A Paradigm Shift in Perception: Scopaesthesia is Directional

January 9, 2024
IONS Science Team

Have you ever sensed someone staring at you, only to turn around and confirm your intuition? This phenomenon, known as scopaesthesia, is surprisingly common and has sparked intriguing experiments that strongly indicate that the ability to sense being stared at is real. 

But how would this work? Could the ability to sense someone looking at you from behind suggest an outward flow of visual attention from the observer? If the person being looked at feels this directional force, they should swiftly grasp the direction of the gaze and locate the staring person when they turn around. 

Alternatively, scopaesthesia could involve an awareness of being observed without knowing the direction of the observer, akin to feeling the temperature rise, which has magnitude but no specific direction. Some psychic phenomena, such as telephone telepathy, work in this way where people sense who is calling but can’t tell the direction of the caller’s location. Scopaesthesia could be similar, causing an initial feeling of uneasiness or danger, leading to a search in all directions to locate the looker rather than having a sense that the looker is in a particular direction.

So, is scopaesthesia directional or not? Can people feel not only when they are being stared at but also the direction from which the gaze is coming? Experiments to test this have not been done, but a new study by IONS fellow Rupert Sheldrake, PhD addresses this question by delving into personal reports of scopaesthesia.

A Deep Dive into Personal Cases 

The fascinating new study looked at 960 case histories of scopaesthesia from over 25 years, involving both humans and animals. The researchers gathered reports from individuals about their own experiences, as well as interviewed professionals like detectives, surveillance officers, celebrity and wildlife photographers, martial arts teachers, and hunters, all with unique perspectives on observing others. The study team also conducted online surveys, including one with skeptics. Respondents were asked two questions: (1) Have you ever turned around to find someone staring at you? (2) If yes, was the effect directional? Did you look straight at the person watching you?

The study considered cases where the person reporting the story was either the person doing the staring or the one being stared at. It categorized cases based on whether they explicitly or implicitly mentioned directional effects in the personal reports, meaning that the person or animal being stared at responded by looking straight back at the looker rather than scanning at random. The researchers also examined cases where no directional effect was mentioned. Additionally, they classified cases based on whether the individuals involved were on the same or different levels (e.g., both on the street or one looking down from an upstairs window). 

Decoding the Findings

What did the researchers find? In the study, researchers discovered that 49% of the cases explicitly mentioned directional effects, where the person or animal being looked at responded by looking straight back at the looker rather than scanning at random. In 19% of the cases, directional effects were implicit, and in 31%, no directionality was mentioned. Combining explicit and implicit accounts, a majority, 68%, suggested that scopaethesia was directional. This directional aspect was consistently observed in all four sub-categories, whether someone was looking at a person or animal, or being looked at by a person or animal.

To get an idea of what these personal cases were like, let’s dive into a firsthand account from the study, shared by a young man in the United States.

“From my passenger seat, I was staring at this girl walking on the sidewalk. The street was crowded, there were also cars ahead and behind us, and out of the blue, she turned around and looked me directly in the eyes. Before you ask, no, the windows were not down and we were not playing loud music which would make us noticeable.” 

Some of the most striking examples of directional scopaesthesia occurred when the person who was staring was at a higher level, looking down. Here’s an interesting example from a young man serving in the U.S. Navy, stationed on land and gazing out of a third-floor window: 

“I saw a friend walking away from the building. I decided to stare at the back of his head to see if he would notice. It took about ten seconds, and he turned around and looked straight up at me, and then I waved to him to sort of smooth over the weirdness.”

A Paradigm Shift in Perception 

Surprisingly, in almost half of the cases, the person or animal being looked at responded by directly returning the gaze. Directional scopaesthesia means that people and animals detect not only that they are being stared at but also the direction from which the look is coming. This exciting finding of directional effect challenges conventional theories and suggests that scopaesthesia might involve an outward projection of visual attention, adding a fascinating dimension to our understanding of perception because it throws into question the widely held belief that vision involves only the intake of light. Could there be more to perception than meets the eye?

The findings also hint at a tantalizing prospect – that minds might transcend the confines of the brain. Could consciousness be entangling the observer and the observed? A departure from the mainstream belief that minds are localized to brains, this revelation paves the way for thrilling experimental pursuits into the workings of extended minds.

Why did this peculiar ability evolve? Evolutionarily, scopaesthesia may have developed in predator-prey dynamics to help potential prey survive by detecting the stare of a predator, sort of like a silent alarm that provides a life-saving advantage to prey. The ability to perceive directional visual projections could be an ancient and widespread feature of animal vision.

These findings about directional scopaesthesia not only defy established theories of perception but beckon us to unravel the mysteries of extended minds and the intricate interplay of consciousness in the act of staring. With more research on the horizon, especially in the controlled confines of the lab, these revelations prompt us to ponder anew – can the mind truly reach beyond the boundaries of the brain? 

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