Could you read minds?

How unconscious eye movements can reveal more than you might think at first glance.

Our eyes move in particular directions when we are engaged in different types thinking. In Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) these patterns are called eye accessing cues and they can be very illuminating.

In 1977, Robert Dilts conducted a study 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.

In a nutshell, to access visual information we automatically look up. When accessing auditory information, our eyes move horizontally left or right. And both feelings and inner dialogue are accessed by looking down into the bottom left and right-hand corners of our eyes.

This isn’t a choice. It’s not possible for us to access the information without our eyes doing this. However, in some people it can be incredibly subtle. Sometimes just the tiniest hint of a movement in one direction, but a movement all the same.

Learning the patterns:

Dilts’ study produced a specific pattern of eye movements which holds true for the vast majority of right-handed people (termed “normally organised” in Neuro-linguistic Programming):

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”)

So, if you are looking at someone else, this is what those patterns would look like:

Reverse organised:

The pattern (or parts of it) can be reversed for left-handed people. So, construct/compare and feelings could be on the right as you look at them, and remembered and inner dialogue could be on the left.


Lie detection

And so herein lies the potential to pick up on other people’s attempts to deceive you. If you ask someone who they saw yesterday and their eyes move to visual construct, then that could indicate that they are lying to you (and making up a fake picture in their head to tell you about). However, it could also mean that they are reverse organised. Or, it could be that they saw two people and are choosing which to tell you about (comparing rather than constructing).

Cognitive hypnotherapist Trevor Silvester was the first to recognise this important comparative variant. The original NLP model was much more binary. Information was considered to be either remembered or constructed; true or made up.

Silvester made his discovery whilst working as a coach and trainer of student police officers in the 90's:

“I spotted it at Hendon working with the students on their learning/not learning strategies. Going to visual construct and saying things like ‘it depends’ or making an obvious reference to things being compared gave me an ‘aha!’ moment.”

To use another example, imagine asking someone a question that you are sure will elicit a lie. If their eyes access auditory or visual remembered, it could mean they are actually telling the truth. However, it could also mean that they are telling a well rehearsed lie. It is for this reason that interrogators will try to force interviewees to answer questions which throw them from their initial (potentially learned) sequence of thought. Asking someone to recount their story backwards would be one way of doing this.

So as you can see, it’s really not as simple as many people hoped when this model was first developed. For a while it was touted as the holy grail for police investigation. Thieves and villains everywhere were retreating into dark corners for fear of getting found out (because NLP is massive in the world of crime). But unfortunately — or probably fortunately — it was never that simple.

Understanding thought patterns

A more positive use for this information would be to develop your ability to communicate effectively with others. If during a conversation you notice that your interlocutor’s eyes are accessing their feelings (kinaesthetic), then talking to them in visual language is likely to miss the mark.

Our language, in a similar way to our eye movements, will indicate the type of thoughts we are having. When thinking visually, we’ll be likely to say things like “shine a light on…”, “a bright idea” or use words like “illuminate”, “glow”, “spark” etc. Someone thinking kinaestheticaly, on the other hand (intentional), might say things like “grappling with”, “getting a handle on” and use words like “touch”, “hot”, “rough” etc. By matching your language to theirs — and to their eye accessing patterns — you’ll get your point across much more effectively.

Eye movements (more reliably than language) will also tell you 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 do their anxiety.

Let’s say an athlete, whilst thinking about an upcoming race, looks up into visual remembered, 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 then “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.

Preferred representational systems

My last article was about the way 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).

So, a visual person will look up more often, a kinaesthetic person will look down and to their right a lot, etc… Just ensure you pay attention over a varied conversation to discern someone’s preference. We’ll all be likely to go to visual more often if we are talking about our favourite painting, or to auditory if we’re discussing music. Read more about what all this means here.

Finally, synaesthesia is the fascinating phenomenon where a person’s senses get mixed up so they can see sounds, or hear feelings etc.

I know a pianist (and piano teacher) who visualises colours on hearing different notes. When I asked him about his intriguing ability he had this to say:

“I’ve often wondered about the relationship I draw between the sounds of chords and the colour I associate with them. A♭ for me is always purple. C minor is black (…) But when I get a sense from particular students that they’re similarly disposed, I play chords to them and ask them to call a colour. We often disagree — though as a general rule lower chords emerge as deeper colours, and higher is perceived as brighter.”
- Simon Brown, jazz pianist

Synesthesia is fairly rare so it’s not an enormous consideration when it comes to eye movement patterns, but it could well throw you off. You could observe someone who is synesthetic in this way accessing visual, auditory or both when thinking about music. Then again, a highly visual person might access visual remembered when thinking of her favourite song because she also loves the album cover… so again, it’s not altogether straightforward.

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. I’d recommend that you don’t start during important conversations though because it can be really hard to focus on eye movements and keep a track of what you are talking about at the same time whilst you are learning.

To discover if a friend is reverse or normally organised, try asking them questions like “what colour was your first car?”, or “can you remember the sound of applause?” (these questions should cause them to access visual and auditory remembered respectively). Then, you can see if you can get them to go to visual construct by asking what you’d look like with a different hair cut. Finally, have a go at guessing their preferred representational system (favoured sense) by seeing which way their eyes move most often. You can check your results against the test provided in this article.

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For an exploration of the psychology of self-sabotage (and how to take control), take a look at my book, Fight: Win Freedom From Self-sabotage (Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton). Available on Amazon now.

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