Home Archives The Psychology of Being Watched

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As a paranormal investigator, I find that I and my fellow INsight Paranormal team members spend a lot of time counseling clients about the experiences they have. Not every creak in the house is a ghost; the vast majority are thermal readjustment of the house due to temperatures between day and night. We have a building inspector on our team to help explain this. EMF spikes do NOT generally indicate a ghostly presence, unless perhaps you are investigating in Amish country with no electrical usage for miles around. And that feeling of being watched in your bedroom? Well, here's a likely natural explanation of that.

Gaze Detection and the Perceived Presence

Ever walk into a room and get that feeling that eyes are upon you? If so, do you behave differently? Are you less likely to, say, throw litter on the ground? According to Sander van der Linden, a doctor of Experimental Psychology at the London School of Economics and Political Science, you will be a better person when you feel you are being watched. [Click here for an editor's note concerning Dr. Van der Linden.]

Van der Linden performed a detailed study on what he calls gaze detection, a "dedicated neural architecture for detecting facial features, including the presence of eyes which served as an important evolutionary tool in ancestral environments e.g. for detecting lurking enemies." According to van der Linden, we are all hard-wired to detect faces and in particular eyes and reading the intent in others eyes. We had to know if they were the eyes of a friend or a stranger, perhaps even a dangerous enemy. In modern society, gaze detection manifests as a sort of social referee so that when others are watching us, it has a positive effect on our decision making: we make choices that are better for society as a whole even if it is less desirable or more troublesome for us personally. Van der Linden's research specifically studied what people would do with trash in a cafeteria when someone was and wasn't watching. Older studies, done in the 1970s showed that people who are being watched are three times more likely to properly dispose of their trash, as opposed to leaving it at the table or on the floor, when they are being watched compared to not being watched. Studies also showed that it didn't matter that someone was physically watching; a poster of people with wide open eyes on the wall had the same effect. When people perceived a pair of eyes on them, whether real eyes or photographs of them or just figures that resemble eyes, they behaved differently then when they didn't feel as if they were being watched.

Gaze Detection and Ghost Hunting

Van der Linden's studies proved that the same gaze detection behavior could be extended to images that simply looked like a pair of eyes. In his words, "it doesn't take a fellow human being to make us feel 'as if the world were watching,' not even another living organism. All it takes is an image of a pair of human eyes."

And it is not an effect that we have conscious control over. We can't overcome the behavioral change simply because we are aware of the effect. It is a hard-wired set of behaviors, providing an evolutionary advantage. "This makes sense," van der Linden states, "because there is great evolutionary value in being able to quickly assess whether any predators are on the prowl; neural activation of the gaze detection system is fast and automatic. Yet this also means that it's possible to 'trick' the system and this is exactly what the new experiment has shown: objects that merely resemble human eyes are sufficient to trigger human gaze detection and subsequently alter social behavior."

After reading of his study, I wondered how this gaze detection phenomenon might manifest itself in a situation in which a moral choice isn't an issue. Could the mere fact that we unconsciously perceive that we are being watched when no action we might do made any difference except to ourselves make us behave or believe something that we wouldn't otherwise do so? When we don't have a moral choice to make, might gaze detection cause some other psychological effect? In particular, how might it affect the perceptions of someone sitting in a room at night, especially if they already had a notion that there was paranormal activity occurring in the house? How might gaze detection affect their behavior?

I posed this question to Dr. van der Linden: Is it possible that this feeling of being watched could, in a situation where one is frightened for whatever reason, cause the person to perceive other imagined phenomena such as hearing sounds or seeing shadows out of the corner of their eyes or just a generally "creeped" out feeling, phenomena that some might assume is caused by a ghost? This was his response:

