Experiments : Seven Experiments : Staring Experiments

Staring Experiments

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When we see things, where are they? Are their images inside our brains? Or are they outside us, just where they seem to be? The conventional scientific assumption is that they are inside the brain. But this theory may be radically wrong. Our images may be outside us. Vision may involve a two-way process, an inward movement of light and an outward projection of mental images.

For example, as you read this page, light rays pass from the page to your eyes, forming an inverted image on the retina. This image is detected by light-sensitive cells, causing nerve impulses to pass up the optic nerves, leading to complex electrochemical patterns of activity in the brain. All this has been investigated in detail by the techniques of neurophysiology. But now comes the mystery. You somehow become aware of the image of the page. You experience it outside you, in front of your face. But from a conventional scientific point of view, this experience is illusory. In reality, the image is supposed to be inside you, together with the rest of your mental activity.

Traditional peoples all over the world take a different view. They trust their own experience. Vision reaches out from the body. As well as light coming into the eyes, seeing goes out through the eyes. Young children in our own culture think the same.' But by the age of around eleven, they learn that thoughts and perceptions are not outside them, but inside their heads.' Thus theory triumphs over experience, and a metaphysical doctrine is accepted as an objective fact. From the "educated" point of view, young children, like primitive and uneducated people, are confused. They fail to distinguish between internal and external, subject and object, which should be sharply separated.

Consider for a moment the possibility that young children and traditional peoples may not be as confused as we usually suppose. Try a simple thought experiment. Allow yourself to trust rather than distrust your own direct experience. Permit yourself to think that your perceptions of all the things you see around you are indeed around you. Your image of this page, for example, is just where it seems to be, in front of you.

This idea is so staggeringly simple that it is hard to grasp. Although in perfect accord with immediate experience, it undermines everything we have been brought up to believe about the nature of the mind, the interiority of subjective experience, and the separation of subject and object. Instead of the usual assumption that vision involves a one-way process, it implies a two-way process. As well as light coming into the eyes, images and perceptions are projected outwards through our eyes into the world around us.

Our perceptions are mental constructions, involving the interpretive activity of our minds. But while they are images in our minds, at the same time they are outside our bodies. If they are both within the mind and outside the body, then the mind must extend beyond the body. Our minds reach out to touch everything we see. If we look at distant stars, then our minds stretch out over astronomical distances to touch these heavenly bodies. Subject and object are indeed confused. Through our perceptions, the environment is brought within us, but we also extend outwards into the environment.

In normal perception, that which we perceive-for example, this printed page-and our perceptual image of it coincide; they are in the same place. In illusions and hallucinations, the images do not coincide with things outside us, but may nevertheless involve a similar process of projection, an outward movement of images. (I return to a discussion of this question in chapter 5 in connection with phantom limbs.)

This idea of the extended mi ' nd may sound like playing with words, a mere intellectual exercise. Or it may sound like an illegitimate confusion of philosophical categories that ought to be kept separate: the physical realm on the one hand, and the phenomenological or subjective realm on the other. But it is not just a matter of words or of philosophy. The extended mind may have measurable effects. If our minds reach out and "touch" what we are looking at, then we may affect what we look at, just by looking at it. If we look at another person, for example, we may affect him or her by doing so.

Is there any evidence that people can tell when they are being looked at by someone, even when they cannot see the person looking at them? For example, can people tell when they are being stared at from behind? As soon as we ask this question, we realize that there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence suggesting that this is the case. Many people have had the experience of feeling that they are being looked at, and on turning around find that they really are. Conversely, many people have stared at other people's backs, for example in a lecture theater, and watched them become restless and then turn round.

The Scientific Background

The first discussion of the feeling of being stared at in the scientific literature appeared in Science in 1898, in an article by E. B. Titchener, a pioneering scientific psychologist at Cornell University, in New York State:

Every year I find a certain proportion of students, in my junior classes, who are firmly persuaded that they can "feel" that they are being stared at from behind, and a smaller proportion who believe that, by persistent gazing at the back of the neck, they have the power of making a person seated in front of them turn round and look them in the face."

Titchener was confident that there must be a rational explanation, admitting of no mysterious influences. It is worth reading his account in detail, since exactly the same kind of explanation is still given by present-day sceptics:

The psychology of the matter is as follows:

1. We are all of us more or less nervous about our backs. If you observe a seated audience before it has become absorbed in the music or lecture for which it came together, you will notice that a great many women are continually placing their hands to their heads, smoothing and patting their hair, and every now and then glancing at their shoulders or over their shoulders to their backs; while any of the men will frequently glance at or over their shoulders, and make patting and brushing movements with their hand upon lapel and coatcollar.

