ESB Professional/shutterstockIf you’ve ever felt like someone was looking at you and you ended up being right, you’re not alone. The same goes for if you’ve ever been home alone and felt like you were being watched; you know what we’re talking about. That eerie feeling of someone—or something—watching your every move. Well, we have good news. Before you call the police, or ghostbusters for that matter, psychology has an answer.
If you’re not home alone, sometimes our “sixth sense” is right, and someone is staring at us. (Here’s how to positively tap into your intuition.) How many times have you looked up only to make awkward eye contact with someone who was already looking at you? In the case that someone is actually looking at you, it’s because your eyes are always picking up on things that are outside your direct field of vision—even when you don’t realize it. Despite the awkward eye contact you may encounter, this is actually a survival technique.
“Direct gaze can signal dominance or a threat, and if you perceive something as a threat, you would not want to miss it. So assuming that the other person is looking at you may simply be a safer strategy,” said professor Colin Clifford of the Vision Centre and the University of Sydney in a media release. “Direct gaze is often a social cue that the other person wants to communicate with us, so it’s a signal for an upcoming interaction.” (In some cultures, people carry around talismans, which are believed to be for protection against those who glare at you with an “evil eye” when you’re not looking, which supposedly results in bad luck, misfortunate, or injury—here are some good luck charms from around the world to try.)
So what about when you’re home alone and feel an “evil eye” gazing at you from across the room? In psychological terms, the feeling of an unknown presence is, “an illusory own-body perception with well-defined characteristics that is associated with sensorimotor loss and caused by lesions in three distinct brain regions: temporoparietal, insular, and especially frontoparietal cortex,” according to a study published by ScienceDirect.
In other words, the feeling of someone staring at you or being near you when you are alone is a psychological misperception and mirroring of your own body’s actions. Normally, our bodies can differentiate between ourselves and others, but every so often, things get a little mixed up. “In a sense, we are absolutely the ghosts we are sensing,” Giulio Rognini, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EPFL’s Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience, tells Inverse.
“We take for granted that we have a solid representation of our body in space and time,” he says. “I think this ‘feeling of a presence’ study is a nice example of the fact that when you trick your own bodily signals and you trick your brain at interpreting them, then you can have very very weird, strange sensations.” (Here’s another way science has busted ghost stories.)
Unfortunately, psychology and science can only explain so much. Because after all, how the heck do you explain this terrifying ghost video?