Are You Being Watched?

The Science of Us recently did a great article on the Psychology of Being watched that caught my eye. I'm not sure if it's because I live alone in a big city (even though I have friends in and on the same floor of my apartment building) but..I often get that creeping feeing. The hair on the back of my neck stands up, my voice gets caught in my throat, and I am unable to breathe. But, then it is all over. I am un-paralyzed, look around, and feel self-assured that I'm all alone or that no, no one in the metro car was staring at me or following me home as I walked. But why do I so physically and mentally react to the idea of being watched at seemingly random times?

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 Well, first of all - it's because people often wrongly assumed we're being looked at. As unselfish as we may be in our actions, we are all at the center of our universe. We can't help it. When someone's eyes are covered, like by sunglasses or the brim of hat, it is easy to assume that we are the targets. Or, someone staring off into space in our direction...well, that definitely means s/he is up to something. As the article says, "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." Thus, confirming our own belief that yes, we were being watched...sort of.

However, it isn't just that we're self-centered that we think we're being watched all the time. In fact, sometimes we feel that way because our eyes pick up more than we know. In fact, our brains work overtime compared to what we are consciously gazing at. So, if you're in your house and you think you're being watched, or you're walking down the street, or you're picking up coffee and get that tingly feeling? Well, there's a chance you visually picked up on other cues that are outside of your direct field of vision that you don't as consciously notice.

Don't believe me? Well, luckily science can back me up! In both the "The Science of Us" and "Science Alert" articles, several studies are mentioned discussing what our eyes can pick up that we don't consciously realize.  In fact, research has shown that the our eyes take in, analyze, and react to information "beyond what's processed by our visual cortex - that part of the brain responsible for conscious vision and mapping out our view of the world."

For example, there was a study published in 2013 which looked at a male individual, referred to as "TN". TN was cortically blind. What's this mean? Well, his eyes were in technical working order, but his visual cortex had been damaged, so it can't provide 'sight', at least not in the traditional sense. Although someone who has this condition cannot see what's around them, their brain is still receiving information from their eyes - so, even though he can't see like someone who has fully intact eyes, his brain can still act on information received from his brain.

The study itself tested TN's ability to perceive the world. So, he was shown pictures and his brain activity was recorded. These scientists noticed that there was increased activity in his amygdala "when people in the pictures were looking directly at him."

See, I don't know about you but for some reason...that gives me the heebie jeebies.

According to ScienceAlert, "The amygdala is the part of the brain that prompts our sense of fear and other emotions, and handles facial recognition." And, the article aptly questions "Could it be that our brains are trained to subconsciously recognize someone staring at us, even if it's only in our peripheral vision?"

So, maybe sometimes it is our feeling that we believe we're being watched because, well, humans are self-centric...but could it also be because our eyes are alerting us that there is more than meets our conscious eye? 

What do you think about this feeling? Have you ever felt like this? 


The above image is from Flickr user Axel Naud and is liscensed under creative commons.