Thursday, September 25, 2014

That sense of "being watched"--how realistic is it in a mystery?

Anthony van Dyck - Paris : Gallimard, 1998.
Have you ever had that creepy feeling of being watched?  

And then, when you look around,  someone really is staring at you?  

A strange sensation to be sure.  Certainly, this eerie sixth sense is a staple of crime fiction, especially novels of suspense.  

I was thinking about this recently because I read a mystery where the protagonist just knew she was being watched by someone behind her.  It actually pulled me out of the story a little bit because I started to wonder about how plausible that sensation actually is. There was no other indication that someone was behind her, except that she sensed him looking at her.

So I began to explore this question, and it turns out there's been some research on: (1) whether people can truly sense when someone is staring at them, and (2) whether they can know when someone is staring at them from behind. (Of course some of these explanations are a little more scientific than others).

So, on the more scientific end, there is a phenomenon known as gaze detection. Even from a peripheral angle, the brain is always perceiving the positions of other people's heads and bodies and their relative positions to us. The brain will note anomalies, causing us to become alert (or get that chilly sensation). For example, your brain may take note that there is a woman near you who has her feet pointed away from you, but that her head is faced in your direction.  Your brain might note this unusual positioning and tip you off, because it is wired to let you know when you are danger.

Apparently, gaze detection also suggests that we may be able to note the whites of another person's eyes even at a distance, so we can perceive when someone is looking at us. So, gaze detection may help explain this phenomenon of being watched. 

However, gaze detection can only account for someone who is staring at us from our periphery.  It can not explain someone staring at us from behind.  

So a more popular explanation is the idea of morphic resonance,   which contends that: "Natural systems, such as termite colonies, or pigeons, or orchid plants, or insulin molecules, inherit a collective memory from all previous things of their kind, however far away they were and however long ago they existed," Sheldrake (1988) (as quoted by Michael Shermer)

Say what?

I think Sheldrake means that there is a kind of telepathic vibration among organisms, which seems to somehow explain how people "know" someone is staring at them. This concept is critically examined by Scientific American and discussed by Morgan Freeman in Through the Wormhole. Not sure I buy this one, but it's certainly imaginitive.

Personally, I think it's more likely that when you get that weird feeling, and you turn around, that the person beside you notices you turn around and ends up meeting your eyes, hence looking like he or she was staring. 

 So, since my mysteries are not supernatural in nature, I wanted to make sure that I had a logical and plausible explanation for any such feelings of super-awareness that I mention in my characters.  Did my character spy something out of the ordinary? Was there a movement at the corner of her eye? Did she hear a twig snap, alerting her on some level that someone was behind her?

But what do you think?  Is a little sixth sense okay, or should there be a logical explanation for such feelings? 

And yes, I am looking at you...


  1. There certainly is something special about how people notice faces. I always notice this when I teach. If the students are working, with heads down, I don't notice any of their movements. But, when one looks up, I notice it if the student's face become illuminated. It makes sense that, on some level, we notice faces and when people are watching us. Cool stuff.

  2. That's really interesting! Thanks for stopping by!


     My name is MICHEAL RACHEL. When I read a testimony online on how DR DAVID the great and most powerful spell caster helped to bring back Divorce husband or wife EX LOVER. I was wondering how this can be true, Because many have failed me in the past without any result from them. I just let the post pass by and move on to the forum. To my notice under again, Some person posted and said tested and trusted spell caster. After reading through the mail it was this same man DR DAVID she was talking about. So I have no other option than to really check up how he works. I was totally devastated when my beloved husband left me. It was like my entire world vanishing into sorrow and pain. I know it sounds weird but out of all the spell casters I contacted, he was the only one to give me that impression of being so true and trustful. More than his words, He brought my husband back and he made all my wishes come true. He is now loyal, pays attention to me, he offers me flowers every Sunday, and we often go out at the cinema and the restaurant. My husband came to me and apologized for the wrongs he did and promised never to do it again. Ever since then, everything has returned back to normal. My family are living together happily again.. I will be forever thankful for turning my life from hell to heaven! I believe those who need help should get to him for help. May God continue to use you to save broken relationships. To every one with marital problems, divorce issues, lost lovers or any relationship related issues, you can contact DR DAVID and wonder about the ultimate spell caster. Contact him on his Email Address @   His Website:: his WhatsApp +2347040654140

  4. Contact Dr. Peter at (concealed information) if you want to get your Husband, Wife, Boyfriend and Girlfriend back now and regain your happiness. my heart was broken. I never believed I would get back with my husband anymore until Dr Peter brought my husband back for me in 24hours Time with a powerful spell. He is reliable for positive results and ???? guarantee with no side effects of work contact him today if you have any relationship problem contact him on Whatsapp +2348162247974 or email or Facebook page website: