When I was in school and the teacher asked me a question, I sometimes used to look up and to my left. More than once, I remember the teacher saying “You won’t find the answer up there!” And I couldn’t think of the answer.
Have you ever noticed people doing that, when you ask them a question? Sometimes it’s a quick glance in that direction, sometimes, if it’s a more deep and searching question, they might be looking up for a few seconds. Or if it’s a really deep question, you might notice their eyes moving in all kinds of different directions while they look for the information they need to answer. What’s going on there?
Well actually, if the teacher had let me, I probably would have found the answer up there, because like most people, the upper left quadrant of my perceptual space is where I naturally tend to look to access my visual memories.
Eye movements in relation to particular types of cognitive processing is something that’s been noticed as far back as William James in the 19th Century. Richard Bandler and John Grinder noticed that people often moved their eyes in particular directions when they were accessing particular representation systems to remember, imagine or respond to information.
This is fun to observe, and it can also be very useful, particularly when you’re eliciting someone’s strategy for, let’s say, making decisions or motivating themselves – especially the parts of their own strategy they don’t consciously know about, so they can’t tell you about it in words – and when you’re helping someone to fix their strategy for something like spelling that isn’t working well for them. We’ll be learning how to work with strategies later in the course, and knowing how to interpret eye accessing cues is a basic building block that you’ll need.
So let’s have a look at this smiley face above, with the arrows that indicate eye movement in particular directions. This diagram shows the eye accessing cues of what in NLP is called a ‘normally wired’ person and will be true for 80% or more of people. Pretty much everyone in the remaining 20% will be a mirror image, left to right.
The left and right directions I’m going to talk about now are your left and right as you look at the diagram, since that’s the viewpoint you will be taking when you observe this in other people.
When someone looks up, they are accessing visual information: Visual recalled or remembered images on the right, and visual constructed or imagined images on the left.
When people access auditory information, they tend to move their eyes to one side or the other – pretty much on a level with their ears. Again, recall is on the right, construct (imagining what something would sound like) is on the left.
When someone looks down and right – towards the hand their watch is on – they are paying attention to their internal dialogue, or talking to themselves. Remember, this is called ‘Auditory Digital’ or ‘Ad’ for short.
And people look down and left as you look at them – usually this is towards their dominant hand – to access kinaesthetic or feelings.
If someone just looks straight ahead, perhaps with defocused eyes, to answer your question, they are probably accessing information that’s so near the surface that it’s just there and they don’t need to go looking for it. “What’s your name?” or “What colour is your hair?” might get that kind of response. The other time they might do this is if they are remembering something so vividly that they are there, seeing the information right there in their perceptual space, as if they were looking at it for real.
The show notes for my podcast about eye accessing cues has some questions designed to elicit particular eye patterns. So ‘What colour was your first car?’, or ‘How many windows does your place have?’ will usually get people to go to Visual Recall. I suggest you get out there and ask people these questions and just notice where their eyes go.
You could make your own questions up as well, but be careful that they actually direct the person’s attention to the rep system you expect.
For example, if you were to ask someone ‘What colour are your eyes?’ they may just know the answer off the top of their head, since they see it every day. Asking about their first car usually means they have to go back into their memory to find the answer. (Actually, now that I’ve written this, I’m wondering if the expression ‘off the top of my head’ actually refers to finding answers by looking up into the ‘visual’ area)
If you ask these questions of a number of people, you will find that the eye patterns are a lot more obvious in some people than others. Some people really do look in a particular direction and stay their for a while – they may turn their whole head in that direction to look. In other people the movements may be very quick and subtle – if you blink you might miss them.
You will also be able to observe people’s eye accessing cues as they happen, in everyday conversation.
Let’s have a look at some factors that you need to be aware of that might complicate the results. Firstly, people may have different strategies for finding the kind of information you are looking for, that can lead to different results than you’re expecting. For example, as Bandler and Grinder pointed out in their book Frogs Into Princes, if you ask ‘What colour was the front door of the place you lived before this one?’ you might expect them to go to a visual remembered picture of the house and look at the door. But they might be imagining a picture of the door by itself, just floating in space. Since they’ve never seen the door like this in real life, this would be a Visual Constructed picture.
Also, the person might be reverse wired – as left handed people very often are. This will mean that their eye accessing cues will be reversed around the vertical centre line, so they will look to your left to access visual memories. What you will never find, as far as I know, is someone looking down to access pictures and up to access feelings.
Another element that can make eye patterns more interesting is eye contact. In the West, people generally believe that they should have eye contact in a conversation, at least most of the time. People may be concerned that to look away from you might be thought disrespectful, so they often look at you but defocus their eyes or make very minimal eye movements as they try to access the appropriate rep systems.
Conversely, when I was a hypnotherapist in Shepherds Bush, West London, a very cosmopolitan area, I would sometimes get clients from West Africa who looked down the whole time, because in some cultures it’s thought to be disrespectful to look an authority figure – as they must have seen me – in the eye.
