Home » Deconstructing a Superstition: What Happens in Your Brain and Eye When It “Jumps”

Deconstructing a Superstition: What Happens in Your Brain and Eye When It “Jumps”

by janeausten
Left Eye

Many of the island’s longstanding superstitions can be traced back to its colonial past. These views are a result of the mixing of ideas and explanations that has occurred in this region and others as a result of globalization. However, there is one I’ve known all my life and it is a specialty of the people of Trinidad. In this case, the issue is a form of involuntary eye spasm referred to in common parlance as “eye jumping,” which is when your eye twitches unexpectedly. Depending on which eye is afflicted, the superstition can have a number of different interpretations.

A sign of good news is a quick movement of the right eye. Bad news is on the way if your left eye twitches.

A quick movement in your right eye indicates that someone is complimenting you. Someone is talking trash about you if your left eye twitches. (If you try to stop your eye from jumping by thinking of names of people you know, you will eventually name the person who is speaking negatively about you.)

If your right eye suddenly pops, you’ll catch a glimpse of an old friend.

If you experience a sudden movement in your left eye, a close friend or loved one is likely doing something sneaky behind your back.

Someone you care about is in danger * if your left eye flies open.

Given that I have also encountered the inverse (i.e., right eye = someone speaking wrong of you), there is some room for interpretation with this superstition. It is included here in parallel form to match the other suggestions.)

Additional iterations on this theme exist, but they all share an emphasis on the contrast between the left and right eyes as they relate to positive and negative outcomes. Superstitious beliefs surrounding the eye have been around for a long time; for example, the concept of the “evil eye” has been traced back to around 600 BC, though it may have been around much longer than that. The eye would be associated with foreboding beliefs given its significance as a symbol of sight, vigilance, and insight.

Many people look down on those who believe in astrology. Most sane people would brush them off as ridiculous. But still they lurk in background until opportunity arrives when they do suggest a potential “What if?” have traditionally dismissed superstitions as the “primitive” beliefs of “simple” people, ignoring the potential insights they may offer on people’s worldviews. Religion and the supernatural may be at the root of many superstitions, but many others provide fascinating insights into local culture. Superstitions often endure, but sometimes the reasons for their survival can be uncovered by looking closely enough.

For instance, the Caniteel in Trinidad is discussed in Basil Matthews’ (1945) collection of West Indian beliefs and superstitions. This is the belief that any plants planted between July 15 and August 15 will fail to grow if they are planted at a specific hour on a specific day (141). No one can say for certain what time it is, or what day it is. Worms, they know, typically eat the plant’s heart during this time. Farmers in Trinidad are generally pessimistic about the current climate. To avoid the Caniteel, many people choose not to plant on July 15th, and then plant on alternating days. Some people choose not to plant at all during this time. Farmers have linked a real-life occurrence (worm activity) with a superstition (do not plant, this period is bad).

It’s possible that this is also true for “eye jumping.” Although the phenomenon is generally safe, its scientific significance remains unclear. In medical terms, this type condition is known as benign essential blepharospasm (BEB), but it can be very bothersome and even lead to functional blindness in extreme cases.

Initially manifesting as an increased blink rate due to irritation and discomfort in the eyelids, the condition can ultimately lead to a constant, uncontrollable, and forceful closure of the eyelids.

Researchers think fatigue, stress, eyestrain, and/or caffeine may play a role in causing this idiographic condition. Dr. Celeste Robb-Nicholson offers some suggestions for dealing with “eyelid twitching” in her health column for the Harvard Women’s Health Watch.

Spasms can be relieved in a number of ways. Put a warm compress on the closed eye, or try gently yanking on the lid. Reduce your caffeine and alcohol consumption and prioritize sleep. If you experience twitching in your eye muscles while reading or using a computer, try taking brief breaks to focus on an object far away. Use lubricating eyedrops if your eyes feel dry or irritated (8).

The milder forms of eye jumping, characterized by a flickring sensation in the eyelid, twitching of eye, or repeated closing and reopening of eyelid, can still be distracting (or at least irritating). And it can last for a few minutes to a few hours, or it can happen off and on for days. Its disruptive nature may explain why it plays a part in superstition. The following shall be taken into account:

It’s possible that stress is the root cause of your jerky eyes.

It stands out in people’s minds because of the disruption it causes.

Because of how persistent eye jumping is in the mind of those who experience it, it is easy to attribute bad or expected outcomes to it when they occur after an episode.

Since it seems that most Trinidadians still subscribe to the old adage that “right is good and left is bad,” it’s possible that people with BEB are subconsciously choosing stressful situations based on their affected eye. If they are worried about getting in touch with a loved one after missing a phone call, for instance, they may experience BEB as a stress response. When the loved one finally gives a call, the affected person may make the connection between the jumped eye and the phone call.

This could also explain the apparent ease with which the eyes are credited with seeing things. Trinis generally adhere to the right/left dichotomy, but they have been known to blur the line and say, “My eye was jumping.” It’s possible that memories associated with the affected eye are emphasized. In a manner reminiscent of the Caniteel, the people of Trinidad have linked a historical occurrence (BEB) to a folk belief (the eye afflicted by BEB can predict or warn of events).

Whatever your perspective, you may find solace in superstitions. They provide an opportunity for agency and, in this case, the strengthening of bonds; the eye-jumping superstition has a strong emotional component. They have the potential to become habitual. When my eye twitches, I have a tendency to tell myself, “Quit it,” with all seriousness. I.e., it would help if you stopped stressing about it.

In my experience, stress levels rise whenever my eye jumps, and whenever this phenomenon persists, the question “What if?” becomes more plausible. The event itself is a stressor, causing me to feel a constant undercurrent of worry that I try to ignore but eventually give in to. A minor shift in my behavior is one example. I’ll start making more calls home. When I hear about something that happened to one of them during this time, I always wonder which eye was affected. There is no escaping superstition. It’s a factor in how they’ve managed to stay alive throughout the ages and across continents.

Does your family practice any recurring superstitions? Something you always hear your parents or grandparents say or do? Something you came to believe for no good reason at all? In honor of the upcoming Halloween holiday, let’s take a peek into our darkest imaginings.

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