Is it possible that you can be a happier, more centred person just by rhythmically moving your peepers back and forth?
Strangely enough, a number of therapists these days believe so, particularly those trained in eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR).
They say this technique, when combined with cognitive, behavioural, interpersonal, experiential or body-centred therapies, can ease traumatic stress, anxiety and eating disorders.
I don't know about you, but I find it unsettling, to say the least, that moving my eyes back and forth can have powerful effects on my brain. Is there any way I'm accessing odd bits of my subconscious watching a tennis match or playing beer pong?
Probably not - without one of the other therapies, oscillating eyeballs alone aren't likely to unearth your psyche's scary secrets.
What the experts say
"A number of studies show that eye movement affects memory and reduces the vividness of a disturbing memory and its emotional impact. Other studies show, through hooking people up to GSR [galvanic skin response] and heart monitors, that when you induce eye movement, there is a decrease in emotion and physical reaction. Others show the eye movement links to the process occurring during REM sleep. There are various theories but no explanation for what's going on physiologically as yet."
FRANCINE SHAPIRO, senior research fellow, Mental Research Institute, Palo Alto, California
"We know that eye movements increase frontal activation in the brain. With post-traumatic stress, some of the brain's frontal structures go off-line. Sensory stimulation like that done in EMDR evokes brainwave activity that may be related to consciousness and information processing. The big question is whether EMDR differs from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). We can't answer that for sure, but recent research suggests there is something different about EMDR. It has been shown that eye movement does increase access to memory. The area in which it's most different from CBT is with phantom limb pain [which EDMR treats while CBT doesn't].''
ULRICH LANIUS, psychologist, EMDR Institute facilitator, Vancouver
"A study at Penn State manipulated the treatment to isolate eye movement. Researchers did the procedure [with the other therapies], and then had the subject stare at a dot on the wall instead of doing the eye movement. Basically, the results suggested there was no difference between the two. Other studies have found EMDR to be effective, but as soon as you control for the eye movement, it doesn't seem to matter. I view EMDR as a repackaging of what therapists have already been doing."
HOLLY HAZLETT-STEVENS, professor of psychology, University of Nevada, Reno
"In trauma, people's responses range from hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance to numbing out. Some believe post-traumatic states are like one frame in a movie that is stuck; the body wants to work through the whole arc of arousal and defensive responses, but can't because of dissociation and other factors. EMDR helps complete the somatic and emotional trauma response. Eye movement is one kind of bilateral stimulation. There's also a machine that causes bilateral stimulation through hands or headphones. Some therapists tap alternate knees or hands. I rarely use eye movement any more, though some studies show it works better with some clients, tapping with others, and that the machine is also effective."
KEKUNI MINTON, psychotherapist, co-author, Trauma And The Body, Boulder, Colorado
"EMDR seems to be effective for some forms of post-traumatic stress and maybe some anxiety disorders, but no more so than other treatments. Many suggest EMDR is a variant of exposure treatments therapists have used for decades to expose people to things they are fear. Part of the problem with the treatment is the way it's been promoted. It's dangerous and irresponsible to promote a treatment as a miracle cure when there's no good evidence it is. The credibility of mental health professionals may be eroded."
SCOTT LILIENFELD, professor of psychology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia