Scopaesthesia: Is somebody staring at me?

23rd July 2021. Reading Time: 10 minutes Paranormal Theories, General, Stuff paranormal investigators need to know. 445 page views. 0 comments.

Do you ever 'feel' like you are being watched? Scopaesthesia is a phenomenon when people can 'feel' if a person is staring at them. Is it an act of ESP or is our brain really good at picking up on cues?

I think we have all had moments where we literally think the World is revolving around us when we walk into a room and it seems like everyone goes silent and we feel like everyone is staring at us.  This is likely more a case of being self-conscious, however, every day, we find ourselves in situations where we suddenly get a feeling like someone is staring at us.  We turn around or look up and sure enough, there is someone just staring.  Often they will look away to pretend they weren't staring but we know better because we knew before we saw them!  How do we know?  Are we somehow getting a glimpse out of our line our sight or is something else at play?  Does a form of ESP (extra sensory perception) allow us to know when someone is staring at us?  Let's explore further.

Psychic staring effect aka scopaesthesia 

Scopaesthesia is a term derived from the Greek words for thinking and knowing.  Often referred to as the psychic staring effect, famous psychologist Edward B. Titchener was the first to look into the notion that the sensation was something more than a coincidence.  In 1898, students in his junior classes were able to report when they felt like they were being stared at, even though they couldn't see the person at the time.  

EVERY year I find a certain proportion of students, in my junior classes, who are  firmly persuaded that they can ' feel ' that they are being stared at from behind, and a smaller proportion who believe that, by persistent gazing at the back of i the neck, they have the power of making a person seated in front of them turn round and look them in the face. The phenomena are said to occur in any sort of assembly-at church, in the class room, in a public hall.  The 'feeling,' when it is not merely described as ' uncanny,'' a feeling of Must,' etc., is referred to as a state of unpleasant tension or stiffness at the nape of the neck, sometimes accompanied by tingling, which gathers in volume and intensity until a movement which shall relieve it becomes inevitable. It is believed that this stiffness is, in some way or other, the direct effect of the focussing of vision upon the back of the head and neck.

The `Feeling of Being Stared At.' Author(s): E. B. Titchener Source: Science , Dec. 23, 1898, New Series, Vol. 8, No. 208 (Dec. 23, 1898), pp. 895-897

His tests however provided negative results and he himself rejected the idea of it being telepathic and that it was merely a psychological response to one's surroundings.  The idea, however, was not forgotten about.  While many have worked with this idea with varying results over the last century, it is Rupert Sheldrake that is probably most known for his work in this particular area. I have written about some of Sheldrake's work in previous articles including:

Sheldrake's Hidden Puzzle

The observer- expectancy effect

Are animals psychic?

Sheldrake has done extensive testing and research in this area with a number of papers, studies and a book on the topic with his thoughts and findings on this subject.  Controversially, Sheldrake states that a person's ability to 'feel' if someone is staring at them is put down to something science cannot explain.

The "sense of being stared at" can be investigated by means of simple experiments in which subjects and lookers work in pairs, with the looker sitting behind the subject. In a random sequence of trials, the looker either looks at the back of the subject, or looks away and thought of something else. More than 15,000 trials have already been conducted, involving more than 700 subjects, with an extremely significant excess of correct over incorrect guesses (Sheldrake [1999]). This effect was still apparent in experiments in which subjects were blindfolded and given no feedback, showing it did not depend on visual clues, nor on the subjects knowing if their guesses were right or wrong (Sheldrake [2000]). In this paper I describe experiments I conducted in schools in England in which the subjects were not only blindfolded and given no feedback, but looked at through closed windows. There was again a very significant excess of correct over incorrect guesses (p<0.004). At my request, teachers in Canada, Germany and the United States carried out similar experiments and found an even more significant positive effect than in my own experiments (p< 0.0002). The fact that positive results were still obtained when visual clues had been effectively eliminated by blindfolds, and auditory and olfactory clues by closed windows, implies that the sense of being stared at does not depend on the known senses. I conclude that peoples' ability to know when they are being looked at depends on an influence at present unknown to science.

The Sense of Being Stared At Does Not Depend On Known Sensory Clues
Biology Forum 93 209-224
by Rupert Sheldrake

Of course, a person cannot make such claims without criticism and like many claims that are considered to be on the 'fringe' side of things, testing protocol and methods are often called into question.  While not flawless, there is enough information out there to at least consider the idea.  So how could a person potentially 'feel' that someone is staring at them if it isn't psychological?  Sheldrake puts it down to what he refers to as the 'extended mind'.

My idea of the existence of the mind beyond the physical brain is what I call the extended mind. I would like to suggest that the mind is much more extensive than the brain and stretches out through fields that I call morphic fields. Morphic fields, like the known fields of physics such as gravitational fields, are non-material regions of
influence extending in space and continuing in time. They are localized within and around the systems they organize. When any particular organized system ceases to exist, as when an atom splits, a snowflake melts, or an animal dies, its organizing field disappears from that place. But in another sense, morphic fields do not disappear: they
are potential organizing patterns of influence, and can appear again physically in other times and places, wherever and whenever the physical conditions are appropriate. When they do so, they contain within themselves a memory of their previous physical existences. 

