Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Looking into eyes

I'm reading a book called Mind Wide Open by Steven Johnson. It offers a fresh look at some of the eye-reading and calibration patterns that are taught in neuro-linguistic programming. Let me recap for those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept. Early in its development, NLP taught that people moved their eyes in ways that reliably indicated something about how they were thinking - eyes up meant visualizing, eyes to the side meant "hearing" and eyes down meant either accessing feelings or talking to yourself. Except that the patterns could not be consistently verified in experiments. So a clash existed between true believers, who insisted they got great results reading eyes, and scientists, who insisted it just didn't work.

We have long realized that what those early practitioners of NLP were really learning was that the eyes are a reliable indicator of information about someone's emotional state. Facial expression, as Paul Ekman has shown us, is a universal language and since we have less conscious control of the muscles in the top half of our faces, the eyes are often a reliable indicator of genuine emotion. Focusing our attention on someone's eyes gives us access to the best visual information about their emotional state (voice provides this information in another way).

What Steven Johnson adds to this insight is the neurology of the process. He describes a test devised by Simon Baron-Cohen for identifying emotion by looking at photos of eyes. Johnson's description of his experience with the test will be familiar to anyone who has practiced NLPs version of calibration:

"When I tried to interpret the images consciously, surveying each lid and crease for the semiotics of affect, the data became meaningless: folds of tissue, signifying nothing. But when I just let myself look - look without thinking - the underlying emotions came through with startling clarity. I couldn't explain what made a gleam gleam, but I knew one when I saw it."

What NLP has long explained as a clash between the conscious and unconscious minds, Johnson explains as a discrepancy between processing information through the neocortex (higher logic and language) and the amygdala (intuitive recognition). Johnson concludes: "The next time you're advised to trust your gut when you're meeting someone new, ignore the advice. Your gut has nothing to do with it. But by all means, trust your amygdala."

The amygdala is one of the many brain centres responsible for the rapid and complex processing we have associated with the unconscious mind. Whatever terminology works for you, it is clear that silencing the inner chatter and focusing your gaze on someone's eyes will normally give you your best access to 'mind-reading' what that someone is feeling.

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