Wolves, Scrub Jays, & the Prickly Feeling of Being Watched

How do animals know when they’re being watched?

Tommy Lee Jones as Gary Gilmore in the “The Executioner's Song.“

Originally published in slightly different form on July 26, 2012 at PsychologyToday.com.

The Eyes of a Killer The world is full of prey and predators. Each has to develop tricks to “outwit” the other. Instead of spinning webs, some spiders hide under leaves to lie in wait for their prey. A cuttlefish can instantaneously change its pigmentation to blend in with the background, either to avoid predators or to sneak up on its prey. Most mammalian predators “stalk” their prey, getting low to the ground and holding perfectly still whenever the prey looks in their direction.

Do animals know when they’re being watched? Have you ever had the feeling of being stared at? I know I have.

It was the summer of 1976. I was a college kid, having lunch at the counter of a workingman’s diner on the “wrong side of town.” I was a fresh-faced college student hanging out on the scruffy, blue-collar side of town.

As I was enjoying my chicken-fried steak, I began to get a strange, uneasy feeling, one I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I glanced off to my left and saw a hardened-looking man staring intently in my direction. He was at a corner table with his chair arranged so that his back was to the wall, giving him a view of the entire room, and ensuring that no one could sneak up behind him. I later learned that this was a common behavior in ex-convicts.

We locked eyes for a moment. His eyes seemed to be telling me something: “Get out... You don’t belong here.”

I glanced away, went back to eating, then looked back over at him.

He was still staring at me. The message in his eyes was now clearer, “Get out of here or make no mistake about it, I will kill you.”

It was true that the locals didn’t exactly care for college kids coming into their favorite hangouts. But this guy was taking it to a whole ’nother level.

I tried to finish my meal but the feeling of being stared at was too strong. I got up, put some money on the counter, and left. Once outside, I glanced back one more time, and saw a satisfied smirk on the man’s face.

A few weeks later I saw that face again, this time on the TV news. His name was Gary Gilmore, and he’d just been arrested on suspicion of killing two young college students about my age, both of whom bore a slight resemblance to me. In other words, I seemed to fit his profile.

At first I wasn’t sure if it really was the guy I’d seen at the diner; people don’t always look the same in mug shots as they do in real life. But then I looked at his eyes, and knew it was him.

He had the eyes of a killer.

Scrub Jays, Spanish Wolves, and the Feeling of Being Stared At Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake has completed tens of thousands of trials on the sensation of being stared at and found that 60% of test subjects reported being stared at while they were actually under scrutiny while 50% mistakenly reported being stared at when no one was looking. According to Sheldrake, this suggests that there may be a weak sense of being stared at but no sense of not being stared at. Personally, I have to wonder if the percentages would have gone up if the volunteers had been stared at by someone with malicious intent.

Sheldrake: “The ability to detect [danger] makes biological and evolutionary sense. It may be deeply rooted in our animal nature, and widespread in the animal kingdom.”

This brings up an interesting behavior seen in scrub jays, a type of corvid, a relative of crows. For some time now it’s been believed that these jays will cache and re-cache their food based on who they “think” is watching them. This has been touted as another example of corvid intelligence (along with crows and ravens using tools and remembering human faces).

Some researches have even said that this is proof that corvids may have a Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to be aware of one’s own mental states, and the ability to impute mental states onto others.

However, a new study, done using computer models, shows that the scrub jay’s behaviors can be explained as a stress response, having nothing to do with intelligence or a Theory of Mind.

Meanwhile, another study, this one out of Spain, shows that wolves living in the Galicia region choose to live in high places that are difficult to access, areas where vegetation hides the wolves from human eyes, even though this provides less access to prey. In fact, researchers determined that the influence of avoiding human contact was at 35% while food availability was only 17%!

Why do scrub jays feel stressed when another bird is watching them? And why would wolves avoid human contact rather than live in a habitat where food was more plentiful? An even better question might be, absent a Theory of Mind how do wolves and scrub jays know when someone is watching them? And, for that matter, how did I know that someone dangerous was staring at me that day at the diner?

A Gut Feeling Animals and humans will avoid stressful situations whenever possible. Being stared at in that diner in college was certainly stressful to me (though even more so when I found out later who’d actually been doing the staring). Being watched also seems to create a stress response in scrub jays. And we could also interpret the new data on Spanish wolves in a similar fashion: apparently it’s less stressful for wolves to go hungry than it is to be seen by human eyes.

However, the data on scrub jays show that the birds only re-cached their food when the “watchers” were clearly visible; when they were hidden the birds didn’t seem to care. So it may be that wolves and humans have a sixth sense, while birds may not.

If wolves do have this sixth sense it might indicate that it’s not a recent evolutionary development, but an ability that all mammals are mammals have, to one degree or another. And since there are actual physical organs (eyes, ears, etc.) attached to the other five senses, what organs would be responsible for processing the sensation of being watched, and how would these organs go about doing so?

In her book Molecules of Emotion, neuroscientist Candace Pert writes, “The entire lining of the intestines, from the esophagus through the large intestine … is lined with cells—nerve cells and other kinds of cells—that contain neuropeptides and receptors. It seems entirely possible to me that the density of receptors in the intestines may be why we feel our emotions in that part of the anatomy, often referring to them as gut feelings.”

So it’s entirely possible that the human body does, in fact, have a sensory organ capable of registering the uncomfortable feeling of being watched (particularly by predators). Just as our eyes register visual objects and our ears register audible signals from the environment, etc., the receptors in our intestines may register gut feelings of danger or peril.

Biogenergetic Energy Fields

The enteric nervous system, which is responsible for these “gut feelings,” also produces neuropeptides associated with learning, and with motivating behavior. In fact, 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced inside the gut while only 50% of the body’s dopamine is produced there. Both chemicals are important in helping animals determine what environmental stimuli are the most salient and important. And there’s very little in life that’s more important than avoiding imminent danger.

The question of how these feelings are transferred from the eyes and mind of the watcher to the enteric nervous system in the watched remains somewhat mysterious. But it probably takes place via disturbances or vibrations in an unseen medium or energy field. Of course Western Science objects to the idea of invisible energy fields (except for gravity and electromagnetism). Bio-energetic fields don’t exist as far as most scientists are concerned.

Yet acupuncture is said to operate through subtle energy fields. And even though the American Medical Association discounts the idea of these energy fields being an operative factor in the effectiveness of acupuncture, they do admit that they can be effective for some ailments.

There are also studies showing that Eastern practices such as tai-chi, yoga, and meditation—which are all theorized to operate via changes in the body’s energy field (or chi)—provide real health benefits.

Again, since there is no health benefit quite like the one of avoiding being killed by a predator, it seems to me that whether you're a wolf or a blue jay, the feeling of being watched—even when you can’t see who’s watching—may very well be a real phenomenon, worthy of further study.


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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.