Monday, August 3, 2009

Apple #401: Somebody's Watching You

The other day I was watching a TV show, and in it a woman was sitting in her apartment eating Chinese food in front of her window with the shades open (the hussy). A man in the next apartment building stood at his window, apparently watching her. Because she was sitting sideways to the window, she did not know this while we, the viewers, did. But then she raised her head suddenly and turned, looked out the window and saw the guy looking at her. And I said to no one in particular, "Yeah, what is that, when you feel like you're being watched?"

I know I've had that feeling more than once, though I can't remember any specific instances. It's almost a physical sensation, a sort of prickling at the base of the neck. How odd, I thought, that we can somehow sense that we are being stared at, even when our backs may be to the person staring at us. So I wanted to know if scientists had any kind of explanation for this.

I'm sure you'll have this song in your head the whole time you're reading this, so I might as well post the video so you can have a listen, if you want. (Yes, that's Michael Jackson on the chorus. This is kind of eerie now.)

Well. Apparently I am either schizophrenic, or I am a crackpot who believes my house is haunted or that I have seen UFOs. Because according to what I found, researchers have been only able to identify -- definitively and with the kind of results that researchers require -- this sensation of being watched in schizophrenics. And also in one woman with epilepsy. In her case, they physically stimulated with an electrical impulse the tempoparietal region of her brain, and she said she definitely sensed someone else in the room with her. She said this person was standing just behind her and mimicking her movements exactly. But of course no one was there. They said she was interpreting her own movements as those of some shadow person. In general, researchers talk about this sensation of someone watching you as "illusory," signs of delusion or paranoia, and otherwise an indication that you're in some way mentally ill.

On the other side of the spectrum, the greatest number of anecdotes people tell about feeling they're being watched seem to come from folks who claim to have experienced the paranormal. They get the feeling that eyes are upon them, they turn around, and they see something in the woods that they insist is Bigfoot. Or a few seconds later, they see some shiny metallic object hover and then streak across the sky. Or in the next second, a mysterious mist appears in the upstairs bathroom and they are convinced it is the ghost of Uncle John who died very tragically in that location.

If we feel we're being watched and we can't see by whom, then it must be aliens!
(Photo from forteanpix)

Now, I know that I am not schizophrenic, nor am I an epileptic with someone electrically stimulating my brain, and I have not seen Bigfoot, UFOs, or the ghost of Uncle John in my bathroom. But I have experienced this sensation. And I am willing to bet a whole lot of money that you, dear non-schizophrenic-non-epileptic-with-stimulated-tempoparietal-lobe-non-Bigfoot-seeing reader, have too.

Even Bugs Bunny has felt it. Twice in the same episode. Make that three times.

So I continued my search. Along the way, I found all sorts of evidence that we -- people and animals, actually -- are definitely influenced in various ways if someone is watching us.

  • When a human being is looking at a jackdaw's food dish, the jackdaw will take much longer and be much more cautious about retrieving food from the dish than when a human is not looking at their food.
  • Starlings will avoid their food dish completely if a human being is looking at their food.
  • Researchers set out a donation collection box in a cafeteria. Sometimes they put a picture of a pair of eyes above the box, and sometimes they put a picture of some flowers above. People donated significantly more money when the picture of the eyes was above the box.
  • A certain fish called a wrasse grooms its fellow fish very gently when other fellow fish are watching. But when no other fish are watching, the wrasse doing the cleaning gets much more aggressive and even bites off the skin of the fish it's cleaning.
  • Lots of animals including squirrels and various species of birds will hide their food, even dig holes and bury it, if they think a predator such as an owl or a human being is watching. One of the keys here is that the squirrels will still try to dodge and hide food from the owl, even if there is no owl present but they think an owl is there.
  • One long-accepted theory in psychology is called "evaluation apprehension." This means that if you are good at a task and you know that someone is watching you with the purpose of evaluating your performance, you will do even better at the task. On the flip side, if you're not very confident about your ability and you know someone is observing you, you'll perform the task more poorly.
  • If you're being watched but not necessarily evaluated, that is, if you have any kind of audience, your level of performance will be affected. This is called social facilitation or the audience effect. It's difficult to predict exactly how your performance will be affected. You may get stage fright, for example, and freeze up. Or you may start stammering, or like Ron Weasely, you might miss all the goals that come your way except for one spectacular goof that happens to save the goal in spite of yourself. Conversely, you might love the audience and become more expansive and even better at whatever it is you're doing. Regardless, having an audience, knowing we are being watched, affects our behavior.
It seemed strange to me that, if researchers can quantify and are willing to accept all of that, why aren't they willing to accept that we can sense without directly seeing the observer when someone is watching us? So I kept searching.

