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According to NLP adherents:

The NLP Eye movements indicate how a person is thinking - whether they are imagining a future or past event, internally re-hearing a sound or making up a sound, talking to themselves, or attending to their feelings.

For instance, when a person is accessing visual memories, they will characteristically glance upwards, while when they are accessing kinaesthetic memories, they will glance down and to their left. (Chart available at the link above.)

I've heard extensions to this that certain eye movements indicate lying (that is, some movement means "they're making it up" while others mean they are relying on memory), but to keep it simple, let's start with the basic claim. What does the science say?

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I had this question myself recently and searched for answers. Here's a quick summary of findings:

Here's wikipedia's breakdown of occular nerve mapping. The most important distinction is voluntary vs involuntary. An example of the latter is "pupil dilation" -- difficult to control, subject to common stimuli. An example of the former is "direction of gaze." Basically, greater affinity for voluntary affectation = more complex heuristics for analysis = fewer easy rules like "looking up is visual."

My opinion is that most eye-direction articles are 99% pseudo, pop content. I suppose mind-reading intrigues us. Most related university studies I read fell under "eye-tracking" and "point of gaze" research, but the left-brain right-brain visual/auditory/kinesthetic lingo was nowhere to be found in relevant, recent literature.

Speaking of VAK, I'd argue learning styles theory is a fair comparison. It has been disproved many times over yet persists as a dominant theory of ed psych. Even the article you linked alludes to it:

"[Looking up] could indicate that they need you to demonstrate, rather than verbally explain."

Anyway, I don't want to beat a dead horse. Bottom line: according to my research, it's mostly crap.

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At the beginning Bandler&Grinder proclaimed in The Structure of Magic that if a person access a visual memory they will always glance upwards.

Today the NLP folks don't make that claim anymore. Nowadays arguing against the orginial claim is like arguing against outdated evolutionary evidence in South Korean textbooks.

Instead the page you quoted says:

"It would be lovely if we could take this map and know instantly what a person is doing internally. But people differ and not everyone will have the same pattern. Treat this diagram as a starting point only - and use your NLP observation skills to establish what they do."

As far as the truth of the original claim goes there's a paper called NLP Eye Accessing Cues: Uncovering the Myth by Kevin Hogan. In it Kevin shows that the way Kevin understood the original claim, the original claim is false.

The NLP community believes that Kevin misunderstood the claim. According to them the sentences that Kevin used in his experiments wouldn't cause people to reliably think of a visual or auditory stimulus.

The claim that's currently believed by the NLP community is hard to test in a scientific setting.

  1. You need objective knowledge about whether someone thinks of an image, a sound or a feeling.
  2. You need subjects who are trained in NLP observation skills.
  3. You need somehow to eliminate the possibility that your subject use other means than Eye assessing cues in figuring out what the other person thinks.

To my knowledge no study that satisfies those concerns exists today. Most people in the NLP community don't care about academia and most people in academia don't care about NLP. You need people from both settings to fulfill those 3 criteria.

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  • It seems like a straightforward experiment that would burnish NLPs credentials. – Larry OBrien Jun 15 '12 at 18:31
  • @LarryOBrien : In science you need more than an experiment. You usually want that someone pays you a grant to do the experiment and that you can afterwards publish the result in an good journal. The effect of bunishing NLP credentials also wouldn't be that great as eye accessing cues aren't central to NLP. If you want to test NLP testing something like the fast phobia cure makes more sense. It much easier to test objectively whether someone has a phobia then to test whether they are thinking of an image or a sound. – Christian Jun 17 '12 at 11:26

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