Your Eyes Reveal Memories That Your Conscious Brain Forgot

By Eliza Strickland | September 11, 2009 7:00 am

eye 2You may remember more than your conscious brain knows, according to a nifty new study that will soon be published in the journal Neuron. Researchers gave college students memory tests while closely monitoring both their eye movements and their brain activity, and found that certain patterns revealed that a student was retrieving the memory of the right answer–although his conscious brain often never got it.

In the experiment, researchers presented a long sequence of pictures of faces paired with an outdoor scene, and finally showed the subject one landscape photo along with three faces, asking him to pick out the face that had originally be paired with the landscape. Immediately, activity in the brain region called the hippocampus increased, followed 500 to 750 milliseconds later by eye movements directed toward one of the three faces. When the hippocampus was more active, the eyes lingered on the correct face. Less hippocampus activity occurred when the eyes dwelled on an incorrect face…. The results suggest that eye movements can reveal unconscious memories activated in the hippocampus [Science News]. This pattern stayed the same regardless of whether the subject ultimately settled on the right answer.

The hippocampus plays a crucial role in learning and memory, but one theory of neuroscience suggested that the region only works on conscious memories, like recalling an event or someone’s name. People like H.M., a world-famous neuroscience patient with a damaged hippocampus, can’t form new conscious memories but can learn new skills, like riding a bike—leading to the belief that an intact hippocampus is not needed for unconscious recall. But the new study suggests that the hippocampus actually is involved in memories of relationships that a person does not consciously recollect [Science News].

Related Content:
80beats: Remembering H.M. and his Fascinating, Damaged Brain
80beats: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mouse: Scientists Erase Mice’s Memories
80beats: Researchers Catch Individual Neurons in the Act of Remembering

Image: flickr / Kyle May

MORE ABOUT: memory
  • NewEnglandBob

    This article has a misleading headline. The eyes remember nothing, but part of the (unconscious) brain did. It didn’t say the eyes have memory but the implication is there.

    A better title:

    “Eye Movement Reveals Unconscious Memory That Your Conscious Brain Forgot”

  • demonstrator

    Could it be postulated that this process may have something to do with the Deja Vu phenomenon?

  • Robbo

    I’m intrigued how this could relate to “The Art Of Memory” and the use of mnemonic imagery to create an imaginary room as a tool to recall lengthy memorized passages of epic poetry – recalling the imagined walk through the room in order to trigger the subsequently more detailed recall of the poem. Could this be part of the same memory process? Using imagined visual recall to trigger the hippocampus? Curious to see if there’s any connection.

  • Ryan

    I agree with NewEnglandBob. Initially, I thought that the eye was somehow containing memories and thought that was pretty cool.

  • John H.

    This gives some small credence to the theory/practice of ‘Neuro-Linguistic Programming’ where the direction of (sub-consciously directed) brief glances (up, down, left, or right) gives some clue as to psychological state induced by a given possibly emotionally-laden verbal query or other such stimulus.

  • fsync

    “nifty” ?

  • Frank

    Eye knew it all along!

    Robbo, you are a smarty. Psycho sybernetics(sp?) does the same for atheletes, cops and soldiers. visually running thru the motions reinforces the steps you eventually take. It probably has evolutionary origins and benefits.

    Didn’t Lechter have one of those rooms in Silence of the Lambs?

  • Travis

    I guess the old saying “eyes are the doorway to the soul” takes on a bit of new light here…

  • Iron T

    How come dreaming isn’t mentioned at all here? It seems pretty obvious that the link between dreaming and speedy-subconscious memorization would be picked up immediately — the mojority of all dreams, after all, are just the brain taking a period (usually a day) of stored sensory stimuli (mostly visual) and running through the details missed by the conscious mind to store what may be useful for later… or maybe just make sense of such a large amount of information when the rest of your body takes time off.

  • Anna

    It all depends on what you believe. But this is a test that scientist did so you never really know if its true, you have to trust these kinda things. Like i said it all depends on what you believe and what you know.

  • Dave C.

    I have to wonder though. Are the eyes signaling that the person has picked the right one, and is not confident enough to believe it is right? Wouldn’t this still indicate a conscious memory, but not a strong one? I think so.

  • Ross

    What was the control condition? …

  • jyudtydtyuh

    hmm, this ones a thinker

  • website

    People studying Neuro-Lingustic Programing have known this for years. Nothing new.

  • nicko

    Calling Transdisciplinary (ists). How does this discovery translate to nurturing memory in the educational arena, in the early developmental years ? How can it be made beneficial to educators/caregivers etc to promote best practices?

  • Ruben Dagda

    Obviously, this is nothing new. It has been known for decades that the hippocampus is the brain region involved in learning new memories and in recall. Consider what happens to an advanced Alzheimer’s patient. In conjuncition with the amygdala (a brain region involved in emotional associative memory), the hippocampus associates feeling and emotions while recalling pleasant or frightful experiences. The fact that students who take a multiple choice exam and do not come up with a righ answer even though they initally choose the right one, but later change their mind means a lack of sufficient memory consolidation. A lack of sufficient study by repetition or association means that neurons have not made strong connections and neural pathways (long term potentiation). The hippocampus is needed in both concious and unconcious recall; many of us recall facts during our sleep which we were unable to recall conciously.

  • http://none NreeK

    OK, a few questions:

    The trick will be: how to get in tune with your hippocampus, if that is at all possible? Is it a feeling that we get when in the presence of the correct answer (like a gut instinct)?

    I was thinking about the implications of doing a test on people with questions they have no chance of knowing the answer…. then I told my wife about this article and she asked much the same question,…… here it is a little more succinctly:

    Does the hippocampus activate when focusing on the correct answer of a question the conscious mind has no chance of knowing?

    The experiment could include information that is close to consciousness in the collective psyche and information far more obscure eg: questions that involve new knowledge that humanity has only discovered; old long forgotten knowledge such as obscure ancient theological texts or superstitious beliefs from extinct civilisations; and old knowledge that was once well known collectively.

  • Glynn

    So what happens when you get an eye tranplant! Wow all those new memories!

  • Sue

    This also fits with the trauma treatments EMDR and the similar EMT (which also incorporates NLP practice) – eye movement therapies that bring memories up from the unconscious, enabling trauma to be resolved. I don’t think this study adds anything to previous research in these fields.

  • Kath Ling

    Could you recommend any specific resources, books, or other blogs on this topic?

  • shibaram jena

    i have forgot my memory,how do i get my present memory.

  • bobrhorman

    wow this is just like in artemis fowl where they record the things that you see from teh eye movements and the micro scratches despite the fact that their memories were erased!

  • Largolinda

    I should let this out there, and here is the site to do so, to help others. When I was 21 (now 63), I knew I had suppressed an entire childhood of memories and decided to retrieve them. Through age-regression self-hypnosis (bought a book on it), I was able to bring myself back to the age of somewhere between 3 and 6 months. It took a year and a half, and I documented every analysis. After that, I mulled it over for another year and a half and finally approached my mother about my recollections. She s*** a brick. Yes, everything one experiences as a child can be dug up! Her comments were more amazing than my abuse.

    [Moderator’s note: Edited the cuss word.]

  • Largolinda

    Sorry, I meant HER abuse on me.


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