How eye movements in EMDR work: changes in memory vividness and emotionality

J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2014 Sep;45(3):396-401. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2014.04.004. Epub 2014 Apr 26.


Background and objectives: Eye movements (EM) during recall of an aversive memory is a treatment element unique to Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Experimental studies have shown that EM reduce memory vividness and/or emotionality shortly after the intervention. However, it is unclear whether the immediate effects of the intervention reflect actual changes in memory. The aim of this study was to test whether immediate reductions in memory vividness and emotionality persist at a 24 h follow up and whether the magnitude of these effects is related to the duration of the intervention.

Methods: Seventy-three undergraduates recalled two negative autobiographical memories, one with EM ("recall with EM") and one without ("recall only"). Half of participants recalled each memory for four periods of 24 s, the other half for eight periods of 24 s. Memory vividness/emotionality were self-rated at a pre-test, an immediate post-test, and a 24 h follow-up test.

Results: In both duration groups, recall with EM, but not recall only, caused an immediate decrease in memory vividness. There were no immediate reductions in memory emotionality. Furthermore, only the 'eight periods' group showed that recall with EM, but not recall only, caused a decrease in both memory emotionality and memory vividness from the pre-test to the follow-up.

Limitations: Only self-report measures were used.

Conclusions: The findings suggest that recall with EM causes 24-h changes in memory vividness/emotionality, which may explain part of the EMDR treatment effect, and these effects are related to intervention duration.

Keywords: EMDR; Emotionality; Eye movement; Vividness; Working memory.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing / methods*
  • Eye Movements / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Memory, Episodic
  • Mental Recall
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / therapy
  • Young Adult