Ability to detect unseen staring

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Published in The Skeptic, Volume 16, Issue 3 (2003)

David Marks concludes a three-part critical review of parapsychology, with this article focusing on some claims by Rupert Sheldrake.


RUPERT SHELDRAKE (1994) proposed an ‘Alice through the looking-glass’ vision of things that might be so but probably are not. Sheldrake advocates the collective participation of non-scientists who have the “freedom to explore new areas of research.”  Sheldrake has a radically new theory of perception. We do not see images of things inside our brains; the images may be outside us: “Vision may involve a two-way process, an inward movement of light and an outward projection of mental images.” Imagine, for example, that as you read this page rays of light are travelling from the paper and print in front of you, into your eyes, and from there into the visual processing centres in your brain. At the same time that this is happening, Sheldrake suggests, images and perceptions are being projected outwards through your eyes into the world, ending up exactly where the page and print are.

This process of outward projection of images has some interesting implications.  If our minds reach out and ‘touch’ what we look at, then we may affect what we look at.  For example, when we stare at somebody from behind they may be able to feel that we are staring on the back of their neck. This feeling of being stared at is of strain and pressure from skin, muscle, tendon and joint. The psychologist Titchener (1898) reported the phenomenon over a century ago and described the feeling as “a state of unpleasant tingling, which gathers in volume and intensity until a movement which shall relieve it becomes inevitable” (p. 895). More recently, Colwell, Schroeder & Sladen (2000) have reviewed the literature on psychic staring and carried out some empirical tests. The idea that ‘unseen’ staring can be detected has been apparently supported in some research with incidence rates as high as 68-86% (Coover, 1913), 74% (Williams, 1983) and 92% (Braud, Shafer, & Andrews, 1993).  Titchener rejected the idea that the staring effect was based on telepathy and suggested the hypothesis that the eye is attracted to movement and the starer’s gaze is therefore attracted to the staree’s head turning in his direction. Titchener attributed the cause of the feeling of being stared at to the staree, not the starer, and so the attribution of causality to the starer is false, a misinterpretation of fact (Colwell et al., 2000).

Sheldrake (1994) has conducted new experiments on he staring phenomenon and encouraged school children and other members of the public to participate in his research programme. Experimental kits can be downloaded from the New Scientist web site including n interesting list of 24 supposedly ‘random’ sequences or use in experimental trials. Sheldrake suggests that ach child in a group is tested with a different sequence, or uses sequences determined by tosses of a coin.  The results are being compiled by Sheldrake into a pooled data set. Unfortunately, the sequences used turned out not to be truly random.

A colleague, John Colwell, decided to put the Sheldrake findings to rigorous test under controlled laboratory conditions (Colwell et al., 2000). On the basis of Sheldrake’s observations, it was decided to investigate the staring effect both with and without feedback.  Colwell’s team carried out two experiments. The results of the first experiment suggested that the participants in the staring research are able to score above chance as a consequence of being able to learn the non-random patterns in the sequences using the feedback. This idea receives support from the literature on ‘implicit learning’ which suggests that the learning can take place incidentally without conscious awareness (Reber, 1989). There is a huge literature on ‘probability learning’ that suggests people are very good at learning the global and local probabilities in the patterning of events (e.g., Servan-Schreiber & Anderson, 1990). The tendency of the participants to show negative recency by avoiding multiple repetitions was well matched by Sheldrake’s sequences that showed exactly the same property.  The fact that starees can guess when staring is occurring at above chance levels therefore demonstrates nothing other than an ability to notice patterns.  This is a low-level ability that even a mouse could manage.

John Colwell and his team repeated the experiment with one main difference. They used 10 properly randomised sequences taken from random number tables instead of Sheldrake’s non-random sequences. The results of this experiment support the hypothesis that the improvement in accuracy during staring episodes observed in Experiment One was due to pattern learning.  When no feedback was provided and pattern learning was blocked (Experiment One, blocks 1-3), no ability to detect staring was observed and also no learning.  The data collected by Colwell et al. (2000) therefore suggest that there is no  evidence of a general ability to detect unseen staring.  The only positive results were obtained were in the context of feedback and the non-random sequences generated by Sheldrake.

Summary:  Sheldrake has made the bold claim that people are able to detect unseen staring at above chance levels. Unfortunately the sequences he has used in his research are completely unsuitable.  They follow the same patterning that people who guess and gamble like to follow.  These guessing patterns have relatively few long runs and many alternations.   The biased nature of Sheldrake’s sequences has several unfortunate implications. Firstly, it leads to implicit or explicit pattern learning when feedback is provided but to a lesser extent or not at all otherwise.  This fits the results obtained by Sheldrake and by the Colwell team. When the patterns being guessed mirror naturally occurring guessing patterns the results can go above or below chance levels even without feedback. Thus significant results might occur purely from non-random guessing. The evidence reviewed here provides no support to the claim that people can detect unseen staring.

