brain.
Strategies in NLP
We use strategies to accomplish our daily tasks. To study for board exams, for instance, students start strategizing right from the start of the year and try to follow it throughout. In NLP, strategies refer to the mental processes that enable a person to translate their abilities into concrete behaviors in accordance with their beliefs and values. In other words, the way we organize our thoughts and behaviors to attain a particular goal. Strategies are important as they can help others who are not able to successfully nail a particular task by making certain tried and tested strategies available to them, so that their goal attainment can be facilitated. Therefore, strategies form an important part of modelling, the process of learning through observing others.
Strategies can also be said to be like the 'programs' that we use to run our neuro-linguistic 'computer', and the results we get are like the outputs of those programs. Similarly, it can be referred to as a person's "recipe" when they are baking a cake, or for achieving any particular outcome for that matter. Change the ingredients, or the steps, and you get a different result. For example, when you have to go somewhere, you may be making a mental image of the place where you have to reach and the route, as well as the vehicle, which you’ll have to take to get there. If this order gets disrupted or any step gets skipped in between, it surely wouldn’t be a smooth trip! So the order of the steps within a strategy matter, as much as the steps themselves, and ofcourse the spirit with which the steps are performed- it all matters!
Strategies can be simple or can be quite detailed and complex. There are micro and macro strategies, with the former including more specific procedures which are specific to certain sensory systems, and the latter referring to the gradual build up that is planned by people. Example of a micro strategy can be learning how to ride a bicycle, whereas for a macro strategy, it can be planning one’s profession right when one’s in school.
And yet, amazingly, people carry out these sequences repeatedly and perfectly without any significant awareness that the process is even taking place. We may or may not be consciously aware of the strategies our mind uses to accomplish certain tasks. In NLP it is assumed that these processes can be described consciously and/or unconsciously through a sequence of sensory representations (VAKOG). These VAKOGs, which stand for our five senses: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, and gustatory, lead to a certain action, are usually partly purely internal, partly outwardly directed procedures. For example, one of the strategies within NLP, is the Spelling strategy, which requires a two-step process: from visual memory to kinesthetic review. People form an inner picture of the correctly spelled word and have a "feeling" whether it is correct or not.
The different events that we experience are stored in memory as a picture, sound, feeling, or thought, and we mentally recreate and recall those experiences (memories) with these stored pictures, words, sounds, and physical feelings as we think. These are our representational systems. Each of the strategies that we use, consciously or unconsciously, indicate the access and use of particular representational systems, and are accompanied by automatic, unconscious eye movements also known as eye-accessing cues. In other words, eye movement acts as indicators of certain cognitive processes of a particular sense-sphere. Which means that our eyes move in particular directions when we are engaged in different types of thinking. So if I ask you, ‘what did you have for dinner last night?’ your eyes will move a certain way, and that way will facilitate the accessing of the necessary information. And the eye movement for this will be different from if I ask you, ‘Can you recall the tune of your favourite song?’ because both of these questions are based on different representational systems.
In 1977, Robert Dilts conducted a study at the Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute in San Francisco, tracking both eye movements and brainwaves with electrodes to correlate the two phenomena. This was done whilst participants were asked questions designed to evoke left or right-brain activity across the different senses. The results showed that eye movements can be used as an indicator of specific cognitive processes involving recollection (memory) or construction (imagination) of mental images, sounds, feelings and inner dialogue.
The pattern that emerged was as follows:
Looking up, to their right = visual construct or compare
Looking up, to their left = visual remembered
Looking horizontally to their right = auditory construct or compare
Looking horizontally to their left = auditory remembered
Looking down, to their right = physical/emotional feelings (“kinaesthetic”)
Looking down, to their left = inner dialogue (“auditory digital”)
Eyes Straight Ahead, but Defocused or Dilated: Quick access to almost any sensory information; but usually visual.
So, if you are looking at someone else, this is what those patterns would look like:
Let's study this in detail -
When someone asks you, ‘What is your favorite colour?’ or ‘How many windows are there in your house?’, what do you do? Typically, on hearing such questions people automatically visualize and form a mental image of whatever is being asked of them- their favourite colour or the design of their house, and then answer accordingly. They’re remembering something that they have previously seen before, and that is what ‘Visual remembered’ entails. And when you’re trying to retrieve this visual memory, you tend to look up and toyourleft. The person is likely to be recalling a mental image to represent what they are thinking. For instance, when asked “How many radiators are there in your house?” They might create a picture of the house and carry out a ‘walk through’ in their head creating visual representations of each room as they do this to count the radiators.