2. Since it is the presence of the audience, of people seated behind one, that touches off the movements described above, it is natural that these movements should in many cases be so extended so as to involve an actual turning of the head and sweeping of the eyes over the back of the room or hall. . . . Observe that all this is entirely independent of any gaze or stare coming from behind.

3. Now, movement in an unmoved field-whether the field be that of sight, or hearing, or touch, or any other-is one of the strongest known stimuli to the passive attention. . . . Hence if 1, A, am seated in the back part of the room, and B moves head or hand within my field of regard, my eyes are fatally and irresistibly drawn to B. Let B continue the movement by looking round, and, of course, I am staring at him. There are, in all probability, several people staring at him, in the same way and for the same reason, at various parts of the room; and it is an accident whether he catch my eye or another's. Someone's eye he almost certainly will catch. These accidents evidently play into the hands of a theory of personal attraction and telepathic influence.

4. Everything is now explained, except the feeling that B experiences at the back of the neck. This feeling is made up, upon its sensation side, simply of strain and pressure sensations which, in part, are normally present in the region (sensations from skin, muscle, tendon and joint), but are now brought into unusual prominence by the direction of attention upon them, and, in part, are aroused by the attitude of attention itself . . . The "feeling of Must" in the present case is no more mysterious than the "feeling of Must" that prompts us to shift our position in a chair, when the distribution of pressures has become uncomfortable, or to turn our better ear to the sound that we wish particularly to observe.

5. In conclusion, I may state that I have tested this interpretation of the "feeling of being stared at," at various times, in a series of laboratory experiments conducted with persons who declared themselves either particularly susceptible to the stare or peculiarly capable of "making people turn round." As regards such capacity and susceptibility the experiments have invariably given a negative result; in other words the interpretation offered has been confirmed. If the scientific reader object that this result might have been foreseen, and that the experiments were, therefore, a waste of time, I can only reply that they seem to me to have their justification in the breaking-down of a superstition which has deep and widespread roots in the popular consciousness. No scientifically-minded psychologist believes in telepathy. At the same time, the disproof of it in a given case may start a student upon the straight scientific path, and the time spent may thus be repaid to science a hundredfold."

Whereas to some on the "straight scientific path" this may still seem convincing, others will notice that Titchener assumes what he sets out to prove. The scenario he describes could well have included a mysterious influence of staring. And his experimental disproof of the phenomenon, of which he gives no details, might have other explanations. For example, his subjects might have been put off by his sceptical attitude, or too self-conscious to perform well when tested by him under artificial conditions in a laboratory.

Herein lies the greatest problem for investigating this phenomenon by experiment. The "feeling of being stared at" may work under natural conditions in an unconscious manner. Under artificial conditions, in experimental trials, trying to decide consciously whether one is being stared at may be difficult without practice. Moreover, in real life there are a variety of feelings associated with the act of staring, such as anger, envy, or sexual attraction. If in experimental tests all motivation is removed, save for scientific curiosity, then the effects may be much weakened.

The second investigation of this phenomenon was published in 1913 byj. E. Coover. Following up Titchener's investigations, he found that 75 percent of the students in his junior classes at Stanford believed in the reality of the feeling of being stared at. He then carried out experimental tests with ten subjects. Each was looked at from behind by the experimenter in a series of 100 trials. The experimenter (Coover himself or an assistant) either looked at the subject or looked away, in a random sequence, indicating when the trial began by a tapping noise. The subject then said whether or not she was being looked at, and then said how certain she felt in her guess. The overall result showed that subjects were right only 50.2 percent of the time, not significantly better than the chance level of 50 percent. Nevertheless, when the subjects said they were very certain of their guess, they were correct 67 percent of the time; when they were less certain the results were around or slightly below chance levels. Coover dismissed this aspect of his own findings. He concluded that alt hough the belief in the feeling of being stared at is common, "experiment shows it to be groundless."

