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Why is it you can sense when someone’s staring at you?

A complex biological system must work in concert for gaze detection to occur.

Say you're engrossed in a task, scrolling through your phone or reading a book. Suddenly that creepy, prickly feeling grabs hold of you. Someone's staring. You turn to find out who it is. Be they friend or foe, the feeling itself seems like an eerie sort of 6th sense. It's also a necessary part of being human, an adaptation that kept our ancestors alive. So how is it that we can even do this? It's actually an important feature of our sight, our brain, and certain social aspects of our species.


The biological phenomenon is known as "gaze detection" or “gaze perception." Neurological studies have found that the brain cells that initiate this response are very precise. If someone turns their gaze off of you by turning just a few degrees to their left or right, that eerie feeling quickly fades. Scientists suggest that a complex neural network is behind gaze detection.

So far, the neural network responsible in humans remain unidentified. A study with macaque monkeys however, discovered the neurological circuits responsible for their gaze detection, even getting down to the specific cells involved.

We do know that ten distinct brain regions are involved with human sight, and there may be more. The visual cortex is the main contributor. This is a large area at the back of the brain, which supports many important aspects of sight. But other areas, such as the amygdala, which registers threats, must also be involved with gaze detection somehow.

Humans are sensitive to the gaze of others. When another person changes the direction of their attention, we automatically follow their gaze. It's more than just being predators, who as a group are naturally sensitive and drawn toward changes in the environment. It also has to do with the cooperative and social nature of humans and how we've depended on one another throughout our history and development.

The visual cortex. By Coxer, Wikimedia Commons.

Another reason, if you look at human eyes in contrast to other animals, the sclera or white part surrounding the pupil is far larger. In most other species, the pupil takes up most of the eye. This is to obscure their eyes from predators. But for humans, a larger sclera allows us to notice the direction of each other's gaze quickly.

Of course, we don't have to be looking directly at someone to tell whether or not they're staring at us. We can also evaluate the direction of their attention through our peripheral vision. But this method is much less accurate. A pair of studies finds that we can only accurately detect whether or not someone is staring at us within four degrees of our “central fixation point."

It isn't always about seeing another's eyes. With our peripheral vision, we consider the position of their head. And other clues such as how their body is positioned lend to whether we think they're looking at us or not. What if we're not sure? Just to be safe, the brain errs on the side of caution. It assumes we're being stared at, if there's any doubt.

So what about when we feel someone staring from behind? According to a 2013 study published in the journal Current Biology, that's just a fail-safe. Humans are hardwired to think that someone is starting at us when we can't see them, even if we have no evidence to suggest so.

We're hardwired to assume someone is staring from behind. Getty Images.

Psychology Professor Colin Clifford of the University of Sydney's Vision Centre, found that when people can't tell where a person is looking, they automatically assume they're looking at them. “A direct gaze can signal dominance or a threat, and if you perceive something as a threat, you would not want to miss it," he said. “So simply assuming another person is looking at you may be the safest strategy."

Looking at someone is also a social cue. It usually means you want to talk to them. Since it's our natural inclination to assume someone behind us is staring, the feeling we get may initiate a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we turn around, our action calls up the other person's gaze. But when they meet our eyes, they give us the impression that they've been staring the whole time.

Another answer could be confirmation bias. We remember only the times we turned around and someone was staring (or appeared to be), and not the times they weren't. And that weird, tingly sensation? It's psychological and emanates from the thought of being stared at, not the physical act itself.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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