How do you react when someone asks you, ‘How would you like your room to look?’, or ‘How would you like your future romantic partner to look’? These questions are different than the ones previously asked because those were readily available in one’s memory, but the answers to these aren’t. In order to answer these questions, you will have to visually construct an image which you think you would like.When you're imagining things you haven't seen before, or combining visual information in a new way, you look up and toyourright. This is the classic daydreaming pose. The person is likely to be creating (constructing) a mental image to represent what they are thinking. For instance, when asked to spell a word (eg. abracadabra) they might literally create the word by mentally writing the letters in sequence as they spell it.
A couple of years ago, a joke related to the popular Bollywood song called ‘Baby Doll’ used to trend a lot. And the joke reached me too, through a friend. My friend asked me, “What sound gets created when two ‘duniyas’ ( meaning worlds) collide?” And lame as the question might be, my brain managed to figure it out by recalling at first this song’s lyrics which went like ‘ye duniya peetal di’ (this world is made of brass), and then further recalled the sound a particualr brass utensil made when I unintentionally clashed it with another at the age of 7. And after all that mental effort from my side, I answered “Tnnggg! Because ‘ye duniya peetal di’!!”
Too much effort for a lame joke, right? But that is what exactly happens when anybody asks us a question which requires us to recall a sound which we heard in the past. When you're recalling things you've heard before (auditory), you may look straight across towards yourleft ear. The person is likely to be recalling a sound that represents what they are thinking. For instance, when asked “What does your mobile ringtone sound like?” they might actually create the tone they remember inside their head and hear it. Some questions that might elicit an auditory recall response are, ‘Which is louder, your car door slamming or your front door slamming?’, ‘What does your best friend's voice sound like?’, or ‘How did your school bell sound?’
In school we were often asked to imagine having conversations with an alien, or a cat, or sometimes even the Prime Minister. The minute the teacher used to give us such a question, all of us would shut our eyes and imagine having such conversations. After a while it would be discussion time and all of us would be fascinated by the different narratives each of us could produce, because nobody had ever done it before and their imagination knew no bounds! According to NLP, someone constructing sounds or conversations may look across towards their right ear. The person is likely to be creating (or constructing) a sound that represents what they are thinking. Some questions that might elicit these kind of responses are, ‘ What would the Prime Minister sound like with a squeaky voice?’, ‘What would a pig stuck in a chicken’s body sound like?’ or ‘What would your favourite piece of music sound like if it was sung by a nightingale?’
Internal Dialogue/ Self talk
We talk to ourselves all the time, telling ourselves whether we can do it or not, whether it is worth it or not, comparing the pros and cons of dating somebody you’re attracted to, thinking should you forgive your friend who talked bad of you behind your back but is also apologetic for it. Self talk is also what players tell themselves before heading out for a competition, it’s what students tell themselves before stepping into the exam hall, and what patients tell themselves before their doctor’s appointment. According to NLP, a person who is talking to themselves looks down and to their left. Because self talk often involves recalling conversations that you’ve had in the past, distracting yourself by imaging something less unpleasant, etc., quite often a person’s eyes will flicker between this position and visual or auditory access points, which can lead to some rapid and apparently random eye movements as they move through their internal conversation. Questions to elicit a response in these lines can be, ‘What do you say to motivate yourself?, or ‘What do you say to yourself when you've made a mistake?’
Have you ever gone to a market and liked how a product looks, but turned it down when you touch it because you don’t like how it feels against your skin? Or have you ever bought something just because it makes you feel good? Kinesthetic refers to external, tactile feelings as well as internal emotions. And the person experiencing sadness for example will look down and to their right. The person is likely to be recalling how an experience felt – they are recalling an emotion that represents what they are thinking. Questions to elicit a kinesthetic response are, ‘What does it feel like to walk on warm, dry sand?’ ‘What does your favourite chair feel like?’ or ‘What does it feel like to stroke a cat?’