Art at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis. If this were my wallpaper, I wouldn't be able to stand being in the same room with it for more than a few minutes.
(Photo by gimmesanity)

Then I found an article, published in a scientific journal, that said all sorts of things that I nodded along with. This sensation has been described in fiction for decades, from Tolstoy to Aldous Huxley, to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Women describe the feeling they are being stared at particularly in public places, including bars. Wildlife photographers and hunters report having felt the sensation and shortly thereafter discovered that some wild animal was, in fact, staring at them. Detectives are trained not to stare at their subjects for too long lest their subject turn and discover they are being watched. In other words, people in all sorts of circumstances describe this sensation.

This article said that scientists have primarily left investigation of sensation to the realm of the paranormal. But, he said, some research has been done into this sensation, and then he recounted the research history. (More on that in a moment.)

So that was article 1. In article 2, he offered explanations for what could possibly cause this sensation. He began talking about things like alternate theories of the process of vision, and then he said that there are morphic perceptual fields that our brains emit, in the same way that magnets emit a magnetic field, and he said that when we sense someone looking at us, perhaps it is that the perceptual fields are colliding or something like that. By the time I got to this part, I had long since parted company with him.

This guy's name is Rupert Sheldrake, and it turns out he "researches" and argues in favor of all sorts paranormal abilities including telepathy. He has conducted his own experiments into this business of sensing someone watching you, and he got results that were slightly better than chance. That is, when a subject said they felt someone watching them, only slightly more than 50% of the time, they were right.

Just over 50% is not considered statistically significant enough to prove that something works because it's about the same as chance. In fact, most other studies on this topic that researchers have conducted got roughly the same results. A little bit more than half the time, something like 52% of the time or so, the people who said they felt someone watching them were correct. And maybe 48% of the time, they were wrong. Even though they said they felt eyes upon them, no one was looking at them at all.

Sheldrake has published a book about all of this, The Sense of Being Stared At: And Other Unexplained Powers of the Human Mind, which also covers other topics such as cats who run to the phone when their owners are calling, or someone who thinks hard about receiving an e-mail from someone and then a message actually arrives from that person.

But Sheldrake found ways to reinterpret his data so that it would suggest that the results were better than chance. Or when he got results better than chance, when other researchers tried to run the same study, they did not get results similar to his. Or there were flaws in the way he set up the study to begin with. So most serious researchers have dismissed Rupert Sheldrake's theories about all of this.

The pigeons don't seem to be at all aware that they're being watched.
(Photo from Morning Berryz)

So where does this leave us? According to the "serious" scientists, those of us who say we've experienced this sensation remain in the realm of crackpots and schizophrenics (apologies to people with schizophrenia). But I maintain that these scientists are being far too dismissive. Just because we're not always right about whether we're being watched doesn't mean we don't get that sensation. Just because our radar is faulty doesn't mean we don't have it. I'm going to stick with my assertion that most of us have experienced the feeling of being watched at one time or another, and that it is a genuine sensation that does come from some source.

