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Surprising Science

Can Simply Moving Your Eyes Relieve PTSD?

A new technique which asks patients to move their eyes rapidly while recalling past traumatic events successfully relieves symptoms of the disorder, but psychologists don’t yet know how.

What’s the Latest Development?

Some therapists are hailing a new technique to relieve memories of past traumas which asks patients to recall severe events while quickly darting their eyes back and forth, “as if you are watching a high-speed Ping-Pong match.” Called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR, recent research supports the claim that it can help ease symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “One of the ways EMDR’s eye movements are thought to reduce PTSD symptoms is by stripping troubling memories of their vividness and the distress they cause.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Much of the debate over EMDR hinges on the element of causation: Does the eye movement relieve patients’ symptoms or is it the larger therapeutic routine into which the eye movement is incorporated? While studies indicate that patients who close their eyes during therapy have less robust recovery rates, nobody is quite sure how EMDR positively affects the mind. Chris Lee, a psychologist at Murdoch University, explains that the procedure may compete with the recollection for space in our working memory, “which causes the trauma memory to be less intense when recalled again.”

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