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This is the typical eye-accessing cues model that is taught on NLP training courses and holds true for the vast majority of right-handed people. Subsequent studies (Loiselle, 1985 and Buckner, Reese and Reese, 1987) have supported the NLP claim that eye movements both reflect and influence key cognitive components of thought. However, the same can not be said for left-handed people, ambidextrous people, as well as a few right-handed people. Many left-handed people are what we call in NLP, reverse wired or reverse organized, which just means that their brain is wired opposite to that of the majority of the population and thet their eye accessing cues are the mirror image of those of the average right hander. So Visual Recall will be up to your right instead of left, construct and feelings could be on the right as you look at them, and remembered and inner dialogue could be on the left. Those who are ambidextrous and a few right-handed people, will be reverse-wired in some of their eye-accessing cues, while not in others.
Other than those who are reverse wired, there are also people who are habitually dependent on certain eye movements, irrespective of whatever is asked of them. This is because of their dependence on their primary representational modality. If you ask a highly visual person about their favourite song, that person may start imagining the dance steps in the official video, and if you ask the same question to a person who is kinesthetically oriented, that person may try to feel which song elicits the most pleasant feelings and emotions, and then answer accordingly. Therefore one should always ask the other person what they thought of when a particular question was asked to them, in order to fully understand why their eyes moved in a particular way.
Advantages of Eye-accessing cues
We’re all different. Very different. Your perception is as unique as a snowflake, and that means you move through your very own version of the world. Understanding what kind of communication methods we each are tuned to can help us connect with others better. And it doesn’t make us any less individual either. Our differing experiences of the world will influence not only our ability to learn and our capacity to do so, but also our sense of who we are.
Everybody uses all of the senses on a moment-to-moment basis, but the level of importance we each place on the information received through them is different. This affects what gets chosen by the unconscious mind to form that moment.
There are five main senses (or “modalities”). These are the means by which we can perceive our environment:
V: Visual (sight)
A: Auditory (hearing)
K: Kinaesthetic (sensation and emotion)
O: Olfactory (smell)
G: Gustatory (taste)
Many people tend to favour one of the senses over the rest, and what this can mean about our personalities. By watching where someone’s eyes move most often you can determine their preference (if they have one). The modality that we favour is called our preferred representation system (or “rep system” for short). So, if someone favours visual information like pictures over the rest, we’d call her a “visual”, if she favoured auditory information/sound, she’d be an “auditory”. Likewise those who tend to place emphasis on feelings (both physical and emotional) be an "kinesthetic" and "auditory digital" are those who prefer to analyse a situation using logic and rationale. These people think in words as if using a voice inside their heads. Knowing their preferred modality has many advantages. Some are listed below:
Lie detection: Eye accessing cues can help you pick up on other people’s attempts to deceive you. Asking people questions and looking in their eyes to give away the truth is often a handy way of accessing information, and delivers reliable results, at least most of the time. However, there are times when the information being indicated by the cues can be wrong. Take a trial setting for example, an accused walks in the room and sits right across the interrogator, who then starts the questioning. Of course the interrogator, well-versed with the Eye accessing cues, takes into consideration the former’s eyes movement, and may observe that the person is lying to you. However, it is only a matter of chance because it could also mean that the accused is merely reverse organised or that particular eye movement is habitual. Another situation that can come up in the same setting is that what the accused is sharing is nothing more than a well-rehearsed lie, but because the eye moves in the typical way according to the NLP model, the interrogator is unable to decipher it. This in no way undermines the significance of these cues. In fact, it only makes us realize how to use them sharply to generate reliable results. And that is why interrogators very smartly ask the accused to give the sequence of the events that unfolded backwards, or try to ask them questions that can elicit some kind of emotion in them, so as to loosen their defense.
Effective Communication: Another benefit of mastering the eye-accessing cues is the ability to effectively communicate with others. Language, like our eye movements, reflect our preference for a representational system. Imagine if you’re a member of a startup, who wants to convince a bigger company to buy their business model, and the person you need to convince is using phrases like, ‘shine light on’, ‘this shows that’, or ‘a bright idea’, clearly a visually oriented person. You get the cue, and try to use it to further explain your model, making them imagine how your model would work. However if the one you need to convince is, you notice, someone thinking kinaesthetically, might say things like “grappling with”, “getting a handle on” and use words like “touch”, “hot”, “rough”. By matching your language to theirs — and to their eye accessing patterns — you’ll get your point across much more effectively. And once you can effectively communicate, it just becomes simpler to form rapports with different people. And building rapport is important, since we’re living in a world where everybody is socially connected and being resourceful can always come handy. Having the information of knowing how that person prefers to internalise their world and then project it outwardly helps in interacting with them intimately. If you know a person is predominantly visual (of course, you can always tell this by the words they’re using as well), you will be able to enter into their world, communicate in their way and perhaps even move them to different areas that are more appropriate for the task in hand.
