A meta-analysis of the contribution of eye movements in processing emotional memories

J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2013 Jun;44(2):231-9. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2012.11.001. Epub 2012 Nov 20.


Background and objectives: Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) is now considered evidence based practice in the treatment of trauma symptoms. Yet in a previous meta-analysis, no significant effect was found for the eye movement component. However methodological issues with this study may have resulted in a type II error. The aim of this meta-analysis was to examine current published studies to test whether eye movements significantly affect the processing of distressing memories.

Method: A systematic review of the literature revealed two groups of studies. The first group comprised 15 clinical trials and compared the effects of EMDR therapy with eye movements to those of EMDR without the eye movements. The second group comprised 11 laboratory trials that investigated the effects of eye movements while thinking of a distressing memory versus the same procedure without the eye movements in a non-therapy context. The total number of participants was 849.

Results: The effect size for the additive effect of eye movements in EMDR treatment studies was moderate and significant (Cohen's d = 0.41). For the second group of laboratory studies the effect size was large and significant (d = 0.74). The strongest effect size difference was for vividness measures in the non-therapy studies (d = 0.91). The data indicated that treatment fidelity acted as a moderator variable on the effect of eye movements in the therapy studies.

Conclusions: Results were discussed in terms of current theories that suggest the processes involved in EMDR are different from other exposure based therapies.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing*
  • Eye Movements / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Mental Disorders / physiopathology
  • Mental Disorders / therapy
  • Models, Statistical
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic