Photo Ankit Kumar
Since the late 1980's I have been doing research on the sense of being stared at, which has wide implications for the nature of vision and of minds. This research is described in a series of papers (see below). This research is summarized in my book The Sense of Being Stared At, And Other Aspects of the Extended Mind (2003). A fully revised and updated edition of this book was published in the US in 2013 (Inner Traditions, Rochester, VT).
It also led to the publication of a special edition of the Journal of Consciousness Studies (JCS Vol 12 No. 6, 2005) Sheldrake and his Critics: The sense of being glared at.
Scientific Papers on The Sense of Being Stared At
In previous research on the sense of being stared at participants worked in pairs, with the starer behind the staree. In a series of 20 randomized trials, the starer looked or did not look at the staree, who had to guess "looking" or "not looking". We here describe an automated, internet-based version of this standard staring experiment. In 498 tests, each with 20 trials, the computer gave an automatic sound signal to indicate when each trial began. The average hit rate was 53.0% (p <1x10-6); 268 participants scored above the chance level of 10 out of 20, 150 below, and 80 at the chance level. There was no significant difference between male and female starees, and little effect of starees' age. The highest hit rates were with parent-child participants. Hit rates were significantly higher when starees received trial-by-trial feedback, but there was no increase in the second half of the test compared with the first. Although these tests were unsupervised, the results replicated many of the features of previous tests and illustrate the potential for carrying out research through the internet, enabling widespread participation.
Simple experiments on the sense of being stared at have given repeatable, positive results that are highly significant statistically. In these experiments, people work in pairs. The staree sits with his or her back to the starer, who either looks at the back of the staree's neck, or looks away, in a random sequence. In each trial, the staree has to guess whether or not the starer is looking. However, when Marks & Colwell (2001) and Lobach & Bierman (2004) conducted tests of this kind, some of their experiments gave results not significantly different from chance, and they attempted to explain the positive results in staring tests as artifacts. Their hypotheses predict that positive scores should arise only in trials with feedback, only in trials with one particular kind of randomization, and that scores should increase towards the end of the experimental session. I have examined the data from the first and second halves of more than 19,000 trials to test these predictions. Both with and without feedback, and also with different randomization methods, the scores were positive and statistically significant in both the first and the second halves of tests. With feedback there was a small increase in scores in the second halves, but this was not statistically significant. Without feedback, there was a tendency for the scores to decline. In a trial-by-trial analysis of one large-scale experiment, the highest hit rate occurred in the very first trial for starees who were about to receive feedback, before any feedback had actually been given! Thus the beneficial effect of feedback may not depend so much on the feedback itself as the state of mind of the participants.
The sense of being stared at, or scopesthesia, was investigated experimentally with participants working in pairs. Two participants were tested repeatedly and the effect of attentional transition was investigated. In some tests, in the pre-trial period the starer stared at the staree, who was blindfolded, and in others the starer did not stare during the pre-trial period. Their overall hit rate in these attentional transition tests was 52.8% (2,800 trials; p=0.002), but there was no significant difference in hit rates between the two kinds of test. Participants were given trial-by-trial feedback, so if there was any learning, there should have been a progressive increase in hit rates. This did not happen. The participants also took part in a control tests in which there was no staring at all. In these tests hit rates were at chance levels, indicating that other forms of ESP, such as telepathy and clairvoyance, could not account for the results in scopesthesia tests. There were only 3 recording errors in 2,800 trials (0.1%), and two of these cancelled out, leaving a net error rate of 0.04%.
A special edition of the Journal of Consciousness Studies (2005) Vol 12 No. 6
Editorial Introduction by Anthony Freeman: The Sense of Being Glared At
Rupert's papers from the Journal:
Part 1: Is it Real or Illusory? | PDF
Part 2: Its Implications for Theories of Vision | PDF
The Non-Visual Detection of Staring - Response to Commentators | PDF
The complete edition, entitled Sheldrake and His Critics: The Sense of Being Glared At is available in paperback.
In 1981 Rupert Sheldrake outraged the scientific establishment with his hypothesis of morphic resonance. Subsequently he devoted his research to pioneering science, winning popular acclaim and continued establishment opprobium with a series of ground-breaking works. In this special edition of JCS, Rupert summarises his case for the 'non-visual detection of staring'. His claims are scrutinised by fourteen critics, to whom Rupert then responds. Anthony Freeman, in his editorial introduction, explores the concept of "heresy" in science and in religion and asks why it provokes such hostility.
The sense of being stared at from behind can be investigated by means of simple experiments in which subjects and lookers work in pairs, with the looker sitting behind the subject. In a random sequence of trials the looker either looks at the back of the subject, or looks away and thinks of something else. In each trial the subject guesses whether or not he or she is being looked at. There is a 50% probability of getting it right by chance. More than 15,000 trials have already been conducted, involving more than 700 subjects, with extremely significant excess of correct over incorrect guesses (Sheldrake, 1999), indicating that people really can tell when they are being looked at from behind. In this paper I discuss possible artifacts that could have affected these results and describe the results of experiments carried out in a school in London in which I investigated the effects of blindfolding subjects and giving them feedback about whether their guesses were correct or not. Blindfolding and feedback had no significant effects. Under all conditions the scores in looking trials were positive and statistically significant, and in not-looking trials at chance levels. I also describe the results of a series of experiments carried out in schools in Ireland with blindfolded subjects who were not given feedback. The significant positive scores in these experiments confirmed that the feeling of being stared at from behind does not depend on visual clues, nor does it depend on the subjects knowing if their guesses are right or wrong.
