Why Can You Sense When People Are Looking at You?

Do you ever feel that someone is looking at you? Many people can sense this. This phenomenon is known as scopaesthesia.
Why Can You Sense When People Are Looking at You?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Have you ever felt that someone was looking at you? You surely attributed that awareness to a sense of unease or prickling on the back of your neck. Surely there’s nothing psychic about it. Your brain was simply picking up on cues. Therefore, your brain is wired to inform you that someone is looking at you, even when they’re not. This is a necessary part of being human. This adaptation of our brain kept our ancestors alive. How can we do this?

It’s actually an important characteristic of our sight and brain. Most importantly, certain social aspects of our species. Experts coined this biological phenomenon as scopaesthesia , “gaze detection”, or “gaze perception”. In fact, neurological studies found that the brain cells that initiate this response are very precise. 

“Far from being ESP, the perception originates from a system in the brain. This genius system devotes itself to detecting where others are looking,” stated Ilan Shrira. He’s a social psychologist, professor, and acclaimed writer. This concept may sound confusing. However, it actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it from a survival perspective.

Neurological studies

As we mentioned above, according to neurological studies , the brain cells that initiate this response are very precise. If someone turns their gaze towards you and starts looking at you, you feel great. They must turn their heads just a few degrees to the left or right. In fact, scientists suggest that a complex neural network is behind gaze detection.

Thus far, scientists can’t identify the neural network responsible for humans. A study on macaque monkeys discovered the neurological circuits responsible for their gaze detection and the specific cells involved. Consequently, we do know that ten distinct brain regions are involved with human sight. 

But there may be many more. The visual cortex is the main contributor. This is a big area at the back of the brain that supports many important aspects of sight. However, other areas must also involve gaze detection. The amygdala, for example, which registers threats. 

Gaze detection system

Did you know that many mammals can tell when another animal is looking at them? Still, the human “gaze detection system” is particularly good at doing this from a distance. Likewise, we can also easily discern where someone stares from. This system is especially sensitive when someone is looking at you directly. Recent studies found that particular cells fire up when this happens.

Gaze perception, or the ability to tell when someone stares at you, is a social cue. “Sadly, many people often take it for granted,” Colin Clifford told The Daily Mail. Colin is a professor and psychologist at the University of Sydney’s Vision Center. Thus, judging whether others are looking at us may come naturally, even if it’s not that simple. After all, our brains have to do a lot of work behind the scenes.

When you catch someone looking at you, what clued you in to the fact? Often, it’s as simple as the position of the person’s head or body. People usually turn both their heads and bodies toward you. Thus, it’s perfectly clear where they focused the attention. It’s even more obvious when the person points their body away from you, yet their head faces you. When this happens, you immediately look into the person’s eyes.

Sclera and gaze detection

Firstly, human eyes are different from other animals in this regard. Our pupils and irises are darker from the white part of the eyeball we know as the sclera. Thus, this major contrast is why you can tell many things. For example, when someone is looking at you or simply looking past you. In other words, other species have less visible sclera. Surely, this is highly advantageous for predators.

Predators don’t want their prey to know where they’re staring. However, humans depend solely on communication for survival. This is exactly why humans evolved. Consequently, they now have larger, white sclera, which helps them make eye contact. Head and body positions often don’t provide much information. According to research, you can still detect when another person’s looking at you thanks to your peripheral vision.

We evolved to be this sensitive to gaze to survive. Why? Because every look a person throws your way is a potential threat. Believe it or not, Clifford tested this. He simply asked study participants to indicate where various faces were looking. He found that, when people didn’t determine gaze direction, they typically thought someone watched them. For example, due to dark conditions or the faces wore sunglasses.

According to Clifford, in situations where we don’t know where a person looks, our brain informs us that someone is watching us, just in case there’s a potential interaction. “A direct gaze can signal dominance or a threat. Nonetheless, if you perceive something as a threat, you don’t want to miss it,” Clifford said. “By simply assuming another person is looking at you may be the safest strategy.”

A threat or a social cue?

Psychologist Clifford also discovered something interesting. In fact, when people can’t tell where a person is looking, they automatically assume they’re looking at them.

Secondly, looking at someone is also a social cue. It usually means you want to talk to them. For people, it’s their natural inclination to assume someone behind them is staring. Therefore, the feeling we get may initiate a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we turn around, our action calls up the other person’s gaze. When they meet our eyes, they give us an odd impression that they were staring at us the entire time.

Another answer could be confirmation bias. You only remember the times you turned around and someone was looking at you, not the times they weren’t. That weird, tingly sensation? It’s psychological and emanates from the thought of being stared at, although not the physical act itself.

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This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.