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stemnyjones's avatar

Is there a scientific explanation for how we can feel someone staring at us?

Asked by stemnyjones (3959 points ) December 18th, 2011

I can easily see how this would be some kind of built-in survival instinct, but has there been any successful research to explain how it works? For example, what part of the brain is responsible for alerting us that someone is staring at us, and how it gets the input to know this?

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14 Answers

whitetigress's avatar

Well, I’d argue the whole brain is designed to keep us a live. We’re built to determine within a quick second whether we are attracted to someone, or fear them. Should we fear them we’ll most likely keep our senses open to that direction. Furthermore, our peripheral vision plays a huge role in keeping something insight without facing whatever it is. The hypothalamus also gets stirred up in this situation. If you’re afraid your alertness will definitely get your heart pounding, or if you’re sexually attracted you’ll become conscious of the staring and might like it, and therefore stay in the vicinity. The hypothalamus controls our initial emotional disbursements.

Rarebear's avatar

Confirmation bias.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

I played around with some personal experiences with this a long time ago. I put a 600mm lens with 2x extender on an APS-C sized digital sensor and photographed people from very far away. I didn’t set out to prove or disprove anything. I was merely attempting to produce a different form of voyeuristic street journalism. The lens was effectively an 1800mm which could read the license plate of a car from 300 yards away.

What caught my surprise was just how many people seemed to look straight at me through the camera lens at the very moment that I snapped the photograph of them. There was no way they could tell what I was doing from the distance. And they didn’t keep their eyes on me for very long. It was if they’d heard something from my direction, looked up to see what it was, and then went about their business as normal.

The more I thought, “Don’t look at me”… the more it happened. It began happening so much that I dropped the project because of too many people looking straight into the camera in what was supposed to be voyeuristic artwork.

Earthgirl's avatar

RealEyesRealizeRealLies That is uncanny. Wow. Really interesting. I notice the same thing on the highway. Sometimes I briefly glance at a passing car (at the passenger side) and the person who was one second before totally focused on the road straight ahead just looks like they know someone is looking at them. I could understand it if I stared for a long time. But it happens very fast. The peripheral vision is so sharp I guess. But in your case it wasn’t peripheral vision at work, almost a psychic awareness of being observed. We have many unconscious abilities we aren’t even aware of I think.

gasman's avatar

The staring effect was reviewed & investigated scientifically some years ago, reported in either Skeptical Inquirer or Skeptic magazine, but unfortunately I have no link or citation. The results – as you might expect – were that under controlled conditions people cannot tell when they are being stared at. It’s a simple case of observer bias (see @Rarebear‘s answer) and self-delusion. Mystery solved.

gasman's avatar

Addendum: I found it here.

Rarebear's avatar

@stemnyjones There are plenty of time where people are looking at you and you don’t notice it. And since you don’t notice it, it doesn’t register for you. It’s those times where you notice someone looking at you where you then think, “I thought someone was looking at me.” You only notice the times that you notice, and therefore it is confirmation bias.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

I also agree with @Rarebear. Like I said, “The more I thought, Don’t look at me… the more it happened.”

I probably was feeding my own confirmation bias… probably.

O_o's avatar

I think it’s just a matter of mere probability. You see, our eyes normally wander around. Your brain analyzes everything you see even if you were not conscious of it. So when it detects someone looking at you, it pauses. [instinct response?]

So normally, chances are a lot of people are also looking at you at certain points in time, but you never realize that. You only realize the ones that happen to look at you when you look at them, which tricks you into feeling that your brain has some sort of a detector for these things.

That’s just my personal opinion. Being a med student who studied a lot about the brain, I can assure you that I don’t know of any mechanism that does what you’re talking about ;)

LostInParadise's avatar

I think that we are very sensitive to seeing faces, particularly eyes. There would be good evolutionary sense for this. It may be that when we see someone in the periphery of our vision that we get a sense of being stared at.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

That’s interesting @LostInParadise. One of the common new features on current cameras, even semi-pro cameras, is face detection and even smile detection. Sony has a NEX system that shoots the photo any time it recognizes a smile.

Not out of line to suggest our own brains hardwired with certain evolutionary advantages too. Good thoughts @LostInParadise.

bornleader's avatar

is it energy we pick up?

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