Two recent articles in the Skeptical Inquirer have claimed that the feeling of being stared at is an illusion. Both have attempted to refute my own experimental research on the subject, which indicates that many people do indeed have an unexplained ability to detect stares.
A variety of surveys have shown that most people believe they can feel unseen stares (Sheldrake 1994). In his article "Can we tell when someone is staring at us?" (March/April 2000 SI) Robert A. Baker, a CSICOP Fellow, dismissed this belief as false. "Skeptics.... believe that it is nothing more than a superstition and/or a response to subtle signals from the environment." (Baker 2000, p. 40). He claimed to provide empirical evidence to support his presuppositions.
Simple experiments to test whether or not people can tell when they are being stared at from behind were carried out in schools in Germany and the United States. Lookers and subjects worked in pairs, with the lookers sitting behind the subjects. In a series of trials the lookers either looked or did not look at the subjects in a random sequence determined by tossing a coin. In each trial, the subjects guessed whether or not they were being looked at. The results show an overall positive effect, with 56.9% correct guesses as opposed to 50% expected by chance. 97 of the subjects were right more often than they were wrong, and 42 were wrong more often than they were right. This positive effect was highly significant statistically (p=3x10-6). The data showed a consistent pattern. There was a positive effect when the subjects were being looked at, while the guesses were not significantly different from chance when they were not being looked at. In one school in Germany where sensitive subjects were tested repeatedly, 71.2% of the guesses were correct, and two students were right about 90% of the time. Possible sources of artefacts in these experiments are examined, and the implications of the results are discussed.
The "sense of being stared at" can be investigated by means of simple experiments in which subjects and lookers work in pairs, with the looker sitting behind the subject. In a random sequence of trials, the looker either looks at the back of the subject, or looks away and thought of something else. More than 15,000 trials have already been conducted, involving more than 700 subjects, with an extremely significant excess of correct over incorrect guesses (Sheldrake ). This effect was still apparent in experiments in which subjects were blindfolded and given no feedback, showing it did not depend on visual clues, nor on the subjects knowing if their guesses were right or wrong (Sheldrake ). In this paper I describe experiments I conducted in schools in England in which the subjects were not only blindfolded and given no feedback, but looked at through closed windows. There was again a very significant excess of correct over incorrect guesses (p<0.004). At my request, teachers in Canada, Germany and the United States carried out similar experiments and found an even more significant positive effect than in my own experiments (p< 0.0002). The fact that positive results were still obtained when visual clues had been effectively eliminated by blindfolds, and auditory and olfactory clues by closed windows, implies that the sense of being stared at does not depend on the known senses. I conclude that peoples' ability to know when they are being looked at depends on an influence at present unknown to science.
The feeling of being stared from behind is well known all over the world, and most people claim to have experienced it themselves. There have been surprisingly few empirical investigations of this phenomenon. I describe a simple experimental procedure with subjects and lookers working in pairs. In a random sequence of trials, the looker either looked at the back of the subject, or looked away and thought of something else. Such experiments showed a very significant excess of correct over incorrect guesses. When subjects were being looked at, they guessed correctly about 60% of the time, whereas in control trials, when they were not being looked at, their guesses were close to the chance level of 50%. The same pattern of results was found in my own experiments with adult subjects, with two different procedures: in experiments conducted in schools in Connecticut, USA: in experiments conducted by volunteers all around the world; and in a previous series of experiments in schools in Germany and the USA. All these sets of data showed a highly significant effect. Taken together they showed that in looking trials, 427 people were more often right than wrong, as opposed to 157 who were more often wrong than right. This difference is extremely significant (p<1x10-25). In the control trials, there was no significant difference between the number of people who were more often right than wrong (294) and more often wrong than right (287). These results suggest that the feeling of being looked at from behind is a real phenomenon that depends on factors as yet unknown to science. Non-human animals may also share this kind of sensitivity, which may be of evolutionary sugnificance in the relationships between predators and prey.
Related Research by Others
British Journal of Psychology, 1 May 2004, vol. 95, no. 2, pp. 235-247(13)
by Schmidt S.; Schneider R.; Utts J.; Walach H.
Findings in parapsychology suggest an effect of distant intentionality. Two laboratory set-ups explored this topic by measuring the effect of a distant intention on psychophysiological variables. The 'Direct Mental Interaction in Living Systems' experiment investigates the effect of various intentions on the electrodermal activity of a remote subject. The 'Remote Staring' experiment examines whether gazing by an observer covaries with the electrodermal activity of the person being observed. Two meta-analyses were conducted. A small significant effect size (d =.11, p = .001) was found in 36 studies on 'direct mental interaction', while a best-evidence-synthesis of 7 studies yielded d = .05 (p = .50). In 15 remote staring studies a mean effect size of d = 0.13 (p = .01) was obtained. It is concluded that there are hints of an effect, but also a shortage of independent replications and theoretical concepts.
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