Science Articles

Looking Left, Thinking Right ?

Wed, 14th Sep 2005

David Gamon

If you want a sure-fire conversation starter to pull out of your pocket during an awkward social moment, try this: Why do people often look sideways when they're answering a question? And why do they sometimes look right, and other times look left? A few researchers in the 1970s thought they had found answers to these questions. A psychologist named Paul Bakan proposed that different kinds of thinking could automatically trigger lateral eye movements (LEMs), when activity in one of the brain hemispheres spread into the "eye fields" on that side of the brain. The eye field on the right side of the brain is linked to the left field of vision, and controls eye movement to the left, while the left-brain eye field connects to the right field of vision and controls rightward LEMs.

The logical next question: Does the direction of gaze reflect the type of question a person is trying to answer? Maybe answers requiring "right-brain" thinking, such as visualizing the layout of the rooms in a house, might make people look to the left; "left-brain" thinking, such as thinking about the meaning of the word cachinnate, might trigger a rightward LEM.

A lot of researchers have tried to test that hypothesis. The idea is simple. It's also appealing because it suggests certain handy applications. Might you, for example, have an easier time visualizing the answer to a geometry problem (right brain) by looking left, or thinking of the French words for woof and warp (left brain) by looking right? Or might some people habitually prefer to look left or right, reflecting their preferred "left-brain" or "right-brain" cognitive style?

The results of those investigations were mixed. But a clear pattern that did emerge was that harder questions were more likely to result in LEMs, whether rightward or leftward. In other words, even if LEMs don't reflect the "left-brain" or "right-brain" nature of the question, they do reflect the problem's difficulty. That seems intuitive. But why?

The reason is probably the same as the reason people generally find it hard to do two things at once, or the reason that it's hard to concentrate on a book if someone's talking. Averting your gaze allows you to cut yourself off from a particularly attention-getting and distracting environmental stimulus - the questioner's face - in order to focus on the answer to the question. The reason your pet cat doesn't do that is that, for her, memory and thought are more exclusively triggered by what's in front of her eyes, nose, or ears. Sometimes, that's true for humans too, such as when you try to remember the name of a type of tree you see. But often, we operate in a world of introspection that isn't directly environmentally-cued or -controlled.

Recent experiments have added a twist: If you somehow prevent people from averting their gaze, they have a harder time answering a question. So it turns out that LEMs do, indeed, serve to help to answer a question, although not necessarily in the same way that people first thought.

You can test Bakan's original theory on your friends by asking them "left-brain" and "right-brain" questions, and watching which direction, if any, their eyes go. Usually, visual thinking is considered right-hemisphere-controlled, while verbal (i.e., language-based) thinking is considered to be controlled by the left hemisphere. (If you really want to irritate your friends, say, "Aha! I thought so!" as you watch them, and when they ask you what you're talking about say, "Oh, nothing, just some routine observations....")

And you can test the idea that more difficult questions are more likely to trigger LEMs by asking the questions on the following pages. They increase in difficulty, making it more and more likely, in theory, that the person trying to answer them will look to the side while thinking. In the answer section, the number accompanying each answer indicates the percentage of college students who were able to answer that question correctly.

References and further reading Bakan, Paul (1969). Hypnotizability, laterality of eye movements and functional brain asymmetry. Perceptual and Motor Skills 28: 927-32. De Gennaro, Luigi, and Cristiano Violaniu (1988). Reflective lateral eye movements: individual styles, cognitive and lateralization effects. Neuropsychologia 26/5: 727-36. Glenberg, Arthur M., Jennifer L. Schroeder, and David A. Robertson (1998). Averting the gaze disengages the environment and facilitates remembering. Memory & Cognition 26/4: 651-8.

Memory Test

In 1980, two psychologists at the University of Washington and University of California, Irvine, compiled a list of general-knowledge questions and posed them to their undergraduate students in order to get scoring norms. In other words, they wanted to get an idea about how a person with a "normal" memory would perform on this memory task, so that the questions could be used to test other people’s memory. These questions start out easy, but get harder as you go along. The number next to each answer shows the percent of college students who answered that question correctly. If you can answer more than 20, that puts you in the top third of the sample of college students the questions were tested on.

