What’s the link between Indian classical, folk dance forms and enhanced memory power?

Horizontal saccades—when eyes move from side to side in rhythm with the legs—in classical dance forms such Bharatanatyam improves human memory, studies show


Kathakali involves saccade, or when the eyes move from one fixed point to the other. Photo: Reuters
Kathakali involves saccade, or when the eyes move from one fixed point to the other. Photo: Reuters

I could be wrong but no other culture has dance forms that incorporate as much eye movement as the Indian classical and folk forms do. Not the Japanese kabuki and noh dances, not the Chinese folk and opera dances, and certainly not Western ballet. They use the bodies but the eyes are still. Not so with Bharatanatyam, Kathakali or Kathak, where the eyes dance and sway to express and draw people in. The Art Of Looking Sideways, to quote the book title of the late great graphic designer Alan Fletcher, has been perfected in India. Bharatanatyam especially includes eye movements from side to side, in rhythm with the legs, in what is called a “horizontal saccade”. A saccade is when the eyes move from one fixed point to another. 

Studies have found that these horizontal saccades improve memory. This has to do with how our brain is wired. Generally, the right hemisphere is connected to the left side of the body and vice versa. So if you move your eyes left, it will activate your right hemisphere, the seat of imagination, intuition and creativity. If you move your eyes right, it will activate the left hemisphere, known for logical and analytical thinking. Using this hypothesis, I wonder if you can predict if a child is lying by watching the way his/her eyes move. 

“How come you didn’t do well on the test?” If the eyes move left, could it mean that the child is inventing an excuse? 

If you saccade your eyes—move them sideways in quick succession—it will activate both hemispheres and cause “interhemispheric coherence”. We do this anyway during the night when our REM (rapid eye movement) sleep consolidates our memory of what happened during the day. 

Research done in 2013 by professors Andrew Parker in the UK and Stephen Christman and Tad Brunye in the US shows that these “bilateral saccadic eye movements” help improve “episodic memory”, or the type of memory that keeps track of autobiographical information: the who, what, where, when and why of your life. Where did I keep my keys? When is my meeting? Who did I see at the party? Have you ever gone to the bathroom to switch on the geyser and then forgotten why you are there in the first place? That is a function, or a failure, of episodic memory. In contrast, semantic memory broadly remembers general knowledge, ideas and facts that we pick up throughout our lives. We need both types of memory but the one that is most associated with absent-mindedness is episodic memory. 

In 2013, Sander Nieuwenhuis and his colleagues at the University of Leiden, Netherlands, did a cool spin on this connection between the eyes and memory. They showed that bilateral saccadic eye movements enhance memory retrieval. With one addition. When they tapped the left and right hands of the subjects in an alternate left-right-left-right fashion, memory improved. But this didn’t happen when sounds were played in the ears alternately.

This study, published in 2013 in the Brain And Cognition journal, suggests that this is because of the “contralateral (or X-shaped) organization of the visuomotor and somatosensory systems”, where the right eye and hand are connected to the left brain and vice versa. How does this help us? The next time you are in what I call a “rush to retrieve” mode, try going shifty-eyed. You have to run out of the door, but have forgotten where you kept your cellphone, or house keys, or spectacles: objects without which you cannot leave. Try this: Just stand still for 30 seconds and shift your eyes horizontally from side to side. 

Let us say that you need to recall a long grocery list. Or let’s say that you are a college student and have an important exam that involves memorizing the spelling of many obscure words. Just before you enter the exam hall, find a quiet corner and move your eyes from side to side for 30 seconds. After saccading your eyes, go in and write the exam. You will perform better. 

Since reading this, I have started moving my eyes from left to right while brushing my teeth in the morning. I don’t recall the names of every star and planet that I see in the sky, but I do recall the Latin names of the birds that surround my building: black kites, also called Milvus migrans; red-whiskered bulbuls, called Pycnonotus jocosus; the house crow, called Corvus splendens; and those infernal pigeons, Columba livia.  

Shoba Narayan never brushes her teeth in public now that she makes her eyes saccade horizontally while brushing. Write to her with your tips, tricks and short cuts. She blogs at Shobanarayan.com, tweets at @shobanarayan and Instagrams at #shobanarayan.

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