Have you ever felt like you were being watched while alone on the trail? You’re not the only one.

Some attribute this phenomenon to the eyes picking up more than what is eventually relayed to your brain in the form of “sight.” In other words, your sight can collect data that you aren’t conscious of interpreting.

This oddity was demonstrated in a 2013 study of a male patient that was cortically blind. That basically means that his visual cortex had sustained damage preventing him from seeing by definition, but still allowing him to transfer input from his eyes to his brain. In the study, he was shown a series of faces, some looking toward him and others looking away. When he was shown images of those looking at him, activity in his amygdala spiked. This is the part of the brain that responds to threats and arousal. The scientific interpretation of this result is that people can interpret happenings outside of their direct field of vision.

Another theory suggests that humans are capable of feeling watched even when there is certainty that no one is there due to psychological misperception. This theory poses that the body can experience a brief lapse in the ability to differentiate between the self and the other. In other words, because you’re watching something, it may cause you to feel as if you’re also being watched.

There are a lot of ideas regarding why humans find the idea of being watched so disturbing, but most of them stem from the biological reaction to a gaze. Most species use a gaze to indicate either dominance or a threat, which can explain why an unsettled reaction to the feeling of being watched may be a natural response. Other theories suggest that humans are trained to be extremely responsive to eye contact given that this is often the first stage of engaging in interaction with one another.

Next time you feel like you’re being watched in the woods, know that it’s likely one of two things – either your mind is playing tricks on you or there’s actually something there that your brain hasn’t quite acknowledged yet. Cue the spooky music.

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