Ask A Scientist
What gives you the feeling that someone is staring at you?
Asked by: Joy Puthawala
School: St. James Middle School
Teacher: Mrs. Hantsch
Hobbies/Interests: Walking, hiking and reading
Career Interest: Cardiac surgeon, neurosurgeon
Answer from Cindy Pudiak
Research Scientist, Binghamton University
Research area: Neuroscience with a specialization in brain reward mechanisms, drug addiction, neuropsychiatry and in vivo preclinical models.
Family: Grew up in Binghamton, NY and much of my family resides here.
Interests/hobbies: Walking, hiking and reading
Staring is a prolonged gaze that occurs when a person continually looks directly at another object or person. Surveys conducted in Europe and North America have revealed that between 70 and 97% of people questioned had at some time experienced the feeling that someone was staring at them from behind and turned around only to find that someone was looking directly at them. These people also reported that they could sometimes make another person turn around just by staring directly at the person’s back. The sense or feeling that someone gets when they think they are being stared at is called the psychic staring effect –sometimes called scopaesthesia.
Rupert Sheldrake, a biochemist who studies the psychic staring effect, has found that people who observe others for a living – such as police officers, surveillance personnel and soldiers – are convinced that the psychic staring effect is a real phenomenon. He revealed that when detectives are trained in surveillance methods, they are told not to stare at a person’s back any longer than necessary. Otherwise, the person may turn around and make direct eye contact with the detective and blow his/her cover. Sheldrake argues that the sense of being stared at makes evolutionary and biological sense in the context of predator-prey relations. That is, prey that could detect when a predator was staring at them would probably stand a better chance of surviving in the wild than prey that could not.
Some argue that the psychic staring effect is the result of experimental artifact and they offer more rational explanations. These skeptics equate the psychic staring effect to superstitious behavior that can be better explained by the fact that people tend to turn around anyway and that they simply remember it better when someone is looking back at them. Also, by simply turning around, a person may attract another person’s attention – thereby, causing their glances to meet. In addition, experimental artifacts – such as peripheral vision and subtle sensory cues (e.g., the tone of an experimenter’s voice on “looking” versus “not-looking” trials) may provide unintended feedback to the participants during testing and directly influence their guessing on “looking” and “not-looking” trials. Such implicit learning may indeed be present as participants do better and more accurately predict if someone is looking at them on “looking” than on “not-looking” trials. The participants’ responding on “not-looking” trials was similar to random guessing and the occurrence of correct responses was no better than chance.
You can judge the validity of the psychic staring effect for yourself by taking the online staring test found at http://www.sheldrake.org/Onlineexp/portal - an offline test is also available on the website. Two participants are required and the number of correct and incorrect guesses made on “looking” and “not-looking” trials are recorded. To perform a more in-depth analysis, one may determine if looker-subject pairs that know each well (e.g., best friends) do better and have more correct responses on “looking” and “not-looking” trials than pairs that do not know each other well.
Alternatively, it can be determined if several lookers staring at a person from behind are more effective than a single looker.