Creative Thinking Boost from Bilateral Eye Movements

Doing bilateral eye movements (BEMs) is a simple way to boost creative thinking for a few minutes.

This technique has other benefits apart from creative thinking, such as improvement in episodic memory. Originally it was developed as a treatment for post traumatic stress disorder and it is known as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. (In its basic form, a patient recalls a traumatic memory while doing side-to-side eye movements; sometimes other forms of bilateral stimulation are used, such as hand tapping or binaural sounds.)

When it comes to creativity, a 2009 study by Elizabeth Shobe, Nicholas Ross and Jessica Fleck found that this mind hack has a noticeable effect on two central elements of creative thinking: originality (uniqueness of ideas) and flexibility (generating ideas from distinct categories).[1] A 2015 study by Jessica Fleck and David Braun also found that bilateral eye movements produced some improvements in verbal creativity and convergent thinking (as measured by remote associates test).[2]

Why It Works

There are several explanations. The 2009 study suggested that repeated bilateral eye movements lead to the simultaneous activation of both brain hemispheres, and ultimately this increases the brain’s interhemispheric interaction.[3] (Generally, neuroscientific research suggests that it is better to view creativity as neither the product of exclusively right or the left hemisphere but rather the collaborative effort of the both.[4])  Other explanations suggest that it works more through attentional control or other variables such as arousal, mood, or increased access to right hemisphere’s widespread activation.[5]

How To Do It

The technique itself is quite simple: every half a second move your eyes from one side to the other. For example, in your room look at some object in your far left side and then after half a second look to your far right. Move only your eyes, not the head. Do this for 30 seconds, which will make a total of 60 eye movements. In experiments, participants usually follow a dot alternately appearing on the left and the right side of the computer screen, twice per second.

If you want to try it with guided instruction, check out apps designed for EMDR therapy. (There is at least one free Android app EyeMove EMDR Therapy Free and a paid iOS app Anxiety Release based on EMDR.)

Practical Effect

Will this mind hack turn you into a creative powerhouse? Probably no. At least I haven’t noticed massive effects, but it often does seem to produce slight and subtle improvement. Of course, some people may notice much greater effect.

It is important to do the BEMs right before you need a boost in creativity because originality is enhanced for only about 7-9 minutes, and flexibility only for about 3 minutes (and then there is some marginal benefit for flexibility for 3 more minutes). You could probably do BEMs again after 9 minutes to get a new boost, but studies haven’t tested the effectiveness of repeated BEM sessions.

In any case, this mind hack is not meant to create a sweeping and permanent enhancement; instead, its purpose is more to give you a temporary boost which may be enough to jumpstart your thinking and get creativity flowing.

Overall, considering that it takes only half a minute to do it, there is little downside to trying it. Give it a shot on a few different occasions to see if it works for you.

References and Notes

[1] Elizabeth R. Shobe, Nicholas M. Ross, and Jessica I. Fleck, “Influence of Handedness and Bilateral Eye Movements on Creativity”, Brain and Cognition, 71, 204-214 (2009). DOI:10.1016/j.bandc.2009.08.017.

[2] Jessica I. Fleck and David A. Braun, “The Impact of Eye Movements on a Verbal Creativity Task,” Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 27, 866–881 (2015). DOI 10.1080/20445911.2015.1036057.

[3] Ruth E. Propper & Stephen D. Christman, “Interhemispheric Interaction and Saccadic Horizontal Eye Movements: Implications for Episodic Memory, EMDR, and PTSD”, Journal of EMDR Practice and Research, 2, 269–281 (2008). DOI: 10.1891/1933-3196.2.4.269.

BEMs have been shown, for one, to increase inter-hemispheric coherence in the anterior pre-frontal cortex. (Propper et al 2007). Other studies, however, question the increased interhemispheric coherence hypothesis:
Zoe Samara, Bernet M. Elzinga, Heleen A. Slagter, and Sander Nieuwenhuis,”Do Horizontal Saccadic Eye Movements Increase Interhemispheric Coherence? Investigation of a Hypothesized Neural Mechanism Underlying EMDR”, Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2 (Article 4) (2011). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyt.2011.00004.

[4] Ingegerd Carlsson, Peter E. Wendt, and Jarl Risberg, “On the Neurobiology of Creativity. Differences in Frontal Activity Between High and Low Creative Subjects”, Neuropsychologia, 38, 873–885 (2000). DOI:10.1016/S0028-3932(99)00128-1.

[5] Jessica I. Fleck and David A. Braun, “The Impact of Eye Movements on a Verbal Creativity Task,” Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 27, 866–881 (2015). DOI 10.1080/20445911.2015.1036057.

BEMs and Mixed-handers: BEMs are unlikely to benefit mixed-handers. The 2009 study argued that this is because mixed-handers already have high interhemispheric interaction, so they don’t gain anything from BEMs. This is consistent with research showing that mixed-handers generally have greater cognitive flexibility.
Eric Prichard, Ruth E. Propper, and Stephen D. Christman, “Degree of Handedness, But Not Direction, is a Systematic Predictor of Cognitive Performance”, Frontiers in Psychology, 4, Article 9 (2013). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00009.
Mixed-handed people prefer using one hand for some of their daily tasks and the other hand for other tasks, such as writing, using a mouse, etc. Strong-handers, which most people are, have a single dominant hand for all or most of their daily tasks. If you are unsure whether you are a strong-hander or a mixed-hander, you can check out the Edinburgh Handedness Inventory, which is a standard questionnaire for hand dominance.