That was more or less the end of the matter for nearly half a century, until the subject was raised again in 1959 by J. J. Poortman in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research." He described tests he carried out in Holland, with a woman friend looking at him-a member of the City Council of The Hague who had told him that "she resorted to staring at a person whom she saw at a gathering and to whom she wished to speak." He followed the same method as Coover; in a sequence of 89 trials, carried out on several different days, the lady councillor looked or did not look in a random sequence, and recorded whether Poortman said yes or no. He was right 59.6 percent of the time, as against the chance expectation of 50 percent. This result was statisticafly significant.' 9

Nearly twenty more years elapsed before the next investigation, in 1978, by a graduate student at Edinburgh University, Donald Peterson. In a series of experiments with eighteen different subjects, he found that they could tell when they were being looked at significantly more often than by chance. 20

In 1983, an Australian undergraduate, Linda Williams at the University of Adelaide, did a p 'ect in which the starer and subject were in different rooms, 60 feet apart. The subject was viewed by the starer by means of closed-circuit television. In a sequence of trials, each 12 seconds long, the starer either saw the subject on the screen, or the screen went blank. (The TV screen was programmed to switch on and off in a random sequence, but the video camera was on all the time. The subject was informed when each new 12second trial began by an electronic bleep.) The overall results from twenty-eight subjects showed a small but statistically significant positive effect; they did better than chance at knowing when they were being looked at on television. 21

The most technically sophisticated tests of this ability were carried out in the late 1980s at the Mind Science Foundation, in San Antonio, Texas, by William Brand, Sperry Andrews, and colleagues. They too used closed-circuit television. The subjects were asked to sit calmly in a room for 20 minutes, with the video camera running continuously, thinking of whatever they liked. The staters watched them on a television screen in the viewing room, in a different block of the laboratory building. In contrast to all the earlier experiments, the subjects were not asked to make any guesses about when they were being looked at. Rather, their unconscious bodily responses were monitored, through measuring their basal skin resistance by means of electrodes on their left hand.

Changes in this resistance, as in lie-detector tests, give a sensitive measurement of the unconscious activity of the sympathetic nervous system. In a series of 30-second trials, with rest periods in between, the subject was either being looked at or not, in a random sequence. The results showed significant differences in the skin resistance when the subjects were being looked at, even though they were not conscious of it.22

In summary, although there has been remarkably little research on this subject, the available evidence suggests that there is indeed a sense of being stared at, although it does not show up very impressively under artificial conditions.

My Own Investigations

I have carried out two kinds of experiments. In the first kind, conducted with several groups in Europe and America, four people volunteered to act as subjects, and sat at one end of the room with their backs toward the rest of the group, who were seated at the other end of the room. In each trial, one of the four was looked at by the rest of the group; the other three were not. At the beginning of each trial I held up a card with the name of the person to be looked at, determined according to a random sequence. At the end of each 20-second trial, all four subjects wrote down whether they thought they were being looked at or not. The results showed that most people, under these conditions, performed little or no better than chance. But in the course of these experiments, I encountered two people who were nearly always right, scoring way above chance levels.

As it happened, both these people were very confident in their ability. The first, a young woman in Amsterdam, said that she had practiced this ability as a child with her brothers and sisters, as a game, and felt sure she would still be able to do it. The second, a young man in California, told me after the experiment that he was under the influence of MDMA, a psychoactive drug commonly known as Ecstasy, and felt a heightened sensitivity as a result.

My second experimental procedure involved immediate feedback: the receiver was told after each guess whether it was right or wrong. Otherwise the procedure was similar to that of most previous researchers: lookers and subjects worked in pairs, with a random sequence of trials. The details are given in the following section.

In these experiments a few people did remarkably well: they were right most of the time. Two of those who did best in my tests were from Eastern Europe; perhaps years living under repressive communist regimes had given them a strong motivation to sense when they were being watched. Most people's results were close to chance levels, but there was nevertheless a significant statistical tendency for people to do better than chance. The overall results from ten different experiments (involving more than 120 subjects) were 1,858 correct guesses as against 1,638 incorrect guesses; in other words 53.1 percent of the guesses were correct, 3.1 percent above the chance level of 50 percent. This result is highly significant statistically.

These results confirm the positive findings of other researchers, summarized above. But they also confirm that most people do not perform very impressively under artificial conditions. The overall results are better than chance, but not much better. The challenge is to find people able to do well under these artificial conditions; my preliminary results show that this may well be possible. Some kinds of people may be especially sensitive anyway. Paranoids, for example, might be exceptionally talented in this respect, but they would probably be paranoid about the experiment itself. People who practice subtle all-round awareness through martial arts such as al 'kido might be particularly good subjects.

Possible Experiments

I begin with the outline of the simple experimental procedure that I have tried out extensively. This was designed with a three-fold purpose. First, it is kept as simple as possible, so that it is easy to do. It can be done with groups of people splitting up into pairs; for example, in workshops, classes, or seminars. It can also be done by pairs of people at home or anywhere else; it needs no laboratory, nor any apparatus other than a pencil, a sheet of paper, and a coin-and the coin can be recycled indefinitely. In fact the experiment is free.