The Extended Mind by Rupert Sheldrake Published in the July-August 2003 issue of The Quest

The concept of morphic fields is both controversial and intriguing.  Sheldrake uses to explain many phenomena beyond just 'feeling' someone is staring at you.  It is not something that can be summed up in just a few sentences so it is something that we will revisit in its own blog post.  If you would like to read on it further, you might like to read his paper The Extended Mind.

Psychological explanations

Of course like with anything, Scientists and psychologists argue there is a much simpler explanation and it all comes down to how good our brain is at processing information we aren't even aware of.  Our eyes can supposedly take in information beyond that which is processed by our visual cortex.   In fact in 2013, a study showed that a male individual who could see but had a damaged visual cortex was unable to sense things that were right in front of him.  He could see them in his vision, but he couldn't truly 'see' aka connect their presence with a feeling.  We also notice things on an unconscious level which has maybe given us a sort of visual cue that someone is looking at us.  This is considered to be just one example of the role our visual cortex plays. 

It could also be something as simple as a reflection or something just out of your field of vision that you are unconsciously aware of.  It could be noticing the behaviour of the person next to changing or it could just be down to how we feel when we see a dodgy looking person wearing sunglasses.  A lot of the laboratory tests also seem to suggest it can just fall down to a game of chance.  It is quite possible that when you feel like someone is watching and you look up, you accidentally catch the gaze of another person and assume they have been watching you all the time when it was just a chance gaze. 

What about the feeling of tingles?  Titchner attributed the tingling feeling his subjects felt on the back of their neck to be due to their brain paying extra attention to that area. 

This feeling is made up, upon its sensation side, simply of strain and pressure sensations which, in part, are normally
present in the region (sensations from skin, muscle, tendon and joint), but are now brought into unusual prominence by the direction of attention upon them, and, in part, are aroused by the attitude of attention itself. 'Nervousness I about one's back means, psychologically, constant attention to the sensations coming from, and the mental images of, that portion of the body; and attention, in its turn, means in most cases movement of the part of the body attended to. If one thinks hard of one's knee, or foot, e. g., one will obtain a sure prisingly intensive and insistent mass of cutaneous and organic sensations of which one was previously unconscious, or at best but very dimly conscious; while, at the same time, there is an actual twitching or bracing of the knee or foot, which sets up new sensations. Any part of the body will thus yield up its quantum of unpleasant sensation, if only for some reason the attention can be continuously held upon it, to the exclusion of other topics

The `Feeling of Being Stared At.' Author(s): E. B. Titchener Source: Science , Dec. 23, 1898, New Series, Vol. 8, No. 208 (Dec. 23, 1898), pp. 895-897

Do you just have to believe?

What I found interesting in my reading when researching this subject was a study by Rebecca O’Connell.  Part of her study was to look at how much paranormal belief played into the results as well as the mood and confidence levels of the participants.  I take interest in this as it seems in other studies that look at telepathy, the hit rates were higher in individuals that were more confident and believed in their own abilities.  

The paranormal belief and multiple starers did not have a significant correlation with the hit rates produced although the higher the mood and the higher the confidence levels of the participants the higher their hit rates. This opens up further areas of future research into the moods and confidence levels of the participants and also allows for future researchers to look into higher numbers of starers within the group stare condition.

https://blogs.canterbury.ac.uk/psychology/are-people-conscious-of-scopaesthesia/

This is a finding that I am discovering more and more among the papers I am reading, particularly when testing forms of telepathy.  If a person believes they have an ability or are good at the trial in question, they score higher. The human mind is incredibly strong and complex.  The concept of belief itself is a powerful one.  It influences how we process information.  It influences our perception.  It even influences whether or not we think something is paranormal.  Does belief also influence ESP?  Do you just have to believe in it for it to be so?  It is quite an interesting concept.

So what do you think?  Do think ESP allows us to just 'know' when we are being stared at or is it just psychological?


References

Cover Photo: Photo by Max Ravier from Pexels

https://blogs.canterbury.ac.uk/psychology/are-people-conscious-of-scopaesthesia/

https://www.sciencealert.com/the-science-behind-why-you-think-you-re-being-watched

https://www.sheldrake.org/research/sense-of-being-stared-at/the-sense-of-being-stared-at-an-automated-test-on-the-internet

https://www.sheldrake.org/research/sense-of-being-stared-at

http://skepdic.com/staringeffect.html

https://www.jneurosci.org/content/33/25/10483

The `Feeling of Being Stared At.' Author(s): E. B. Titchener Source: Science , Dec. 23, 1898, New Series, Vol. 8, No. 208 (Dec. 23, 1898), pp. 895-897

THE EXTENDED MIND By Rupert Sheldrake : https://www.theosophical.org/files/resources/articles/ExtendedMind.pdf

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