Picture this: You’re sitting on a nearly empty subway car at night, engrossed in your book or your Instagram feed or whatever you do to pass the time on your commute. You reach a stop, you hear the doors slide open and shut, and the train carries on its way. After a few minutes, your neck begins to stiffen and tense, and a tingling sensation begins to spread — and you can’t explain how you know, but you just know that it’s because of someone else’s gaze. You look up and, sure enough, someone across the car is looking right at you. Your eyes meet briefly, then you look away, slightly spooked. You feel too uncomfortable to check again to see if the stranger is still staring, but your body tells you she is; your neck continues to tingle, as if her eyes are brushing it up and down.
Most of us have experienced the feeling of being watched at some point, whether the gaze is unwanted (a creepy train stranger) or desired (an attractive new acquaintance at your friend’s house party). The sensations accompanying this phenomenon can sometimes feel almost paranormal —it’s as if you can physically feel the eyes of others boring into you, even without looking, or like you have a second pair of eyes on the back of your head.
Obviously, though, you don’t. Which kind of makes a person wonder: What makes us feel like we’re being watched, even when we can’t see the watcher? And why, when we have that strange feeling, are we so often right?
Because your eyes pick up on more than you know.
When it comes to being stared at, like many other things we feel or know instinctually, our systems are detecting things far beyond our conscious gaze. Consider a 2013 case study of a patient identified as TN: He was cortically blind, meaning that his visual cortex was damaged such that he couldn’t “see” in the traditional sense, but his brain still received input from his eyes. In this study, TN was shown pictures of faces, some that appeared to be looking straight at him, others looking off to the side. Though TN could not explain or articulate what he was seeing, activity in his amygdala— the part of the brain that responds to threat and arousal — spiked when he was shown pictures with faces that seemed to be staring at him.
What TN’s study shows us may explain some of the “sixth sense” feeling we have about being watched: Our brains are doing a lot of work under the surface of our conscious gaze. So if you’re walking down the street and you get that feeling, chances are, you may have picked up on other cues outside your direct field of vision.
Because you can think your way into feeling.
That tingling sensation? It might feel like something real, but it’s likely only the product of your own fixation. One of the first people to study the feeling of being watched was Dr. Edward Titchener, a psychologist working at the turn of the 20th century. He wrote an entire article about the tingling sensation, called “The Feeling of Being Stared At.” In it, he dismissed the idea that gaze itself could have that sort of an impact on the skin: “If one thinks hard of one’s knee, or foot, e.g.,” he wrote, “one will obtain a surprisingly intensive and insistent mass of cutaneous and organic sensations of which one was previously unconscious.”
Titchener’s article may be quite old, but it’s stood the test of time; since its publication in 1898, multiple studies have tested individuals’ claims about a paranormal “gaze feeling,” and time and time again the accuracy of said “gaze feeling” has been debunked. We may feel tingly, but the source of the tingling stems from the belief we’re being watched, not the watching itself; it’s something you’ve willed into being through your own imagination.
Because gaze is extremely important.
We should also talk about what makes us freak out about this feeling in the first place — the fact that we often fixate on where people are looking at all.
Our brains spend a disproportionate amount of energy wondering whether people are staring at us – so much so that there’s a theory that we have an entire neurological network devoted to this activity. In fact, as Oxford neuroscience researcher Harriet Dempsey-Jones explained last year for the Conversation, the human eye is engineered to be revealing.
“It’s not just our brains that are specialized to draw us to the gaze of others,” Dempsey Jones wrote. “Our eyes are also exceptionally formed to catch attention and easily reveal the direction of gaze.” Human eyes are distinctive from the eyes of almost any other species in that we have a large white area around our pupils and irises, known as the sclera. As Dempsey-Jones noted, the sclera may make it easier for one human to detect the direction of the gaze of another. Why is this important? In a word: communication.
“Basically, eyes provide us with insights into when something meaningful is happening,” she explained. This includes external-world happenings — the mammoth is charging from that direction! — as well as more personal ones: Out of all the Paleolithic dudes in the sea, you’re the Paleolithic dude for me. In a species whose primary strength is communication, gaze has evolved into an extremely powerful tool for indicating interest, resources, danger, lust, and even more complex emotions like love.
Because you often wrongly assume that you’re being looked at …
That’s not to say we always get it right. A 2013 study published in the journal Current Biology found that when we’re uncertain about which way a person’s gaze is directed — like when their eyes are hidden behind sunglasses — we often falsely assume that we’re the target.
Which, in turn, means that the feeling of being watched may become a self-fulfilling prophecy: When you think someone is staring at you from behind, you might turn around suddenly to face them, causing that person look in your direction. It’s also possible that you subconsciously noticed that person staring at you before you turned your back, and your memory alerted you to the fact several minutes later.
… but that can actually be a good thing.
Let’s face it, we humans are self-centered beasts — beasts that once upon a time had to survive a far greater risk of violent threats than we do now. We’re sensitive to gaze, researchers believe, because that sensitivity can be a tool for survival. “Direct gaze can signal dominance or a threat, and if you perceive something as a threat, you would not want to miss it,” Colin Clifford, a cognitive scientist at the University of New South Wales and one of the co-authors of the Current Biology study, explained in a statement.
“So assuming that the other person is looking at you may simply be a safer strategy.”
Eye contact can also signal other kinds of connection, he added: “Direct gaze is often a social cue that the other person wants to communicate with us, so it’s a signal for an upcoming interaction.”
Staring, in other words, can signal intimacy as well as danger — both things we need to pay attention to for our own well-being. Besides, to varying degrees, we’re all victims to the superiority illusion, thinking of ourselves that we’re healthier, more moral, more observant, and all around better than everyone else — so why not add “more likely to command a stranger’s attention” to the list? It doesn’t matter if that’s actually the case; all that matters is that you believe it.