But, we want to know, what causes that feeling? Here are some theories that I've seen loosely tossed into the mix without ever really having been pursued. But they are possibilities.
  • This sense is something leftover from when we were predators & prey. This theory doesn't really explain how it works that we feel we're being watched, or why we get that feeling in a specific instance. But it's a thought. And it does allow for the fact that people and animals both behave differently when they're being watched.
  • We actually do see the observer in our peripheral vision. In my original example of the woman eating Chinese food in her apartment, she was sitting sideways in front of the window, so she could have seen the guy courtesy of her peripheral vision. But sometimes we get this feeling when someone is directly behind us, well out of the range of our peripheral vision.
  • We are responding to other sensory cues. Perhaps we hear someone approaching, the faint rustle of fabric, the footfall of a shoe on the floor. Or perhaps we smell the other person's scent. But how does this explain how a woman who is in a bar that is extremely noisy and crowded with all sorts of people and smells gets the feeling that some guy is looking at her, and she turns, and some guy is, in fact looking at her?

These kangaroos turned around and looked at the people who were looking at them. But they probably heard the clicking of the shutter when the people took a few other pictures prior to this one.
(Photo by Feeling Alive on the Kachoong travel blog)

I'm not satisfied that these are complete explanations. But since I read about all of this, I have paid attention to what happens when I look up from my task to discover a person nearby. In every case (and this has only been about 10 instances since I really started paying attention), I was responding to some sort of noise. The person was walking toward me and the floor creaked, or they had dropped a pencil, or they were sliding a cup across a table. Sometimes the person was looking at me, sometimes not. But always I was responding to some sort of sound, whether I was immediately conscious of that or not.

That's the best I can offer you on this topic. If you've experienced the feeling of being watched and you'd care to share your experience, please let us all know with a comment to this entry.

Oh, and that woman eating Chinese food in front of her window when she saw the guy looking at her? Turns out, she was wrong. He was looking at someone else, a floor above.

People more honest when they think they're being watched, scientists find, Wales Online, June 28, 2006
Eyes reveal our paleo-brain in action [summary],
Science, July 7, 2006, p. 25
People, Animals Behave Better When Watched, Iran Daily, July 29, 2007, p. 4
Jackdaws know when they are being watched, The Naked Scientist, April 10, 2009
Scientific Explanations for Paranormal Phenomena, Socyberty, March 29, 2009
Is it really me? A question of bodily integration and integrity, Ockahm's Razor, January 20, 2008
Rebecca Morelle, Meet the brains of the animal world, BBC News, May 7, 2009
Flying, Predators
Roger Highfield, Starlings know if you are watching them, April 30, 2008
Adrian Furnham, The psychology of behavior at work (Google Books)
Simple Experimental Designs: Being Watched, chapter 6 of Understanding Research Methods and Statistics in Psychology, November 21, 2007
Rupert Sheldrake, The Sense of Being Stared At, Part I: Is it Real or Illusory? Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol 12 no 6, 2005, pp 10-31
Rupert Sheldrake, The Sense of Being Stared At, Part 2: Its Implications for Theories of VisionJournal of Consciousness Studies, vol 12 no 6, 2005, pp 32-49
Wikipedia, Rupert Sheldrake and Psychic staring effect
The Feeling of Being Stared At, The New York Times, October 19, 1913


  1. Interesting. Usually peripheral vision or soft sounds will do the trick. Otherwise chalk it up to intuition. Keeping track of it statistically is unlikely to reveal anything significant, that is, it can happen 50% of the the time and not happen 50%. But when it does happen the incident stands out in the mind.

  2. Thanks for that concise summary of all the major points of my entry!

  3. Now I have to go close all of the blinds in my apartment! And thanks for getting that song stuck in my head! :) Interesting stuff, though!

  4. I believe there is a part of our brain with an awareness at the non-conscious level that gives us this sense of being watched. We normally drown it out with lots of other stimuli.

  5. Roosters know when you're watching. Oh, they know...


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