Helpful in Learning and Education: In terms of learning and education, eye accessing cues can be really useful as you can begin to tell where your pupils are trying to access information from and what strategies they are using to get their information. For instance, if you ask a person to spell a word, and they are looking down to the ground to their right-hand side they will be accessing feelings, so it will be no wonder that Charles would not be a very good speller. Try to spell a word by feeling it is probably the worst strategy you can imagine. Also, if the person looks to their left hand side the middle (see diagram). Then they’ll be trying to spell the word by hearing it phonologically: also, not the best strategy to use!
You can improve people’s spelling ability or learning ability by teaching them how to use the visual aspect of their brain. Example, visualizing the letters of the word and how the letters are arranged, it will become extremely easy to recall the spelling. You’ll see the remarkable effect it will have if you learn how to do this sufficiently. Of course this isn’t just useful for students, but also be useful in any conversation negotiations situations where it’s important you to know how the other person is processing their world. Further, showing movies in classes where it will be helpful for the visualization of concepts, listening to music which will help elicit a feeling that the teacher may want the students to feel, and similar strategies can help in understanding many academic concepts.
Eye movements also tell us about people’s sequences of thought. As a therapist, this can be very important information. For example, if you ask someone what happens when they get anxious about an upcoming performance, the way their eyes move will tell you how they feel about their anxiety.
Let’s say an athlete, whilst thinking about an upcoming race, looks up into visual memory, then down into self-talk (auditory digital), before finally resting on kinaesthetic (by which point she is visibly alarmed).
From this we can guess that the mention of the race triggered a visual memory of something painful/ shameful/ embarrassing that happened in the past (perhaps another race, but not necessarily); then she talked to herself about it (maybe something like “I can’t do this/I’m going to look stupid/I’m not good enough”), before settling down into her familiar old feelings of terror.
The useful thing about these patterns (in NLP we call them “strategies”) is that the same sequence will repeat in the same way each time she goes through her personal process for anxiety. This means that by changing the sequence in some way (and there are many ways to do that), you can disarm the problem pattern and introduce a window of possibility for a new and better reaction.
If the eye-accessing cues are integrated in therapy, it can clearly help the therapist figure out what is going out inside of the client’s mind. If the therapist asks the client, ‘why do you think you’ll never find love?’ and the client’s eye moves in a way which the therapist recognizes, it will give the therapist an insight towards the client’s thoughts, and then s/he can work with the client accordingly.
Clearly, the integration of the eye accessing cues can bring a significant amount of insight into the therapeutic setting, but behavioral and cognitive-behavioral therapies rely heavily on conscious cognition to both access the traumatic memory and to supply ameliorating information which will then be integrated, again by experiential or cognitive processes, into the memory circuit which is inducing the fear responses. This awareness of the need to find a means to integrate the sensory and affective dimensions of traumatic memories into a more adaptive network informed the development and refinement of Eye Movement Integration therapy (EMI) and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR).
Eye Movement Integration therapy (EMI)
Originated in 1989 by Connirae and Steve Andreas, EMI is rooted in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), and presupposes that the content of traumatic memories is recorded in the sensory neuronal networks into which it was originally received (Andreas & Andreas, 1987). This internal representation of the memory is then activated from those same networks whenever a triggering stimulus induces recall or reliving of the trauma. In EMI, eye movement accessing cues are used to activate and integrate these traumatic memory networks.
