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.
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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?
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 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.
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. Titchener's article may be quite old, but it's stood the test of time; since its publication in , 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.
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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. 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. As Dempsey-Jones noted, the sclera may make it easier for one human to detect the direction of the gaze of another.
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Why is this important? In a word: communication. This includes external-world happenings — the mammoth is charging from that direction! 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.
That's not to say we always get it right.
A 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 to look in your direction. This is best done outside in nature, but you can really do it anywhere.
Play music. Play instrumental music and give it all your attention , noticing all the instruments and the mood of the music. Stop and listen carefully.
If you feel inclined, write down the dialogue in your journal. Sip a hot drink from a mug. Cup the mug in both hands, feeling its warmth. Drink the beverage slowly. Take small sips and notice how it feels in your mouth and how it goes down.
Tune into your senses. Stop and notice two things that you see, smell, hear, and taste. You might choose to write down your impressions in your journal. Appreciate your pets. If you have pets, stop and pay full attention to them. Look into their eyes, and tell them what you love about them. The center is the place you know you have to get back to.
A good way to think of the center is to imagine the medicine wheel that is a part of many Native American cultures. The wheel represents the four directions in the physical world, and each direction refers to a part of you. For example, the north represents the mind, the south represents the heart, the east represents the place of spirit, and the west represents the body.
To maintain a sense of well-being, all the directions must be balanced. Similar to being grounded, another way to return to your center is to focus on the breath. Breathe in through your nose for a count of ten, hold your breath for a count of ten, and then exhale for a count of ten. Then, imagine a white light at your heart center. Feel that light emanating out to the world around you and then spreading out to the universe. Feel the positive energy and strength of the white light.
Feel it supporting and grounding you. Not knowing is about letting go, especially during turbulent or uncertain times. It allows you to put aside fixed points of view. Bearing witness, in Buddhist meditation, is about being aware of sensations and thoughts as they arise, allowing them to pass like clouds in the sky before your eyes. Bearing witness is spontaneous and often surprising. Taking action is the third tenet. The main idea is to be with the intention, and that the best action will be taken for the situation, always being mindful of a caring and considerate action for yourself and everyone else involved.
Taking action is sometimes connected to not knowing. Practicing the three tenets is one way to improve your sense of resiliency, helping you feel more grounded and centered. Understanding the basics of being grounded and centered coupled with some simple tools can protect you and help you feel more balanced. This can lead to an overall sense of emotional, psychological, and physical well-being, and ultimately, a state of bliss. Daniels, M.
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