The experience of turning around to find someone staring at you, almost as if you had ‘felt’ their stare, is common.

Research into the phenomenon goes back to the early days of scientific psychology at the end of the 19th Century. More recently, the ‘sense of being stared at’ has been studied extensively by parapsychology researchers such as Rupert Sheldrake (a believer) and Richard Wiseman (a sceptic).

Researchers like Sheldrake believe the effect is real and that we really can feel when someone is looking at us. In his experiments, Sheldrake found a tiny but statistically significant effect in support of the staring phenomenon – his volunteers could judge whether they were being stared at slightly better than if they had just guessed at random.

But in similar studies, sceptical researchers such as Wiseman have turned up negative results. What’s more, he and others have noted numerous problems with the studies conducted by ‘believers’. For instance, issues with randomisation of the trials mean that volunteers might have detected a pattern and used this to guide their judgments.

Rather than rewriting everything we know about the nature of the human mind and brain, there is a less exciting explanation for the sense of being stared at. It is that whenever we turn and find someone staring at us, we remember it, but all those times we turn and no one is looking, we don’t.

It’s a similar story for feeling like you can predict when someone is about to text or call you – any time that you’re thinking of someone and they ring, it feels uncanny, as though you foresaw the future. But more likely, it was just a coincidence, and you’ve probably forgotten all the times you were thinking of that person and they didn’t get in touch.

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Asked by: William Webb, via email

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Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.