Do you ever feel that someone is watching you? You are not alone and it may not be your imagination. It was reported that 94% of people have experienced the feeling of being watched from behind, and they have been watched. Scientists can now explain why we feel that others are watching us.
Recent research reveals how our mind plays tricks on us. We have an innate mechanism that detects and shifts our attention to eyes. Newborns prefer staring at faces with a direct gaze. It isn’t a sixth sense, per se but a psychological and physiological response.
Human eyes are actually quite distinct from other species and because of it, we catch attention from others and note the direction of their gaze. The white area, the sclera, that surrounds the pupil makes our eyes easy to notice. In other animals, the eyes are larger and/or the sclera darker to ward off predators.
Shifts in our attention from one person to another are a reflex that directs our attention in line with their gaze. The human gaze is optimized for easy detection and, thus, we can determine whether someone is looking at us. We can use other cues to tell us when someone is looking at us in our peripheral vision. We may rely on the position or movement of their head. If they are wearing sunglasses, it’s their head or body cues. The person may notice you looking behind and meet your gaze. It is actually your mind playing tricks on you.
Dr. Harriet Dempsey-Jones, a postdoctoral researcher in clinical neurosciences at the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford has written,
Sadly for those who wish we were X-men, it appears much of the body of research supporting the “psychic staring effect” appears to be suffering from methodological issues, or unexplained experimenter effects. For example, when certain experimenters act as the watcher in these experiments, they seem to be more “successful” at getting people to detect their stares than other experimenters. It is almost certainly an unconscious bias, perhaps due to initial interactions with the experimenter.
Memory biases may also come into play. If you feel like you are being watched, and turn around to check – another person in your field of view might notice you looking around and shift their gaze to you. When your eyes meet, you assume this individual has been looking all along. Situations where this happens are more memorable than when you look around to find no one looking at you.
It is interesting to note that disturbances of a normal gaze have been observed. Autistic people spend less time fixating on the eyes of others. Socially anxious people fixate on eyes more than those with low anxiety.
The wide-eyed dog gets adopted
One study has shown that dogs in a shelter who gaze at humans while furrowing their brows, making their eyes appear larger, get adopted significantly faster than dogs who don’t.
The sixth sense may be highly exaggerated. There, the eyes have it!