Ever Feel Like You’re Being Watched?

By Ben Thomas | October 31, 2016 10:51 am

(Credit: Shutterstock)

You’ve felt it at one time or another. You’re standing on a crowded train platform, or in the park, and suddenly, your alertness spikes: you’re being watched.

The hair on the back of your neck stands up. From some unconscious part of your brain, an alarm sounds: “Look over there!” Often, you turn and find your mind was playing tricks on you. But sometimes you turn and meet the eyes of a stranger whose gaze you’ve somehow sensed without consciously seeing it.

The idea that we can feel another’s person’s gaze has captured the attention of fringe researchers and parapsychologists for decades, but are we anywhere closer to explaining the roots this unnerving feeling? Does it exist?

Hidden Gazes

For centuries, people have reported that they could sense when the “evil eye” was on them. Everyone knew the symptoms: the hair on the back of the neck stood up and tingles ran through the limbs. Around the world, many cultures created talismans to protect against this evil gaze.

For “proof” of this supernatural evil eye, one simply had to pair that funny feeling with looking up and noting someone really was watching from across the room. In fact, the evil eye belief was neatly ported over from traditional folklore to the pseudo-science of parapsychology in the 19th century. It was believed a person could “psychically” impact people by staring at them, and that theory carried on well into the 20th century.

Awareness and Accuracy

As recently as 1995, the researcher Rupert Sheldrake – known for his lifelong crusade to prove the existence of telepathy – performed a series of studies that he claimed demonstrated people could “feel” they were being watched. He sent ripples of incredulity through the scientific community with this theory of “morphic resonance” — the idea that there are telepathic interconnections between organisms that stem from their collective memory. Whether they could see the watcher or not; he encouraged readers to perform their own similar experiments at home.

Other researchers got decidedly different results. In one rather creepy experiment, psychologist and skeptic Robert A. Baker “took up a physical position no closer than five feet and no farther away than 20 feet behind forty individuals … and for a period of time between five and fifteen minutes stared intently at the back of each individual’s head.” Thirty-five out of the 40 subjects reported no sense of being watched at all; two others reported that they felt they were being watched every day, all the time.

Baker followed up with a more formal experiment, in which volunteers sat in soundproof rooms separated by a one-way mirror. One volunteer stared at the other during certain intervals, while the volunteer on the other side of the mirror noted each time they felt they were being stared at. Not a single subject could guess better than two out of the 50 times they’d been stared at.

Clearly, the feeling of being watched depended on cues that couldn’t pass through opaque walls. So what sorts of cues might those be?

Unconscious Vision

Social psychologist Ilan Shrira has spent much of his career studying the neurological mechanisms behind the feeling of being watched. He’s gathered a large body of data to support the existence of a “gaze detection” system, which we share with many other social animals.

According to all the evidence, Shrira says, “the feeling of being watched originates in the visual system.” Even if sound can alert us to someone’s presence, there’s no evidence that auditory cues could tell us whether that person was looking at us. What’s more, the only conclusive demonstrations of an accurate sense of being watched come from experiments in which the subjects had visual cues to go on.

That doesn’t mean, though, that the person who feels watched has to be aware of such cues. They often originate in our peripheral vision, and seem to make their way “upward” from our most instinctual awareness to our conscious minds.

“We get the initial feeling that someone in our peripheral vision is staring at us by their head and body positions,” Shrira explains. At that point, our instinctual alarm bells may go off – and we only need a quick glance in the direction of the potential threat to confirm (or dis-confirm) that we’re actually being watched.

The evolutionary reasons for such a system are clear. Eye contact is important for detecting predators and subtle social signals – like catching your friend’s eye from across a crowded room. The auditory system actually has an equivalent, known as the “cocktail party effect,” in which people can easily pick out their own name (or another important word) among the clamor of voices at a party.

In short, the truly spooky thing about the feeling of being watched is that it likely takes place below the level of conscious awareness – as does much of our brain activity. In fact, other studies have shown that our brains often reach decisions up to ten seconds before we become consciously aware we’ve made them. When it comes to mysterious unseen influence, that scientific fact may be eerier than any ancient superstition.

Still, the feeling of being watched is very difficult to test in the lab so there’s no firm explanation for this phenomenon. But when you get that unsettling feeling late at night, all alone in your home, are you going to trust the hair on the back or your neck or science?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: senses
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    If anything associated with you has a digital presence, you are being continuously watched and logged. If you drive a car, its plates are repeatedly scanned and logged by every cop car (plus GPS tag) and traffic light camera. Cameras everywhere, plus face recognition and classification.

    It isn’t paranoia if it is true. You cannot stop it…but you can corrupt the database.

    • Jed of the Basket

      Which includes all non-cash transactions.

      Most are not aware that Walmart employs very sophisticated facial recognition software, principally for the purpose of reducing shop-lifting. Essentially every time one enters one of their stores, his or her face is compared to a database of known shoplifters.

    • OWilson

      To have a following of “watchers” can be considered flattering, and very worthwhile.

      It means you are pushing the right buttons. :)

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        Perhaps, but Washington has evolved. There are so many necessary crimes only awaiting convenient criminals. Every honest American – the ones who do not shoot back – are subject to Vince Foster Care at a bureaucratic whim.

        • OWilson

          I just love the irony in my old age.

          All my life, I was the conservative establishment suit and tie, suburban businessman.

          In coffee houses ‘cool’ long haired bohemian folks would get together and talk in whispers how their revolution would overturn me and my world. They wrote songs and poetry about their new and unspoiled world.

          Now, in my local restaurant. I have to keep my politics to myself for fear of being socially ostracized. Those 37 Attorney’s general would love to “bring me to justice” for not towing the government line on “climate change’.

          Mention Trump, and send them into demented rages!

          I have become the outcast rebel, plotting THEIR demise, and the old hippies are now the ‘establishment’ defending, to the death, the government establishment status quo.


  • Michael Duggan

    This article starts with assumption that the positive findings of Sheldrake and many others are invalid, pivots to a failed skeptic replication and then moves on to standard research after creating the requisite strawmen. The reality is that this effect has been replicated under stringent conditions and positive results have been forthcoming more than chance would predict.

    • Philip Vassar

      Then you will not have a problem finding peer reviewed research that supports your supposition. When you make a statement to refute the article shouldn’t you document your position or link to an authoritative source?

  • Philip Jewah

    This article was quite interesting as I view this as more of a survival instinct from the earlier periods of our evolution. We know relate it to a spooky or eerie feeling based with our imagination running wild at times. However, looking back this heightened sense would likely be an early warning to save us from becoming prey. I would say that in response to final question we should definitely not ignore the feeling. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging what your body is telling since it led to your survival thus far. Even if there is nothing there, you can think of it as a rehearsal or conditions check for your body.


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