As Bandler and Grinder point out, again in Frogs Into Princes, “even somebody who is organized in a totally different way will be systematic; their eye movements will be systematic for them.” So you’ll see consistent eye accessing patterns for that person.
‘Lead’ and ‘reference’ representational systems
A person’s lead representational system is the one they use to access or take in information in the first place. This can happen so quickly that the person is not consciously aware of it. The lead rep system may be different from the primary rep system that they use to process the information.
A person might use visual to access a memory, then process it kinaesthetically – and if you ask them about it, they’ll answer in terms of what they feel about the memory, rather than what it looks like. You would see their eyes flick very quickly into visual remembered, then go into kinaesthetic for a while. So you would detect the lead rep system from the very first movement their eyes make in response to the question.
You can also have a reference rep system, which is the one the person goes into to check that something is right, or to verify a decision before they commit to it. So a good speller might access the word they are asked to spell using an auditory lead system, process the correct spelling visually, and finally go into kinaesthetic to check that the spelling feels right.
Of course, they might be using the same rep system for all three. You don’t know until you look.
Another thing you might come across when you’re observing eye patterns is synesthesia. Now synesthesia is one of those words that means something slightly different in psychology than it does in NLP. In psychology, synesthesia is actually a condition affecting maybe one in 25 people, where stimulation in one sense is experienced in terms of another. So people might see music as colours, or feel that numbers or days of the week evoke their own colours, or feelings, or even personalities. Some people are born with synesthesia, others experience it with psychedelic drugs or after a stroke.
Synesthesia in NLP is usually used to refer to a less strong overlapping or intermixing of the sensory modalities, that we all get from time to time. This leads to a richer or more powerful experience than if we were just perceiving something through a single sense.
The emotion you get from listening to a piece of music you feel deeply moved by is so strongly associated that you can’t easily separate the feeling from the music. In fact we refer to ‘a deeply moving piece of music’, as if our emotional response to it was part of the music itself – because that’s how we experience it.
Another example would be having a feeling about a visual image – for example, with arachnophobia, the sight of a spider produces an instant fear response. Or, research has shown that people given warm drinks to hold actually feel warmer about new people they meet – maybe you could use that next time you have a client meeting at your office.
Synesthesias show up in eye accessing cues as unexpected movements – so someone might look up when they’re talking about a feeling, or down when they are describing a colour.
A note about Eye Accessing Cues and ‘NLP Skeptics’
It should be noted that eye accessing cues are a favourite target for ‘skeptics’ wishing to ‘debunk’ NLP (I put the quotation marks around ‘skeptics’ because a true skeptic keeps an open mind and judges things based on evidence, whereas some of these guys seem to have made their mind up in advance).
So when somebody says ‘NLP has been proved not to work’, they are probably thinking of the various studies that have been done to test whether people’s eyes really do move in particular directions, many of which appear not to support the hypothesis.
As noted above, people’s eye accessing cues are often quick and hard to see, and don’t always follow the textbook, for various reasons noted above: reverse wiring, differing information retrieval strategies, thinking of something other than what the questioner is expecting, lead and reference systems, looking at things in an associated mental picture and so on.
When you add in sloppily constructed questions, researchers who appear to have misunderstood how eye accessing cues are supposed to work, small sample sizes, and the difficulty inherent in reliably discovering what sensory modality someone was thinking in when you question them about it after the event, you have a recipe for unreliable findings, certainly not solid enough to ‘disprove’ anything. Andy Bradbury undertakes a detailed critique of various ‘debunking’ studies, mostly of eye patterns, in this page which he not at all provocatively titles ‘Cargo Cult Criticism‘.
It doesn’t help when a minority of people identifying themselves as NLP practitioners or trainers present eye accessing cues in a very unsubtle way, and researchers who should know better take their claims as tenets of mainstream NLP.
For example, Richard Wiseman’s rather mischievous study entitled ‘The Eyes Don’t Have It‘ which tested the claim that when your eyes go into ‘Visual construct’ it means you are making something up and therefore lying (which nobody of note in NLP has ever seriously proposed, as far as I know, but Wiseman’s study wrote about as if everyone in NLP believed). Not surprisingly, the study found that the claim didn’t hold water.
When I posted an article about this study, various NLP luminaries added their comments (nobody supporting the ‘Vc = lying’ claim by the way), a self professed ‘skeptic’ of NLP joined in, and the whole discussion got quite lengthy and unedifying.
So, there’s quite a lot of nuance to eye accessing cues, and they need careful observation to do any kind of effective changework with. As with everything else, don’t take my word for it – go out and notice what you observe for yourself.
And if you like to learn by listening to audio, check out episode 18 of the Practical NLP podcast, which is all about eye accessing cues.
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