1. What’s the name of the comic strip character who eats spinach to increase his strength? 2. What’s the last name of the brothers who flew the first airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina? 3. What’s the name of the crime of purposely setting a building or property on fire? 4. What’s the name of Dorothy’s dog in "The Wizard of Oz"? 5. What’s the name of the man who rode horseback in 1775 to warn that the British were coming? 6. What’s the last name of the famous magician and escape artist who died of appendicitis? 7. What’s the name of the thick layer of fat on a whale? 8. What’s the name of the sport in which riders on horseback hit a ball with their mallets? 9. What’s the name of the largest desert on earth? 10. What’s the name of the Italian city known for its canals? 11. What’s the name of the mythical Island-City said to have sunk into the ocean? 12. What’s the name for the small Japanese barbecue used for outdoor cooking? 13. What’s the name of the one-eyed giant in Greek mythology? 14. What’s the last name of the general who lost the battle of Little Bighorn? 15. What’s the name of the chapel in Rome whose ceiling was painted by Michelangelo? 16. What’s the name of the unit of measure referring to a six-foot depth of water? 17. What’s the name of the woman who began the profession of nursing? 18. What’s the name of the quick-reflexed animal that attacks cobras? 19. What was the name of Roy Rogers’ horse? 20. What’s the last name of the author of "1984"? 21. What was the name of the Roman emperor who supposedly fiddled while Rome burned? 22. What kind of poison did Socrates drink when he was executed? 23. What was the name of Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant? 24. What was the name of the German who began the Protestant Reformation? 25. What was the name of King Arthur’s sword? 26. What was the name of the ship on which Charles Darwin made his famous voyage to the Galapagos? 27. What’s the capital of Finland? 28. What’s the name of the mountain range separating Asia from Europe? 29. What’s the name of the first person to run the mile in under four minutes? 30. What was the name of the Cuban leader overthrown by Castro? 31. What was the last name of the artist who painted "American Gothic"? 32. What was the name of the town through which Lady Godiva supposedly made her famous naked ride? 33. What’s the name of the highest mountain in South America?

Answers: 1. What’s the name of the comic strip character who eats spinach to increase his strength? Popeye (94%) 2. What’s the last name of the brothers who flew the first airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina? Wright (92%) 3. What’s the name of the crime of purposely setting a building or property on fire? Arson (88%) 4. What’s the name of Dorothy’s dog in "The Wizard of Oz"? Toto (84%) 5. What’s the name of the man who rode horseback in 1775 to warn that the British were coming? Paul Revere (82%) 6. What’s the last name of the famous magician and escape artist who died of appendicitis? Houdini (80%) 7. What’s the name of the thick layer of fat on a whale? Blubber (77%) 8. What’s the name of the sport in which riders on horseback hit a ball with their mallets? Polo (75%) 9. What’s the name of the largest desert on earth? Sahara (70%) 10. What’s the name of the Italian city known for its canals? Venice (68%) 11. What’s the name of the mythical Island-City said to have sunk into the ocean? Atlantis (65%) 12. What’s the name for the small Japanese barbecue used for outdoor cooking? Hibachi (62%) 13. What’s the name of the one-eyed giant in Greek mythology? Cyclops (60%) 14. What’s the last name of the general who lost the battle of Little Bighorn? Custer (58%) 15. What’s the name of the chapel in Rome whose ceiling was painted by Michelangelo? Sistine (55%) 16. What’s the name of the unit of measure referring to a six-foot depth of water? Fathom (52%) 17. What’s the name of the woman who began the profession of nursing? Florence Nightingale (47%) 18. What’s the name of the quick-reflexed animal that attacks cobras? Mongoose (41%) 19. What was the name of Roy Rogers’ horse? Trigger (37%) 20. What’s the last name of the author of "1984"? Orwell (33%) 21. What was the name of the Roman emperor who supposedly fiddled while Rome burned? Nero (31%) 22. What kind of poison did Socrates drink when he was executed? Hemlock (25%) 23. What was the name of Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant? Watson (22%) 24. What was the name of the German who began the Protestant Reformation? Martin Luther (20%) 25. What was the name of King Arthur’s sword? Excalibur (19%) 26. What was the name of the ship on which Charles Darwin made his famous voyage to the Galapagos? Beagle (14%) 27. What’s the capital of Finland? Helsinki (12%) 28. What’s the name of the mountain range separating Asia from Europe? Ural (9%) 29. What’s the name of the first person to run the mile in under four minutes? Bannister (7%) 30. What was the name of the Cuban leader overthrown by Castro? Batista (4%) 31. What was the last name of the artist who painted "American Gothic"? Wood (3%) 32. What was the name of the town through which Lady Godiva supposedly made her famous naked ride? Coventry (1%) 33. What’s the name of the highest mountain in South America? Aconcagua (0%)

References

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