The question you posed is whether, if a "spooky" environmental cue can be identified, can (gaze detection) also induce behavioural responses other than moral and social adjustments? This is in fact a very interesting research question and I don't have a straightforward answer. I image it can. People often report to feel "uncomfortable" when they know they are being watched, even more so of course when they believe that a deceased individual (or ghost) is watching them. Also, this may very well induce feelings of anxiety and panic. Emotions that people report while "experiencing" paranormal activity are usually instinctive emotions such as "fear" and "anxiety" that, because of how the brain is wired, are very hard to control, in particular because these emotions originate in the oldest part of the brain, which is very well developed, and as a result often overtakes our ability to continue to reason "rationally." Recent research has in fact indicated that perceptual and sensory experiences (e.g. feeling a presence or picking up energy) are related to the limbic system, the older part of the brain. In fact, research points to the fact that "extrasensory experience" are particularly common in individuals that have a strong sensitivity to environmental factors. In other words, people that often experience allergies, headaches, other chronic symptoms or a heightened sensitivity to light, sound, touch and smell are particularly prone to experiencing paranormal activity. Individuals with a heightened sensitivity also tend to be female (about 2/3). So people sensitive to environmental conditions react more strongly, in reason and feeling to incoming informational cues from their environment.

Gaze Detection may become one of the causes of reported paranormal phenomena.

I believe that this could become a powerful tool in the paranormal investigator's arsenal to prove to people that they are NOT being haunted by a ghost, but that rather subtle psychological behaviours are triggered by the presence of photographs, posters or drawings on the wall or even in decorative motifs. In fact, I carry copies of various articles, like this one from Dr. van der Linden, on various natural phenomena that might be perceived by clients as paranormal in nature. So the next time a client tells you that "people always feel a presence in this room" or report sounds or "shadows out of the corner of my eye," look around. If the room has lots of photos of deceased Aunt Martha, maybe it's not her ghost, but merely her eyes that haunt the place.

What this Means for Paranormal Investigation

Gaze detection is a specific phenomenon. But under the more general concept of sensitivity to the environment, there may be even more fodder for paranormal thought. People who are more aware of their environment than most, due to, say, allergies or frequent migraine headaches or the like, are more liable to create imagined scenarios of that environment.

Experimental evidence points to the conclusion that those most sensitive to their surroundings because of potential health effects can be psychologically overwhelmed by these multiple factors generating a feeling of a paranormal experience. As van der Linden described it, "When you're more sensitive to environmental cues in general than it becomes even easier for you to imagine ghost-like scenarios and subsequently see them."

How does an investigator obtain some idea of the client's personality in this context? Try asking if the client or any family member that claims paranormal experiences if they suffer from frequent bouts of allergies, headaches or chronic pain. Do they frequently avoid certain places or environments? Positive answers to such questions would provide an indication that the client is more sensitive to environmental conditions, even if they didn't realize it, and would therefore perhaps be more inclined to "let their imagination run away with them."

A paranormal investigator would certainly want to avoid any perceptions of being prejudiced, but studies have shown that women are 2/3 more likely than men to exhibit increased sensitivity to the environment. If in a given household only females claim to have experienced paranormal activity, it may not just be a matter of skepticism on the part of males, it may be that their brains are simply not perceptive enough to have noticed subtle variations in their surroundings. Functional MRI scans reveal that whatever a person imagines will generate neuronal activity identical to seeing, hearing, feeling or otherwise actually experiencing the imagined incident. Someone who, because of heightening awareness of the environment or who feels they are being watched may sincerely believed that such experiences actually occurred. Perhaps your paranormal investigation team should include a psychologist or at least a battery of personality tests for your clients

Editor's Note: Dr. Van der Linden sent an email to the author after the publication of this article with some points he would like clarified.

The studies reported in this article were not performed by Dr. Van der Linden himself. Rather, he simply wrote about a series of research experiments that studied the gaze detection effect. Van der Lindens article in Scientific American was a summation of the work performed by others.

Van der Linden specifically refers to a study by colleagues at Newcastle University, Melissa Bateson & Daniel Nettle that looked at what people do with trash when they feel they are being watched. They found that people are 3 times more likely to throw trash away when watched.

Dr. Van der Linden clarified his comment on people who suffer from allergies, migraines and the like. He didn't intend his remark to imply that all people who suffer from such maladies imagine seeing ghosts. "When you're more sensitive to environmental cues in general than it becomes easier for your senses to be 'tricked' into experiencing ghost-like scenarios. In turn, this heightened perception also makes it easier for people to 'see' what they really 'imagine'".

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