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OU on the BBC: Blue Sky - Staring

Updated Monday 23rd February 2009

Have you ever had the sense of being stared at? Biologist Rupert Sheldrake explains his exploration of this common phenomenon

The sense of being stared at in human beings is generally thought of as a totally marginal phenomenon, a kind of fancy that thing that happens in everyday life – everybody knows about it but nobody thinks about it.

Between 80 and 95 per cent of the population have said in surveys that they’ve felt they were being looked at from behind and they turn around and someone is looking at them.

Staring eyes  [Image: Sarah G under CC-BY licence] Creative commons image Icon SarahG... via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
Staring eyes [Image: Sarah G... under CC-BY licence]

Rupert Sheldrake says that the conventional scientific view is to dismiss the whole thing as an illusion, a chance coincidence:

"There’s been extraordinarly little research on this very common phenomenon. The bigger question behind it for me was the nature of vision and ultimately the nature of our minds. What’s happening when we see something?"

For more than three hundred years people in the West have believed that images must all be inside the brain, however, no-one has ever seen an image in the brain.

"It is really based on theory rather than evidence. If in some sense our mind reaches out to touch what we’re looking at we may be able to affect things just by looking at them.

If we look at someone from behind when they don’t know we’re there and they can pick up that we’re looking at them, that would be evidence for an influence reaching out in vision as well as light coming in."

The experiments that Rupert has been working on involve someone wearing a blindfold and sitting with their back to someone else. The person doing the staring indicates the start of the trial by giving a signal.

The person behind them either stares at the back of their neck or looks away and thinks of something else. The blindfolded person has to say if they are being stared at or not and they are either right or wrong.

This is a very simple experiment and gives clear cut and repeatable results.

On average, over tens of thousands of trials, when people are being stared at they are right about 60 per cent of the time so people are not that brilliant at knowing when they are being stared at but it is very significantly above chance when thousands of trials are studied.

Rupert has made good use of the Internet to get the instructions out to people. He says: "The web is a wonderful gift for participatory research of this kind. It helps to democratise science, to make science much more accessible to many people. In the 19th century, a great deal of scientific innovation occurred through amateurs through non-professionals doing very inexpensive research.

Science has now been very professionalised – much more so than it used to be – and it actually damps down creativity. I don’t think big questions need big science. I think some of the big questions can be answered by extremely simple and inexpensive experiments".

Rupert admits that it could be all an illusion.

"It could be that these experiments have some flaw that no-one’s yet detected and that I suppose would be some kind of failure but if there were some conventional explanation for this, it wouldn’t be a failure in the sense that we would then have some way of explaining what is an incredibly widespread illusion if it is an illusion."

He believes that this is the way to proceed scientifically.

"We need to look at the alternatives and to formulate an experiment to find out what the facts tell us. But to do that you have to be open minded enough to ask the question and to be open to the evidence".

To try the experiment for yourself, visit Rupert Sheldrake's website.

First broadcast: Friday 11 May 2001 on BBC TWO


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