Second, it enables people who are unusually talented to be identified, and thus opens the way to more detailed experiments.

Third, it enables people who do not do particularly well to practice and find out if they improve with experience. It may be possible to train oneself to perform well under these artificial conditions. And this too would open the way for further research.

In these experiments people work in pairs, one sitting with his or her back to the other. In a series of trials, in a random sequence, the looker either looks at the back of the subject for 20 seconds, or looks away and thinks of something else for 20 seconds. The random sequence is determined by tossing a coin before each trial: heads means look; tails means don't look. The looker indicates when a trial is beginning by a tap, click, or bleep, and the subject then guesses whether he or she is being looked at or not. Uniform mechanical clicks or electronic bleeps are better than taps because they rule out the possibility of subtle cues being transmitted through the strengths of the taps. The looker records the result, and then tells the subject whether the answer was correct or.not. The looker then tosses a coin to determine what to do in the next trial. And so on. The procedure is quite fast, and an average speed of two trials per minute is easy to achieve. The results are recorded on a simple score sheet, as shown in the Practical Details section at the end of this book.

I have found it best to keep test periods fairly short, up to about 20 minutes, during which time forty or more trials can be done. For statistical analysis, at least ten separate test periods are desirable, either with the same pair of people or with different pairs of people.

The procedure described above has already been successfully tried out as a school science project by a 13-year-old in California. Michael Mastrandrea, an eighth-grade student, carried out 480 tests with twenty-four different people. In each case he was the looker. He used an electronic bleeper to indicate when each trial began. The overall results showed that the subjects were correct 55.2 percent of the time, and this positive result was statistically significant.

For those who do not perform particularly well in initial tests, it is good to practice, doing 15- to 20-minute test sessions whenever convenient. This makes it possible for a learning process akin to biofeedback to occur, whereby various subtle sensations or methods of visualization are tried out in the attempt to find an effective way of telling when one is being looked at. If there is a tendency to improve with experience, it should be revealed by a rising proportion of correct guesses in successive sessions.

If and when sensitive subjects have been identified, many further questions can then be asked. Here are some straightforward examples:

1. How much difference does the looker make? Are some people much more effective as lookers than others?

2. Does the sense of being stared at still happen when the person is looked at through a window? Does it still show up when looked at from a distance, for example through binoculars? By experiments of this type, it should be possible to rule out the possibility that in tests in the same room the subjects are being influenced by subtle cues, such as the sound of the looker moving his or her head. If the effect still shows up at a distance, or through soundproof windows, then this would greatly strengthen the evidence for a direct influence of looks.

3. Does the ability show up when the subject's reflection is looked at in a mirror?

4. Does this ability show up when the subject is looked at using closed-circuit TV, with the looker and the subject in separate rooms, or even separate buildings? The results from Adelaide and San Antonio, summarized above, suggest that it does.

5. If it works on closed-circuit TV, then what about actual transmissions? In this case, the effect of distance can be tested over hundreds, or even thousands, of miles, using satellite links. If preliminary experiments show it works on TV, then live experiments could be done involving millions of viewers. Here is one possible design for a TV show. Four sensitive subjects are kept in separate rooms in front of TV cameras that are running continuously. Then, in a series of trials, viewers see one subject at a time in a randomized sequence. At the end of each trial, all four subjects press a button indicating yes or no. Viewers see a scoreboard on which the number of right and wrong scores for each subject is registered. The sequence of trials need take no more than about 10 minutes. A computerized statistical analysis could be available almost immediately, and the rest of the program could consist of a discussion of the results and their implications.

If sensitive subjects are available, there would probably be no problem getting this kind of experiment performed, as I have found by talking to TV producers in Europe and America. Such experiments would make good television and arouse much popular interest.

6. How closely related is the sense of being stared at to telepathy? Does looking at someone have a greater effect than just thinking about them without looking? The way to find out is by experiment. For example, the experiment can be modified to include a third condition, in which the lookers think of the receivers but do not look at them. In other words, there would be three kinds of trial in random sequence: looking; not looking and not thinking; not looking but thinking. My own guess is that the effects of looking will be greater than 'ust thinking.

These are only a few of the experiments possible with sensitive subjects, but these examples suffice to show that this could rapidly grow into a fertile field of research. The field is wide open, and the implications are mind-boggling.

© Sheldrake, Rupert. Seven Experiments That Could Change the World. New York: Riverhead, 1995.