Do You Know When You’re Being Watched?

urban woods

In the woods, hiking alone, I often suffer from attacks of scopaesthesia.

Also known as the “psychic staring effect,” scopaesthesia is the twenty-five-cent word for the sensation that comes over you of being watched but not something your vision has picked up. For example, having the prickly feeling of someone’s eyes on you, causing you to turn and scan to see who it is.

Oh yeah, there are some hikes where I get it bad. When the feeling comes over me, it’s all I can do not to start running blindly. But then I visualize myself tripping on a tree root and all of the squirrels and birds and crickets laughing at my expense. That usually snaps me out of it—along with a long, lingering scan of my surroundings.

But what if there’s more out there than just squirrels… birds… crickets…

Some contentious theories have been expounded and actual experiments conducted to measure what turns out to be an elusive answer as to what, exactly, is responsible for experiencing that knowing.

We have a gaze detection system that makes us sensitive to the positioning of others’ eyes. Also, our eyes differ from animals in that our gaze is more easily detectable: think about the amount of white around our eyes when compared to a cat or a bird, for example. For humans, the white is considered a benefit because it helps us to communicate. But for a predator? They want to blend…

Some skeptics don’t believe that the “knowing” you’re being watched is anything more than capturing some sort of tip-off picked up by our peripheral vision. What that doesn’t account for is the feeling that comes from behind you. Some believe it has to do with a sense at the cellular level—a quantum effect. Researchers have devised tests—some in search of a legitimate answer, others simply to debunk the whole idea altogether.

One center created an experiment that began in 1995, “Do you have eyes in the back of the head?” A whole lot of statistical numbers later, there is evidence supporting that people aren’t imagining that sense of uneasiness they get and urge to turn around to see who or what is watching them.

Regardless of what science can prove or not prove at this point in time, go into the woods. When you feel like you’re being watched, just ignore that feeling and keep on your journey.

And if you find you can’t ignore it, that your body hair is standing on end and tingling like so many Spidey-senses, and your curiosity is just burning and you need to know… Stop. Don’t turn around. Wonder a moment if you’re about to be ambushed. Leave your senses open to someone’s—or something’s—approach. Wait and see if anything happens.

I dare you.

Nature Disconnect and the Handshake Deal

urban woods By choosing to live in an urban area, I am disconnected from nature. Often achingly so. While I can step outside into my yard and enjoy the benefit of grass, trees, flowers, the calls and songs of birds, and a view of the sky overhead, it’s only a stop-gap connection. I can still see, hear, and smell civilization. So, I must actively seek opportunities to get into a deeper natural place, and if I don’t have time to travel far, it can be a Soviet era-style selection for suitable local areas.

While I make the effort to get out, I know not everyone has an interest. And, some people are not just disconnected—they never had a connection to start. This was demonstrated once when I met up with a buddy for a little day hike. The particular urban oasis we chose was a forty-five minute drive. My buddy had apparently invited along a friend and the friend’s pre-teen daughter. The more the merrier, so it’s said. But it didn’t turn out to be very merry. The friend showed up wearing jeans on a hot day, carrying a big purse on her shoulder with intent to take it with her on the trail.

But children can be just as disconnected as adults. We’d hardly sallied forth before the young girl began dragging her feet and then altogether stopping, saying she didn’t feel well and looking about as miserable as a preteen can look when forced to do something in which they have no interest. The mother convinced her repeatedly to keep going but at a certain point, said she’d have to take her back to the car. (Unfortunately, they’d carpooled with my friend). We weren’t that far in, and I knew somewhere ahead the trail looped back so that they could reach the start point with relative ease. A couple of times I said I was pretty sure we were close, but it had been a while since I’d been to that particular park. The woman, who I had only just met, snapped at me, “Well don’t get us lost!”

I didn’t snap back that I hadn’t signed up to be a trail guide because I could hear the panic in her voice. I also didn’t point out that it’s hard to get lost in the woods when in certain spots you could hear—and see—the traffic from the road as well as homes dotting the way, visible through the trees. It’s not anywhere close to being desolate, but to this woman, we may as well have gone past the point of no return. It made me think about the handshake deal we in urban landscapes make, where we give up some degree of independence and form an interdependence for our survival. We also give up a feeling of comfort in what is our natural world. When an urban oasis is considered daunting, I would hate to see what would happen if society ever collapsed. People do adapt. Or, they don’t.

I’ll be talking, along with my writing partner, Sandra R. Campbell, about another form of survival: collaborative writing! We are presenting a workshop at Mid-Atlantic Fiction Writers Institute on Saturday, August 8th. If interested, here are the details:

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