Why Do You Sometimes Feel Like You're Being Watched?
At some time or another in your life, you’ve probably felt like you were being watched. Perhaps you were walking alone down the street one day, without paying much attention to your surroundings, lost in thought, and listening to the hypnotic sound of your footsteps, when you suddenly, intuitively, turned your head and saw someone staring at you.
How did you know someone was looking at you? Do you have powers? Is there a scientific explanation for the ‘intuition’ that made you turn around and surprise them?
As a matter of fact, the phenomenon of feeling like we’re being watched happens frequently. Depending on the causes and the parameters with which this sensation manifests itself, it can either be something normal or a psychopathological symptom. In order to delve further, we’ll approach the phenomenon from different perspectives. They’re all equally important in explaining this strange phenomenon that we’ve all experienced at some point in our lives.
An adaptive function
Normally, the psychological phenomena that our nervous system makes us undergo have their origins in evolution. In fact, they usually have adaptive functions. This is beneficial, either for us or for our genes. That’s because these processes usually either increase our probability of surviving or help us to procreate.
From the point of view of survival, feeling as if you’re being watched or, knowing when someone has their eyes fixed on you allows you to better assess any threats. Therefore, realizing that you’re being watched can save you from many dangers. After all, the spectator’s intentions may not be particularly good. Therefore, you’d do well to prepare for fight or flight.
Looking into another’s eyes offers a lot of information about them. It can reveal their emotions, thoughts, attitudes, and motivations. Indeed, it’s not for nothing that the eye area is the one that most attracts the attention of newborn babies, once they learn to recognize the human face. It seems that nature has programmed us from an extremely young age to focus on the eyes.
On the other hand, from the reproductive point of view, glances at others are often motivated by a healthy sexual interest. The fact of knowing who’s looking at us with desire informs us of possible sexual partners. In turn, this allows us to evaluate them. If the interest is mutual, being able to detect these kinds of glances makes our survival as a species more likely.
In short, there’s no doubt that looks are a sign of interest, for better or worse. Therefore, it’s not surprising that our brains have generated psychological mechanisms to help us detect them.
Feeling as if you’re being watched is extremely common. Depending on various factors, it can be something normal or a psychopathological symptom.
A matter of perception
We don’t have the capacity to consciously process everything that comes to us through our senses. It’s evident that we either don’t perceive at all or we’re unaware of everything we perceive. In fact, only a small part of the set of stimuli that we perceive enters our consciousness. Subsequently, only a small part of the content of consciousness becomes relevant enough to be stored in our memory.
Therefore, most of what you perceive you do unconsciously. For example, when you’re at a party, you can be listening to a multitude of simultaneous conversations, but your attention will filter all the information. In this way, only what’s important will reach your consciousness. For instance, hearing someone say your name. This phenomenon is known as ‘the cocktail party effect’.
In the same way, your visual field collects a lot of information of which you’re not aware. As a matter of fact, in reality, you only consciously attend to an extremely small part of everything you see. This means that, without knowing it, your brain can pick up that someone’s looking at you and then force you to focus on that person. It’ll seem that you guessed they were looking at you but, in reality, you subliminally realized it.
The word subliminal refers to what remains below the threshold of consciousness. Subliminal cues can sometimes be rather subtle.
Your nonconscious attention can detect certain body movements, suspicious attitudes, proxemic cues, gestural information, unexpected sounds, and other stimuli that arouse your alertness. Consequently, they make you look toward the person who’s possibly watching you. Although it’s physically impossible for you to have seen their eyes, you’ve processed other types of relevant information.
A self-fulfilling prophecy
The phenomenon of the self-fulfilling prophecy takes place when you think that something’s going to happen and, by the mere fact of thinking about it, it ends up happening. Again, this has nothing to do with magic. What happens is that, by thinking that something is going to happen, you begin to act in a way that makes it more likely that said event will end up occurring.
For example, say you’re convinced that an official is going to treat you unpleasantly. If you approach him in a fearful manner or you’re rude, you’ll make it more likely that they will, indeed, respond to you as you thought they would. In the same way, if you think that others have good intentions, your smile will make it more likely that they’ll treat you better, just as you anticipated they would.
If a person walking in front of you suddenly turns around sharply and looks at you, you’re highly likely to make eye contact with them. However, this person may actually think that they’ve caught you ‘watching’ them, and they might feel harassed. Nevertheless, it’s their own defensive moves that have caught your attention. With this example, you can see that the feeling of being watched doesn’t necessarily always go hand in hand with a real threat.
Paranoia: does it apply in all cases?
Everyone’s capable of acting in a paranoid fashion. It’s most likely to happen when you feel small and weak. As a matter of fact, the most psychologically healthy person in the world might feel they were being watched if they were alone at night in the middle of a forest.
However, there are psychopathologies and personalities that are more prone to paranoid thinking. In fact, they experience it continuously. This causes them significant discomfort and adaptation problems in different areas of their life.
The essential characteristic of paranoia is distrust, a feeling that forces us to always be alert. A paranoid person may have felt repeatedly attacked in their past, usually in their childhood and by people in their immediate environment. In other words, those people they should’ve been able to trust. Consequently, they adopt mistrust as a shield with which to protect themselves from the world.
Avoidant, paranoid, antisocial, and narcissistic personalities tend to distrust others excessively. Furthermore, they’re always on the alert. They overestimate the threats around them, due to a deep-rooted feeling of weakness, of which they’re often not even aware. They’re self-centered, defensive personalities and, therefore, they have a tendency to feel as if they’re being watched.
Paranoid schizophrenia is characterized, among other symptoms, by mistrusting the intentions of others to the point of generating delusions of persecution.
There are also other psychotic states, such as those induced by substances or those derived from depression, which can make sufferers believe that they’re being watched.
People who suffer from any of these disorders tend to feel as if they’re being watched. This generates in them the feeling of being different or of being judged. Also, by acting strangely, they often draw the attention of others to themselves, incurring a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Any human being might feel as if they’re being watched on many occasions throughout their life. As we’ve seen, on most occasions it’s a healthy adaptive reaction to a possible threat.