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The question is relatively easy (the answer however..). We all know this feeling "being watched" and more often than not this is a real thing. If someone is staring at us from the side or from the back we sort-of "feel" it and we evenf eel the direction where it's coming from.

I can't seem to find a plausible answer for this though:

  • We actually see the people staring from the corner of our eyes - false, I tested this thoroughly and it also happens when your eyes are closed or someone's behind you.
  • Eyes don't send out energy (or "beams") as far as I know. They "receive" light but don't send any out, except for reflection.

So, what causes this strange phenomenon?

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closed as off-topic by Everyone, Artem Kaznatcheev, jonsca, Damien, Jack Aidley Aug 19 '13 at 11:00

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I'm wondering if carbon dioxide, body odour, infrared radiation could have an effect. I wouldn't be too surprised if the spiritual realm was at play somehow either. –  Jan Dvorak Aug 18 '13 at 6:49
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Unless you describe your testing protocol, so that it can be verified by us, you shouldn't use it as evidence. –  Brandon Invergo Aug 18 '13 at 8:43
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I think that this question would be a better fit at the Cognitive Sciences StackExchange. –  Artem Kaznatcheev Aug 18 '13 at 11:14
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This may be a better fit on the Cognitive Sciences SE [cogsci.stackexchange.com] –  Everyone Aug 18 '13 at 12:05
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You do not have evidence of this "phenomenon" happening. What you do have is the impression of it happening. So a better question is: what are the biological correlates of the "being watched" feeling. Or better yet: when you feel being watched, on average, is someone actually watching you? –  Shrein Aug 18 '13 at 19:47
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3 Answers

To quote the University of Sidney site:

People often think that other people are staring at them even when they aren't research led by the University of Sydney has found.

When in doubt, the human brain is more likely to tell its owner that they're under the gaze of another person, researchers from the University of Sydney and The Vision Centre reveal in a recent article in Current Biology.

Also, from the scientific paper:

We presented participants with synthetic faces viewed under high and low levels of uncertainty and manipulated the faces by adding noise to the eyes. Then, we asked the participants to judge relative gaze directions. We found that all participants systematically perceived the noisy gaze as being directed more toward them. This suggests that the adult nervous system internally represents a prior for gaze and highlights the importance of experience in developing our interpretation of another’s gaze.

So you, and I, overestimate how often people is staring at us.

For details, see: http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=11335 and https://www.cell.com/current-biology/retrieve/pii/S0960982213003321

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I would guess hearing plays a part, as a powerful human sense that works in 360 degrees.

Just as a hypothesis, I'd imagine that small sounds help you sense people behind you, and that this, plus chance, plus the very human capacity to see meaning in random events, gives the impression that there's a way to sense that someone not just behind you but actively looking at you.

In our every-day experience (that is, not in an artificial experimental setting), there are a lot of ways to bias our observations / data collection. For instance,

  • a half-conscious glance behind you is quickly forgotten (data discarded) if you realize it was just somebody strolling past, but remembered (data retained) if you see someone staring fixedly at you. This will spuriously increase your positive results (that is, the impression that "every time I look behind me, my sense that someone is looking is confirmed")
  • on the other hand, if someone is staring at you from behind, but you don't notice, you also do not retain that negative data, because, by definition, you didn't notice. So there is a strong effect that is spuriously decreasing your negative results.

So, as Brandon Invergo mentioned, we'd like to see a testing protocol along the lines of a blindfold and earphones playing white noise on the "senser", and the "watcher" behind the senser staring or looking away at random intervals, and a large number of trials.

This is not to diminish the fact that some people have much better situational/interpersonal awareness than others (say, a ninja vs. me), but I really imagine that this is more an effect of cognition (putting together small cues from hearing/peripheral vision/smell etc.) than of any difference in sensation.

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I think the phenomenon should be studied separately in two conditions it happens (though in one of them it only happens subjectively):

  • When it happens outside of the peripheral vision, e.g. when your eyes closed, or someone's behind you
  • When it happens within the peripheral vision (approximately 180), i.e. corners

For the first part, I agree with Sherin quoted the scientific paper "People often think that other people are staring at them even when they aren't".

But for the second part, we often experience that when we stare at people from the corners, they turn their heads and say "What ?". Perhaps recognition of this corner staring has something to do with extra foveal perception and of course the emotional part of it would be the emotional salience of being stared at. And because this extra foveal perception is less accurate than the perception in eyes' focus, it may result in false perception of "being watched" too. It's worth to mention that, because "eyes", "faces", and "staring" really have a high emotional valence for us,maybe we became very adept in recognition of them in our peripheral vision through many years of accumulative experience (I'm a fan of information processing approach to cognitive development). For more information about extra foveal perception, you may take a look at the seminal research carried out by Henderson (2003), "Human gaze control during real-world scene perception".

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