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Side-to-side eye movements have been shown to improve memory, according to researchers in the UK and the US. They speculate that the eye movement causes the two hemispheres of the brain to interact with each other more, but a mechanism for the memory enhancement hasn’t been determined conclusively. Andrew Parker and colleagues at Manchester Metropolitan University used a word test to evaluate the eye movement effect:

To test whether horizontal eye movements reduce source monitoring errors in addition to improving how many items people can remember, Parker and his colleagues presented 102 college students with recordings of a male voice reading aloud 20 lists of 15 words. Some of the lists converged around a “lure” word that wasn’t presented…

After the subjects heard all of the lists, a third of them followed a computer prompt that initiated side-to-side eye movements for 30 seconds. Another third did the same with up-to-down eye movements, and the final third did nothing…

The researchers found that the people who performed the horizontal eye movements correctly remembered, on average, more than 10 percent more words, and falsely recognized about 15 percent fewer “lure” words than the people who performed vertical eye movements or no movements at all. [From Moving Your Eyes Improves Memory, Study Suggests.]

Stephen Christman, a psychologist at the University of Toledo who has also studied these memory effects, suggests, “The movements could be helping people identify the true source of their memories.”

Could this effect be useful to advertisers? Perhaps, but I think it would be challenging to accomplish. Improving communication between the brain hemispheres (if that is indeed the mechanism at work here) while viewing an advertisement sounds like an intriguing neuromarketing technique, but that may be easier said than done.

My first thought was that an animated Web banner ad could easily cause the viewer’s eyes to move back and forth horizontally – but could any banner be compelling enough to hold a viewer’s attention for half a minute? Many full web pages don’t accomplish that feat. It would be possible, I suppose, but would require an engaging and almost certainly constantly changing image to hold the viewer’s interest for more than a second or two. It seems more likely that a telvision ad might be able to pull this off by having one or more screen elements attract the eye in the context of a story line, or even an appealing sequence of images.

I think that designing any kind of ad to get viewers to move their eyes back and forth like a center-court tennis spectator without losing or annoying those same viewers would be a tall order. To build in a branding message or achieve another advertising objective would add to the challenge. And, of course, the limited research available shows that the memory effect works for modestly improving short term recall of word lists, but says nothing about improved long term effectiveness of branding or advertising messages. Still, it’s an interesting data point that, with more research, might be useful in some carefully constructed future context – even if it’s just remembering a toll-free telephone number to place an order.

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