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Department of Psychology

Staff

Publication details for Dr Anthony Atkinson

Atkinson, A.P. (2005). Staring at the back of someone's head is no signal, and a sense of being stared at is no sense. Journal of Consciousness Studies 12(6): 50-56.

Author(s) from Durham

Abstract

The first of Sheldrake’s twin articles in this edition of the Journal of Consciousness Studies presents the case for the existence of a ‘sense of being stared at’, which is purported to be a capacity to discriminate at above chance levels between being stared at and not being stared at from behind, by an observer who is, on standard accounts of vision, unseen. That case is based on a summary and amalgamation of the results of dozens of experiments, most of them so-called direct-looking experiments (where the observer is present in the room with the subject), along with some experiments that use more indirect methods (where the observer and subject are in separate rooms connected by closed circuit television or one-way mirrors); anecdotal accounts of a sense of being stared at are proffered in a supporting role. In the second of Sheldrake’s articles, he presents a case for a radical re-conceptualization of vision, one that, he claims, will allow us to explain how people are apparently sometimes able to tell whether some otherwise unseen person is staring at the back of their heads.1 In this commentary, I argue that Sheldrake presents and analyses the data in the wrong way, and that labelling such a capacity a sense is a misnomer. I also suggest that there really is no such capacity, but that, to the extent that there is anything substantive and meaningful in the data at all, it indicates a capacity that is rather more cognitive than sensory-perceptual, namely a belief or reasoning bias.