How Can We Feel When People Are Looking at Us?

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This question comes from our reader Dominic from Ohio.

It's not too out of the ordinary to feel like you are being watched. But why are we so prone to catching someone who's gazing at us? The cause is not psychic ability, but really a mix of your brain's lightning fast processing abilities and our species' social tendencies.

Eye contact is an important part of communication between humans. We're sensitive to it because the body doesn't want to miss a potential connection (or threat). Even when someone isn't directly facing you, you can still sense the gaze from your peripheral vision.

According to Psychology Today, the brain has a specific system dedicated to detecting the gaze of others. Compared to other animals, humans have a lot more visible sclera (the white part of the eye), making it easier to follow a person's gaze. Most animals want to hide where they are looking to aid them when hunting, but humans are social creatures who depend on cooperation and community to survive; being able to make eye contact helps build these crucial relationships. 

But what about when you can't see that person at all? Some people will swear up and down that they can feel eyes directly on their back, but this is largely speculative and inaccurate. Humans are hardwired to assume people are looking as an over-precaution. "A direct gaze can signal dominance or a threat, and if you perceive something as a threat, you would not want to miss it," Colin Clifford, a professor at UNSW Australia, explained to the Daily Mail. "So simply assuming another person is looking at you may be the safest strategy."