Have you ever had the sensation that you were being watched, then looked around and in fact saw someone watching you? What’s going on? Do we have a sixth sense (or a seventh sense if you can also see dead people)?
It’s a pretty common phenomenon and it’s not a sixth sense. The reasons why we can sometimes tell we are being watched are fascinating.
The Power of the Subconscious
The primary reason why we can tell when we are being watched is that our subconscious can pick up on cues that conscious mind is not aware of. Our subconscious picks up on gazes in the perifery of our vision or in reflections which aren’t noted by our conscious minds.
In his fantastic book The Power of Fifty Bits Bob Nease explains that “each second, your brain devours about ten million bits of information [but] the conscious part of your brain can only process about fifty bits per second.” This is a HUGE gap in processing power and means that “99.9995 percent of our bandwidth is beyond the reach of our awareness.”
This huge awareness gap means that our subconscious knows about many things going on around us that do not register with our conscious mind. When the subconscious awareness of being watched bubbles up into our conscious thought it feels like we used some sort of extrasensory perception. But that isn’t the case. Experiments have found that we can’t actually tell whether we’re being watched when the watcher is outside our field of vision. So, we don’t actually have eyes in the back of our heads!
The Power of Eye Gazes
Our conscious and subconscious minds are primed by evolution to notice the gazes of others. Making eye contact is a key aspect of human social interaction and is an important aspect of how we communicate. Research has found that the human brain is highly attentive to the gaze of others and suggests that there is a neural network in our brains dedicated to processing eye contact. Moreover, infants have been found to be very aware of whether eye contact is being made with them or not and lack of eye contact in babies is an early sign of autism.
Another interesting related fact is that the human eye is also formed in a way to communicate where we are looking. Unique among almost all other species, humans have a great deal of white (the sclera) around our pupils which is visible. The large and visible whites of our eyes make it very easy to discern the focus of someone’s gaze. Other animals, especially predators, have little or no sclera showing which acts to camouflage from their prey where they are looking. Here’s a related IFOD that is super interesting about predator vs. prey eye placement: Stereo Vision. Finally, check out this collage of various eyes and note how only the human eyes have a visible sclera.