Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Stop Staring At Me!

Edward Titchener was an important early psychologist who published the very first paper on staring detection, in the prestigious periodical Science in 1898. Titchener, who worked at Cornell University, noted that every year a large percentage of his students claimed:

that they can ‘feel’ that they are being stared at from behind, and a smaller proportion who believe that, by persistent gazing at the back of the neck, they have the power of making a person seated in front of them turn around and look them in the face (p. 895).
He reported that over the years he had conducted a large number of informal tests and found no evidence for this particular claim. As far as Titchener was concerned people were not able to demonstrate their widely held belief.

He went on to provide a very good normal explanation for why people have this belief. First he noted that humans have forward facing vision, which leaves us exposed to the rear and he suggested that when in a situation where you are forced to present your back to a group of people, that there may be some psychological discomfort in that. He went as far to say that our ancestors must surely have devoted constant care to the defence of their backs. Titchener claimed that this back vigilance is the first element of staring detection: that people protect their backs by being aware of the environment behind them.

Once the feeling to turn around has formed, it is followed by an executing of the behavioural component: turning the head around and examining the back environment. Attention moves across the back of the room, scanning it to update their information as to what is actually going on.

Titchener next turned his attention to what might be happening behind the individual. He noted that his students could be engaged in a range of different behaviours (playing with their hair, eating food etc) and that it should be expected that some of the people sitting behind may be staring in the general direction of the individual. When they turn around, they disturb the visual field for those people who happen to have been looking in their general direction. This movement is a strong stimulus for people sitting behind, which they are required to attend to. There may in fact be any number of people who have the person in their visual field and who suddenly respond to the movement of the person looking around.

It is this coincidence which Titchener argued is the basis for the belief. Why do people feel the special tingling in their neck though? Titchener remarked that this no different from the feeling experienced in the bottom after sitting down for a long time!

Finally Titchener preempted future criticism, by raising the concern that other scientists would no-doubt respond with ‘so what’. His claim that there is no such thing as paranormal staring detection was hardly a revelation for the sceptic. But Titchener argued that it would not be pointless, if he helped breakdown this deep-seated belief from the popular mind-set and concluded:
no scientifically minded psychologist believes in telepathy. (p.897)
Over 100 years later, staring detection is a popular area of parapsychology, yet most researchers have often ignored Titchener's conclusions. However the evidence today is really no better than in Titchener's time and I'm sure he would be turning in his grave if he knew science was still investigating the question.

You see people, isn't science supposed to learn from past experience? Titchener was not a dogmatic sceptic (if he was, surely he wouldn't have thought the question interesting in the first place). He was a scientist who looked at other peoples' claims and then tested them. In my mind the greatest disservice you can do to Titchener's contribution, is to sweep him under the carpet because you do not like his conclusions.

So the next time I am asked is it really right to ignore paranormal claims altogether, I will merely point them to this post and ask 'do we really need to keep experimentally testing staring detection to be sure that it isn't paranormal'?