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Leading biologist explains why do we feel when someone is looking at our back

Have you ever felt like you were being watched from somewhere? This has happened to almost everyone. This is actually a phenomenon that is universal for most people.

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More than 80% of women and almost three-quarters of men surveyed in the UK, US and Scandinavia said they had experienced this phenomenon and turned around to find that someone was actually staring at them.

Numerous studies have proven that this sensation can be reproduced under strict laboratory conditions. And those people whose profession is observing someone – photographers, detectives and even snipers, said that they repeatedly noticed how their target felt their gaze on them, turned around and noticed their observation.

This ability can improve with practice. Some martial arts teachers even specifically train their students to be more sensitive to back gazes and accurately determine where they are coming from.

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People have known about this phenomenon for a very long time. Children are taught from an early age that “staring” at others is impolite because it makes the people being stared feel uncomfortable. And most adults understand the truth of this and will avoid looking closely at someone for fear that they will sense it.

Being caught staring at a stranger is awkward, a social mistake common in almost every culture. At the same time, official science usually rejects this as superstition or “belief in magic,” classifying this phenomenon as “paranormal phenomena,” ignoring or ridiculing it.

Rupert Sheldrake

However, British biologist, biochemist, and parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake is confident that there is actually nothing magical about this phenomenon, we just don’t yet fully know how our brain and our body work, reports

“I am a biologist. And I am convinced that this phenomenon is not only worthy of serious study, but that it might help us to unlock remarkable basic secrets about the way our brains work.

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“I’m far from being the only researcher investigating this. Since the late 1980s, numerous experiments have been carried out in ‘direct looking’. This usually involves people working in pairs, one blindfolded and sitting with their back to the other.

“The subjects have to guess quickly, in less than 10 seconds, whether they are being looked at or not. The sequence of ‘looking’ and ‘not-looking’ trials is randomised, and a session involves 20 trials, over about 10 minutes.

“It’s an ideal experiment for schools and it has been popularised by reports in New Scientist magazine, on the BBC and the Discovery channel. The results have also been published in scientific journals.

“A pattern has emerged, over tens of thousands of trials. People are right about 55 per cent of the time — significantly better than chance guesswork. One experiment at an Amsterdam science centre has involved about 40,000 participants.”

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The children were especially good at perceiving. According to Sheldrake, in one German school, 8-year-old and 9-year-old students showed a 90% guessing rate. The main question is: how? How do we know that we are being watched, what feeling warns us about this?

Science doesn’t have a definitive answer, but after more than 20 years of experiments and case studies, Sheldrake is confident he has the answer. The feeling of being watched is “directed”.

That is, when you sense that someone is looking at you, you also have a strong intuition about where they are—behind you, to the side, or above you. This means that staring is more like a sound: once you are aware of it, you are also aware of where it is coming from. We know that sound travels in waves through the air and is perceived by our brain through our ears. So what part of our body perceives the feeling of being watched?

The first and most obvious version assumes that the sensor is our skin. But most of us are fully clothed in public, and many people have hair that completely covers the back of their heads.

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At the same time, for the sensation of looking at the back, it seems to make no difference whether you wear a scarf or have your collar turned up, whether your hands are open or you are wrapped in a coat and gloves.

According to Sheldrake, it actually has something to do with the presence of a weak electromagnetic field around our bodies.

“Our bodies, especially our brains, generate electricity. That’s how an ECG scan or electro-encephalograph works: electrodes on the skull pick up the electric field set up by activity in the brain.

“My best theory, and this is still speculative, is that our own electromagnetic field registers a disturbance when people look at us. We’re not actively aware of it — the phenomenon occurs at a sub-conscious or unconscious level, but the ‘biofield’ picks it up.

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“And that raises another question: what is it, exactly, that the body is sensing?

“The conventional theory of sight is that it’s something passive and dealt with internally. Light bounces off an object and into the pupil of the eyes, onto the retinas.

“This signal is translated by the brain, which generates a picture that is actually locked inside our skulls, though we perceive it as being outside us and all around.

“Neuroscientists can’t fully explain how our nerve cells cause this to happen, though the basic theory is widely accepted in science. It states that each one of us carries a constantly changing image of the world inside our heads, though this vanishes, of course, as soon as we close our eyes.

This is the theory of ‘intromission’, the inward movement of light followed by the creation of ‘representations’, like virtual reality displays inside our heads.

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“Not only is the process incompletely understood, but it is counter-intuitive. The way our perception works is so vivid and concrete, it really does feel as though we’re experiencing the actual world around us, instead of reconstructing the visual reality in our brains.”

Dr Rupert Sheldrake is a biologist and author of more than 100 technical papers in scientific journals and nine books. For more information, go to

To share your own stories of being stared at, email Dr Sheldrake at He is particularly interested to hear about directional responses to being watched through CCTV or through mirrors.

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Jake Carter

Jake Carter is a researcher and a prolific writer who has been fascinated by science and the unexplained since childhood. He is always eager to share his findings and insights with the readers of, a website he created in 2013.