Psychology of Gaze
You're out in the park catching up on Facebook on your phone when, out of nowhere, you feel the distinct sensation that someone is staring at you. You look up from your phone, and sure enough, you see someone looking right at you.
We've all had some form of this experience happen to us, and the weird part about it is how real the perception of their eyes on us is feels. We can actually feeeel them checking us out. And it's spooky.
So, what's going on?
You're not actually feeling someone's eyes on you. Not in a literal fashion, anyway. What you are feeling, however, is the awareness that someone else is aware of you.
Noticing when someone is noticing you has evolutionary benefit. If you're prey, and you're completely oblivious to the fact a predator has locked their eyes on you, chances are you're not going to be around long enough to pass those "Does not notice when others notice me" genes onto the next generation.
Gaze As Communication
We not only understand someone's gaze as their attention on us. Humans have evolved with a finely tuned sensitivity to what that gaze means. Ever had a conversation with a friend at a party using only your eyes? You know exactly what each one of you is saying, but there were no words spoken. That's an incredible feat that few creatures are capable of performing.
Also, we've learned to understand if someone else is interested in something (as indicated by them looking at it), it's probably important for us to look at it too. There's a fun demonstration of this if you can get your friends to play along. Go to a busy sidewalk and have everybody look up. You'll quickly notice how many strangers will see you, see you looking up, and then look up in that same direction very quickly. It happens without them noticing it, but it does happen.
Your brain picks up so much information every second that if you were consciously aware of it, you'd be totally overwhelmed. Plus, our brains run on about the same amount of energy as the light in your fridge, so it has to cut corners where it can. Our senses don't do so much funneling info into our brains as they do filtering info out. Most of what you see is never noticed, and most of what you notice never conscious levels.
This means you notice a lot of details you're never aware of.
It's quite possible that your eyes noticed someone else's gaze on you (which could mean predatory behavior), but it's way deep down on your level of awareness. You're focused on your phone, and the tiny detail of someone else's eyes aren't a clear and present danger. Your mind communicates on a low level by creating that subtle uneasy feeling that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
Feels like a superpower, but it's really the marvel of evolutionary biology keeping you on your toes.
There are some martial arts traditions that take this to the next level. They're assuming that you're not detecting someone's gaze, but their intent. If you're reading their intent, then you should be able to detect it without direct line of sight.
So they claim to test it.
With a sword.
The practitioner being tested kneels on the floor, and the person administering the test stands behind them with a sword raised over their head. The idea is for the swordman to summon "intent to do him harm" before swinging the sword down onto the head of the kneeling practitioner. The person being tested will "feel" the swordman's intent to do great bodily harm, and roll out of the way before the sword can harm him.
This "intent to do harm" they're feeling for has a word for it: "Sakki."
I'd love to test it by putting a sword on a robot arm, and connect its movement to pushbutton. I would stand behind the person, summon the intent to do harm, and then only have to move my finger before the sword is activated.
My hunch is they're perceiving a lot more than Sakki. Like sound.
We often make the mistake of thinking our minds direct our bodies, but that's just not the case. As SF Zeigler likes to say, "Our bodies inform our minds." And there's a deep dive into exactly this dynamic in the book "You Are Not So Smart: A celebration of self delusion." It's a great read, and I highly recommend it.
Our bodies lead the action, our mind catches up, and since your mind didn't order the movement, it feels like it's someone else is responsible for it. It's called the Ideomotor response, and it's the secret to pendulum readings, dowsers, and any other kind of divination claptrap that relies on easily influenced contraptions.
Another point to consider is how often we feel like someone's watching us when there's nobody else around. It's a false positive, and since it's not a significant event, you forget it ever happened.
But when you feel it, look up, and see someone looking at you that feels much more significant, so you remember that experience.
When you think back on all the times you've felt like someone's watching you, you only remember the times it happened, and completely forget the times it didn't. Therefore, you get the perception that you're always right.
You're not. You're only remembering the times you were right, and conveniently leaving out all the times you were wrong.
It's human nature to want to be right. It's not a conscious thing you're doing, but you are doing it nonetheless.
Did you get weirded out looking at the picture I picked for this article? Probably so. Why is that?
There's a reason the saying goes, "Character is what you do when you think nobody is watching."
Experiments show that people behave more honestly when they're being watched. Not only that, they behave more honestly when they think they're being watched. Not only THAT, but they behave more honestly when there's a poster of eyes on the wall nearby!
There's an "honesty box" where people could put change in for the coffee they take. Above the coffee is a poster with the prices of coffee, coffee+cream, tea, etc. One version didn't have eyes on it. The other version did.
The version with eyes resulted in 3 times as many donations! That's a huge impact!
The eyes are a powerful communication device that we've evolved to use & understand on many levels below & beyond our conscious awareness. This isn't a supernatural thing, it's a subconscious thing.
Try to remember that before you start giving thousands of dollars to some guru who claims to be able to teach you how to dodge swords when you're not looking. . .