Monday, October 25, 2010

Anatomy of a Superstition: When Your Eye "Jumps"

The eye sees all, and can possibly warn
of danger in Trinidadian folklore.
Credit: Wikipedia
Trinidadians have a rich collection of superstitions, many of which found their way to the island via colonialism. These beliefs reflect the ways ideas and explanations have been blended here—and elsewhere—in the face of globalization. There is one, however, that I have grown up with that seems unique to Trinidadians. It concerns an involuntary eye spasm known colloquially as when your eye "jumps." The superstition has multiple parts and meanings depending on which eye is affected:
  • If your right eye jumps, you are going to hear good news. If your left eye jumps, you are going to hear bad news (Roberts 1927: 161).
  • If your right eye jumps, someone is speaking well of you. If your left eye jumps, someone is saying bad things about you.* (If you think of the name of people you know, when you name the right person—who is speaking badly about you—your eye will stop jumping) (Roberts 1927: 161)
  • If your right eye jumps, you'll see someone you haven't seen in a long time.
  • If your left eye jumps, a loved one/friend is doing something behind your back.
  • If your left eye jumps, a love one/friend may be in trouble.
*There seems to be some confusion with this particular version of the superstition since I have also seen/heard it reverse (i.e., right eye = someone speaking ill of you). It is included here in the parallel form to match the other suggestions.

There are additional variations to this theme, but all emphasize the dichotomy between the left and right eye in relation to bad versus good events. The eye has long figured in superstitious lore—for example, the idea of the "evil eye" may date to 600 BC, and since this only marks documented reference to the belief, it may in fact be older than that. As a source of vision, awareness, and knowledge, it is no surprise that beliefs relating to the eye tend to suggest a forewarning.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgSuperstitions are often met with a certain degree of scorn. Rational folks are often quick to dismiss them. But still they lurk in the background until the opportunity arrives when they can suggest a potential "What if?" Historically, when discussing superstitions scholars (e.g., Matthews 1945; Roberts 1927) have categorized them as "primitive" beliefs of "simple" people, and overlooked the insights they may offer on the way people view the world. While many superstitions have religious or supernatural undertones, many others offer interesting observations on life in a particular location. And if you dig deep enough, there are sometimes suggestive details that can explain why some superstitions persist.

For example, in a collection of West Indian beliefs and superstitions Basil Matthews (1945) discusses the Caniteel in Trinidad: a particular hour on a particular day between July 15th and August 15th during which any plants planted will fail to grow (141). No one knows for sure when the day or the hour actually occurs. What they do know is that generally what happens is that during this period worms eat the heart of the plant. Trinidadian farmers view this period as a bad time. Many avoid planting on July 15th, and then plant on alternate days hoping to avoid the Caniteel. Some avoid planting altogether during this period. The farmers have connected a real event (the activity of the worms) with a superstition (don't plant, this period is bad).

The same may be the case for eye jumping. The phenomena is largely harmless, but appears to be poorly understood by science. It is officially classified as benign essential blepharospasm (BEB), a phenomenon that can be disruptive in severe cases causing functional blindness:
The condition is progressive with the early symptoms being irritation and discomfort in the eyelids causing an increase in the blink rate, which can progress over time to frequent, forceful involuntary and uncontrollable closure of the eyelids (Kowal et. al. 1998: 123).
The condition is idiographic, but researchers believe that it may be linked in part to fatigue, stress, eyestrain, and/or caffeine (Robb-Nicholson 2010: 8). In a health column in the Harvard Women's Health Watch, Dr. Celeste Robb-Nicholson advises a writer of ways to cope with "eyelid twitching":
There are several things you can do to ease the spasms. Close the eye and apply a warm compress—or try pulling gently on the lid. Get more sleep, and reduce your caffeine and alcohol intake. If the twitching occurs while you're reading or using a computer, relax your eyes occasionally by focusing on something in the distance. If your eyes are dry or irritated, use lubricant eyedrops (8).
Even in the less severe form, eye jumping can still be disruptive (or at the very least, irritating), marked by a fluttering sensation in the eyelid, twitching of the eye, or the repeated closing and reopening of the eyelid. And it can last anywhere from minutes to hours or can occur intermittently over the course of several days. Perhaps its disruptiveness has contributed to its role in superstition. Let's consider the following:
  • Eye jumping may be caused by stress in some form.
  • Because it is disruptive, it is memorable.
  • When a negative or otherwise anticipated event occurs following an eye jumping episode, it can be easily connected to eye jumping because the phenomenon sticks in the mind of the afflicted.
Since Trinidadians appear to follow the traditional notions of right = good, left = bad, it may be that they are selecting events following experiences of stress that match the eye afflicted by BEB. So for example, if they are anticipating speaking to a relative who has missed a telephone call, the anticipation may turn to worry and as a result experience BEB as a stress response. When the relative finally calls, the afflicted person may recall that their eye jumped and connect the two. This may also explain the fluidity between assigning events to the eyes. While Trinis largely follow the right/left dichotomy, they have been known to blur the line and simply say "My eye was jumping." It may also be that events that can be tied to the afflicted eye are more readily remembered. Similar to the Caniteel, Trinidadians have connected a real event (BEB) with a superstition (the eye afflicted by BEB can predict or warn of events).

Superstitions, however you view them, can be a source of comfort. They offer a way to take control of a situation and in this case to reaffirm ties—note that the eye jumping superstition is connected to loved ones. They can become deeply ingrained. When my eye jumps, I'm inclined to tell myself quite seriously to just "quit it." Meaning, quit worrying about it. I know that my stress levels are generally elevated when my eye jumps, but invariably, when the phenomenon persists, it opens the door for "What if." The event in itself also adds to my stress levels, creating a nagging sensation of worry that I refuse to openly acknowledge but seem to acknowledge in small ways. For example, my behavior changes slightly. I might call loved ones more frequently. And if I happen to learn of an event that occurred to one of them in this period, I find myself wondering about which eye the was afflicted. Superstitions are persistent. It's one of the reasons they've survived time and travel.

Do you have a family superstition that crops up from time to time? Something your grandmother or mother said or did continuously? Something that you yourself came to believe for no explicable reason? With Halloween just around the corner, let's open the vaults and see what's lurking in the shadows of our minds.

ResearchBlogging.orgKowal L, Davies R, & Kiely PM (1998). Facial muscle spasms: an Australian study. Australian and New Zealand journal of ophthalmology, 26 (2), 123-8 PMID: 9630292

Matthews, B. (1945). West Indian Beliefs and Superstitions The American Catholic Sociological Review, 6 (3) DOI: 10.2307/3707527

Robb-Nicholson C (2010). By the way, doctor. From time to time, my eyelids twitch. What causes this, and is there anything I can do about it? Harvard women's health watch, 17 (9) PMID: 20597142

Roberts, H. (1927). Louisiana Superstitions The Journal of American Folklore, 40 (156) DOI: 10.2307/534893


  1. Great post, Krystal. It's interesting how cultures try to make sense of the world around them and how those explanations spread, become embedded, and then later influence how phenomena are interpreted.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Patrick. It's definitely a reminder that sociality exists in a state of flux, and can be molded over time.