Don’t Look Now, But…

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I recently spent the night at a friend’s house, and woke the next morning to the distinct feeling that I was being watched. Rolling over groggily, I realized my suspicions were true: sitting motionless next to me, regarding me with the utmost seriousness, was my friend’s cat, Precious.

Precious is a nonthreatening animal with whom I never have beef or awkwardness, and as such was little disturbed by this turn of events. A turn that, depending on the situation, can be much more frightening, uncomfortable, or even nice.

The strange thing is, despite modern society’s large-scale rejection of the paranormal, we’ve fully accepted the fact that it is possible to feel that neck prickle, the sweep of someone’s eyes, the crawly feeling on the back that lets you know someone is looking at you.

In fact, my father the park ranger told me that in SWAT trainings, he’s known instructors who specifically teach officers to avoid looking directly at the target.

So for law enforcement personnel, at least, that neck prickle can really work against you. But assuming you accept the truth of this phenomenon – and most people do, anecdotally speaking – where can it be coming from?

Well, there are several theories. Psychology Today explains that our brains have built-in “gaze detectors” that let us know when someone is looking at us even if we are not specifically focusing on that person. These systems are very astute, and can tell with a minimum of effort (and often unconsciously) whether the person is, say, looking at us or right over our shoulder at something else.

Since even with binocular vision, humans experience an astoundingly wide range of sight (staring in front of you, hold your index fingers in front of your nose and bring them slowly to the side; notice how you can still see them by your ears?), it sometimes even seems like we can tell when they’re looking at us from behind.

Of course, there are times when people are actually looking at us from behind, and often we can still feel it. Fancy biological systems and peripheral vision can’t account for that, but Rupert Sheldrake says “morphic resonance” might be able to. This is, in essence, the idea of “mysterious telepathy-type interconnections between organisms.”

When his research into stare-detection was duplicated, however, experimenters found subjects no more or less responsive to being stared at than might be expected by chance. So much for the SWAT trainings, apparently.

Yet if it were that easy, the entire popular conception that we can feel when we’re being watched would be debunked, and so far as I know, it still hasn’t been. So who really knows? Perhaps I really did feel Precious’s eyes on me … or perhaps, somewhere deep in the bowels of sleep, I just heard her purring.

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