out there: Seeing (and feeling) is believing

Everyone has felt the sensation of being watched, only to turn round and discover that they are, indeed, being watched

In his most recent book, Seven Experiments that could Change the World, the biologist Rupert Sheldrake examines several simple questions that continue to defy conventional science. The homing ability of pigeons, for instance, eludes any conclusive explanation, as does the telepathic connection many animal lovers believe they enjoy with their pets. But perhaps the most intriguing chapter is devoted to the feeling of being stared at.

The sense of being stared at is very common. You may have experienced it yourself. A quick consultation among friends and family will usually show that the majority, at some time in their lives, have had the sensation that they were being watched, only to turn round and find someone looking at them. It is taken for granted in works of fiction, and is explicitly described by novelists such as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Huxley, Lawrence, Mann, Priestly and, of course, Conan Doyle.

Despite the overwhelmingly commonplace nature of this phenomenon, conventional science tends to dismiss it as chance, or to qualify it by positing contributory factors, principally because it does not fit conventional models of reality. Ever since Descartes, the orthodox doctrine of our culture has been that our minds are located in our brains, not elsewhere, and that mind is merely a mechanistic function of the cerebrum.

Accordingly, we are told that we perceive our universe as it is, without adding anything to it: we look out at the world passively, and images from that objective reality enter our brains, to be decoded. We tend to use the camera as a metaphor for our visual operations, with eyesight regarded as the passive reception of light signals, which are somehow projected into the screening room of our minds (wherever that might be). From this we deduce that we are merely observing what happens "out there".

By contrast, oriental cultures have always been keenly aware of the active principle of sight, as well as its negative and positive effects, especially in India, where many people visit holy men and women for their darshan, literally their look or gaze, which is believed to confer blessings. In the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, one meditates partly in order to develop penetrative insight - the ability to see with startling clarity just how one "points" one's own emotive projections on to the world and its inhabitants.

"Indian, Buddhist and Chinese traditions all offer a richer understanding of the relation of the psyche to the body than the mechanistic theory," says Sheldrake. In ancient cultures across the world, there is always some acknowledgement of the dual process of sight. Even in Europe, before the so-called Age of Reason, people trusted their instincts: sight was regarded as a two-way process, whereby light comes into the eyes to form images, but vision also reaches out from the body, and can directly influence the forms upon which it falls. At its most extreme, this "active" vision can be directed in a malevolent way, as in the "evil eye".

Which brings us back to the sense of being stared at. Sheldrake says that during informal tests conducted in Europe and the USA, he found that about 80 per cent of his interviewees claimed to have experienced this sensation. Yet despite its widespread prevalence, Sheldrake says there has been virtually no experimental research done on this subject: his trawl through the scientific archives produced only six papers during the last century, two of which had not been published.

"Here we have a well-known experience which seems to indicate that our minds reach out beyond our brains," says Sheldrake, "to influence what we are looking at. But this has been ignored by science. If we take these experiences seriously, they could lead to a new understanding of our minds and how they work."

To this end, Mr Sheldrake wants to collect anecdotes that would form a body of natural history on this subject, in order to help him design detailed experimental research, and would like to hear from Independent readers who have experienced the sensation of being stared at. There are several areas of particular interest to him, including the effects of distance. Does this phenomenon occur, for example, when people are being observed through binoculars, or by closed-circuit television? Has anyone had military or martial arts training that incorporates this principle - such as soldiers who are trained not to look at their targets when stalking from behind? And does this phenomenon occur with animals? Can people sense when animals are looking at them, and vice versa?

Correspondence on this subject should be sent to Rupert Sheldrake at 20 Willow Road, Hampstead, London NW3 1TJ. Any significant results will be published in this column at some point in the future.

And finally, never forget the old maxim: "No perception without hallucination"

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