“Every Breath You Take”, a song by a band named The Police, is lyrically romantic, yet creepy at the same time. If you haven’t heard the song before, basically everything you do, he’ll be watching you. Of course, he’s not referring one of us, you and I are nothing special for the lead singer of the band, but you and I do have something in common: we have felt that tingle in our spines and butterflies in our guts, wondering or knowing whose eyes are on us, whether they belong to The Police or anyone else.
The feeling of being watched can be eerie, comforting, strange, intimidating, or all of the above, depending on the situation. For some, to be observed by bosses, teachers, and peers causes great anxiety, which can diminish performance. For others, this pressure is a welcomed experience, aiding to improve performance. What happens when you are out in public? Do you find that you compose yourself to a much higher standard than when alone and nobody is watching? Of course! Because the concept is simple: How others see you carries great importance. Most importantly, there is a distinction between desiring this attention or not, which is where experiences differ.
In some scenarios, this feeling of being watched can seem irrational, but nevertheless, a personally vivid and true experience. Individuals with psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, can experience intense delusions in which they believe they are being watched or followed, so what differs in their neurological makeup to those without disorders? I want to dive deeper into the ocean of eyes and why their real or fictional presence is so dire to the functioning of everyday life.
Social Facilitation Theory (But Mostly Inhibition…)
Back in 1965, a man named Robert Zajonc proposed this Social Facilitation Theory, which is essentially the idea that the mere presence of others has an effect on another individual’s performance of a task. This concept is called audience effects, and there are both positive and negative versions. One study, as old as dirt but still relevant, investigating this concept involved participants who performed a simple motor task in which he or she keeps a stylus on a revolving target. If the stylus is even slightly off target, it counts as an error. Five trials involved doing the task alone, while ten trials involved an audience of four to eight graduate students. Every participant’s performance greatly improved in the presence of an audience. A different study, also old as dirt, involved a nonsense syllable list memorization task, in which the presence of an audience significantly reduced performance, basically social inhibition. Regardless of a negative and positive audience effect, the presence of an audience undeniably elicited an effect.
Forget about just being observed; let’s add evaluation into the mix! A recent study investigated the concept of “choking under pressure”, performing worse than one’s actual skill level. Participants were instructed to do a Simon task, alone or in the presence of an experimenter. This task involves executive attention, managing information in short-term memory. With the presence of the experimenter, the underlying mechanisms involved in executive control seem to be suppressed, as a significant amount of participants performed more poorly than when alone. Hmm, this must be why my presentations don’t go as smoothly as when I do them in the mirror.
It’s All in the Eyes
The feeling of being watched goes beyond being in the presence of a nearby body; it has practically everything to do with the eyes. In 2013, a case study was published about a 57-year old patient TN, who had suffered from two strokes ultimately resulting in damage to the nearly all of the primary visual cortex, as seen in structural MRI imaging. This left him “cortically blind”, meaning that he has an unresponsive primary visual cortex and no subjective visual experiences. His task was to press a button indicating whether or not the face on the screen displayed direct gaze or averted gaze, which he did not perform significantly more successfully than chance (50%) since he is unable to see. His brain, however, could see. The right hemisphere amygdala showed significantly higher activation when direct gaze images were presented versus averted gaze. This result was evident in control participants, as well. The amygdala is known as the emotional center of the brain, especially linked to fear.
Evolutionarily, eye gaze is seen as a threat, so the concept of feeling intimidated or uncomfortable when someone is looking at you is not a hard concept to grasp, considering our brains are wired to identify it even when lacking vision. We humans also tend to assume eyes are on us in times when they may not be, as we are self-fulfilling beings. A 2013 study looked at the idea that in times of gaze direction uncertainty, people often assume that the gaze is directed toward them. This study used some images of faces clearly making eye contact or gazing in other directions, while other images were less distinct. The participants often erroneously assumed direct gaze. Now, this assumption isn’t just do to a self-centered lifestyle, as previously mentioned, identifying eye gaze is evolutionarily beneficial for detecting possible threat or understanding a possible interaction might take place. For some, this concept is not so simple, and being watched is of a darker nature.
Paranoia and Delusions
Not everyone is able to just brush off a feeling of discomfort, some spend their day to day lives with paranoid thoughts. Individuals with psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, are known for having what are called positive symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions. In some situations, people with schizophrenia have the overwhelming feeling that they are being watched. A 2014 study suggested that differences in endogenous oxytocin levels between healthy controls and schizophrenic patients could be at play for occurrences of paranoia. When looking at images depicting angry faces, individuals with schizophrenia with higher levels of endogenous oxytocin showed higher avoidance. This higher avoidance of angry faces correlated with higher prevalence of positive symptoms and paranoia. This suggests that threat avoidance can interchangeably be linked to more psychotic behaviors based on oxytocin levels in the brain. And what have we said about eye gaze? Yes, it can be linked to possible threatening interactions.
People with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other psychiatric disorders sometimes experience delusions of Grandeur, in which they have an inflated self-importance. This sometime leads to the idea that they are being watched by others for a greater purpose. While gathering insight into this topic, I came across multiple discussion boards with individuals chronicling his or her experiences of feeling watched. Each story is unique and specific. This phenomenon is incredibly personal and very real.
Unless you live in the middle of nowhere, you encounter other bodies and those bodies have eyes, some looking in your direction, some not. The ones that are have an effect on us, even just believing that someone is looking in our direction can create unease. The effect is not always negative, as research will show us. The importance of eye gaze is just so massive that it rarely doesn’t affect us in one way or another. Even in the absence of bodies around, some experience such intense feelings that their every move is important enough to be seen in the eyes of others. The Police knew how to make a girl feel threatened (or loved?)… just write a song to her about watching her every move.