Monday, November 29, 2010

Why you move your eyes when you speak: the visual "um"

You'll have to see yourself on a video recording to figure out whether you use what I call "visual ums" -- a sidelong glance or looking up and down while you're trying to recall a point you want to make. I've observed that visual ums serve the same purpose as verbal ums, creating a pause that lets you think and recall. Now researchers have done some tests to confirm that's what you might be doing.

In "Moving the eyes but not looking: Why do we do it?", you can read about a series of research tests suggesting that non-visual eye movements are triggered when you try to retrieve a long-term memory--even though moving your eyes doesn't play a useful role in remembering the fact you're trying to retrieve. It's a leftover reflex, researchers surmise, from the ancient days when you needed to scan the landscape to recall something. Today, you're still scanning even though the landscape's in your mind. 

The downside: Visual ums interrupt your eye contact with your audience, and the research shows that when you fix your gaze rather than look away, you won't find remembering any more difficult. So look right at the audience while you're finding your won't affect your ability to remember. Need more help? Try some time-buying phrases to give yourself time to find that forgotten item.

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