Practitioners of NLP later observed that externally guided eye movements could facilitate access to alternative forms of information processing, problem-solving and sensory information (Andreas & Andreas, 1989; Dilts, 1990). This observation led to the development of EMI for the treatment of traumatic memories, using eye movement accessing cues, rather than verbal and cognitive means, to facilitate activation of memory neural networks. This activation of the sensory, affective and cognitive resources of the client’s brain is thought to foster formation of new linkages between the contents of the traumatic memories and more adaptive, ameliorative information.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Another therapy for traumatic memories which involves eye movements – eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) – has received considerable attention since its introduction in 1989 (Chemtob, Tolin, van der Kolk, & Pitman, 2000; Shapiro, 1989a, 1989b; Shapiro, 1995). EMI and EMDR share certain similarities in the use of titrated imaginal exposure, eye movements and attention to multisensory manifestations of distress. However, the nature of the eye movements is quite distinctive in each case; EMDR uses lateral saccades similar to rapid eye movement (REM), while in EMI smooth pursuit eye movements (SPEM) in multiple directions and patterns are used. In EMDR the eye movements are done as rapidly as possible, within the client’s tolerance, while in EMI the speed and range of the movements is generally much slower, and done at the pace that the client prefers. The underlying premise for the use of each type of eye movement is quite different in the two therapies as well. In EMI, application of the presupposition of NLP that the inner representation of a person’s experience can be mapped and accessed via eye movement accessing cues, often permits the client and the therapist to identify specific quadrants of the visual field that allow the client to make contact with either a highly resourceful state or intense reexperience of the trauma. While this is not always the case, when it occurs the therapist is able to guide the client’s gaze alternately into those specific quadrants (and corresponding region of the inner representation) that need to be linked in order to integrate the traumatic material. In EMDR, there is no indication of a connection between the range and direction of eye movements and the nature of the material being
processed. Despite significant additional distinguishing aspects, the results reported here, added to the substantially positive results reported elsewhere for EMDR (Carlson, Chemtob, Rusnak, Hedlund, & Muraoka, 1998; Chemtob et al., 2000; Jensen, 1994; Wilson, Becker, & Tinker, 1995), may indicate that eye movement techniques represent an effective approach to integrating traumatic memories in an ecological way.
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The use of eye movements as accessing cues in NLP stems from observation of unconscious eye movements made when people are asked to think about different types of sensory or cognitive information, and is consistent with observations on lateralization of brain tasks (Bandler & Grinder, 1979; Dilts, Grinder, Bandler, & DeLozier, 1980; Doyle, Ornstein, & Galin, 1974; Galin & Ornstein, 1974; Kinsbourne, 1972;
Kocel, Galin, Ornstein, & Merrin, 1972). Because eye accessing cues are also unconscious, someone can, for example, have a picture ‘stuck’ in their head, and not be aware of it causing unwanted behaviour or some unpleasant experience. To become adept at reading people’s eye accessing cues, it just takes a little practice. It’s a skill well worth learning if you want to be able to create instant rapport in a job interview, or to help an awkward first date go a little more smoothly. In conclusion, identifying eye-accessing cues can help you understand someone's thinking style, establish rapport, expand someone's thinking process and begin to work with strategies. There’s a whole library of ways to use knowledge on eye patterns. Knowing about eye accessing is a key ingredient of successful coaching and social life. It’s just so useful in the way you live your life and interact with others both personally and professionally. It will give you a huge insight into what might be going on for someone and how their thinking might be contributing to a problem they’re experiencing and for noticing your own ways of thinking and changing anything that’s not working for you.
Eye Accessing Cues - NLP. (2017, October 10). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTuTJB-6gao
NLP Strategies | Landsiedel NLP Training. (n.d.). Landsiedel. Retrieved September 11, 2021, from https://www.landsiedel.com/en/nlp-library/strategies.html#what
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This article on 'The eye Accessing Cues' has been contributed by Priya Pandey who is a student of Art's in Psychology, from St.Mira's College. and peer reviewed by Saumya Joshi who is a psychology enthusiast, currently in third year of undergraduation from Vivekananda College, Delhi University.
Priya and saumya are both part of the Global Internship Research Program (GIRP), which is mentored by Anil Thomas.
Priya's future plan is to practice as a professional Counseling Psychologist and work in mental health sector
GIRP is an initiative by (International Journal of Neurolinguistics & Gestalt Psychology) IJNGP and Umang Foundation Trust to encourage young adults across our globe to showcase their research skills in psychology and to present it in creative content expression.
Anil is an internationally certified NLP Master Practitioner and Gestalt Therapist. He has conducted NLP Training in Mumbai, and across 6 other countries. The NLP practitioner course is conducted twice every year. To get your NLP certification