Pets’ ESP ability
Are animals psychic?  Since time immemorial human beings have attributed supernatural powers to animals. Cats, dogs, foxes, bats, frogs, toads, turtles, dolphins and birds have all been thought to have such powers at different times and places. The latest example of a long tradition of paranormal claims on behalf of our animal friends is the ‘psychic pet’. For example, a pet dog is claimed to be able to use psychic powers to detect when its owner is returning home.  This has been the subject of Rupert Sheldrake’s (1999) Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. Sheldrake believes that a dog called Jaytee (JT) uses its ‘sixth sense’ of telepathy to determine its owner’s decision to return home. According to Sheldrake, many pet owners claim the ability in their pets to know when a member of the household is about to come home.  The dog goes and waits for the owner at a door or window, in a driveway, or even at a bus stop. Sheldrake has conducted three random household surveys in Britain and the United States that indicate that 45 to 52 percent of dog owners have noticed this behaviour (Sheldrake & Smart, 1997; Sheldrake, Turney, & Lawlor, 1998; Brown & Sheldrake, 1998). In over three-quarters of such cases the psychic anticipation is specific to the person to whom the dog is most closely attached (Sheldrake, 1999). Dog owners often refer to this ability as a ‘sixth sense’, or as telepathy.

Pamela Smart (PS), JT’s owner, volunteered to participate in some research.  Sheldrake claims that on 100 different occasions between May 1994 and February 1995 when she left JT with her parents and went out, 85 times JT reacted by going to the window before PS returned, usually at least 10 minutes in advance of PS’s decision to set off for home. The anticipatory behaviour occurred regardless of distance or vehicle used. However, as Sheldrake acknowledges, the ‘anticipatory signalling’ behaviour of JT could have been cued by the expectations of PS’s parents, William and Muriel, as they consciously or unconsciously cued JT that PS would be home soon.  It was necessary to conduct trials in which PS set off for home at randomly selected times that were unknown to William and Muriel.

The story took an interesting twist in 1995 when Rupert Sheldrake (RS) invited Richard Wiseman to investigate JT (Wiseman, Smith, & Milton, 1998). Richard Wiseman’s team proposed eight normal explanations for the ‘psychic pet’ phenomenon that controlled studies would need to take into account: responding to routine; sensory cueing from the owner; sensory cueing from the people remaining with the pet; selective memory; multiple guesses; multiple return points; misremembering; and selective matching.

Wiseman et al.  (1998) conducted four studies with the full co-operation of PS and RS based on the above safeguards and precautions.  In none of these studies did JT detect accurately when PS set off to return home. If this pet dog had any psychic ability at all, it did not appear in this study.

Rupert Sheldrake (1999) reports a series of observations carried out in a pre-planned series of 12 ‘experiments’ in which JT’s behaviour was recorded throughout PS’s absences on time-recorded videotape. In these trials PS came home at randomly selected times that were not known to PS in advance. A third party (usually RS) selected the return time and bleeped PS on a pager.

The resulting observations were analysed in two ways.  First, by plotting the percentage of time that JT spent by the window for three periods:
1. The first ten minutes following the bleep: 55%
2. The 10 minute period prior to PS’s return: 23%
3. The main period when PS was absent prior to the pre-return period that varied between 110 and 150 minutes: 4%.

It would be a common sense interpretation of Sheldrake’s data to assume that JT could learn the timing of PS’s returns.  This is exactly what happens. The results of Sheldrake’s tests are therefore not convincing.  Why Sheldrake chose to use a pre-arranged bleep period that started between 80 and 170 minutes after PS had left is unclear.  This restricted range for the bleep means that the return is more predictable.  A colleague, John Colwell, estimated the return periods following the bleep by examining Sheldrake’s plots of the data.  He found that PS always returned within  a period of 110–200 minutes following her departure, 10 of the returns (83%) occurring during a 40 minute period between 120 and 160 minutes after departure. This means that JT may have learned when PS could be expected home and signalled accordingly. This hypothesis assumes no psychic powers, only the power of memory. The procedures used by Wiseman had allowed the return to occur at any time following PS’s departure. This procedure stopped JT from learning a simple routine based on timing similar to the situation that pertained when PS had followed a daily routine of reliable departures and returns.

Summary:  Observations by Wiseman et al. (1998) of JT over four periods when its owner, PS, was away from home found no evidence of psychic powers. These findings are in stark contrast to the claims of RS and PS that JT has a strong psychic ability to signal its owner’s decision to return home. It has been concluded that JT’s expectancies are probably based on learning rather than psychic powers. There are many other dogs and other species yet to be tested (cats, parrots, horses etc), in many more settings, with many more owners and many more procedures. A final verdict on ‘psychic pets’ will have to wait until all of these possibilities have been tested. Currently, apart from the anecdotes of thousands of pet owners, and Sheldrake’s claim to have verified them, there is no solid evidence to support the psychic pet hypothesis. However, like the other claims, this is not a claim that will stop being made simply because science cannot confirm it. Paranormal beliefs have a life of their own, independent of objective facts.

The genesis of P Theory
In the four examples of exceptional experience (EE) discussed in the two previous parts of this article and above, a normal or ‘N’-theory interpretation (NIE) has proved to be a perfectly adequate explanation making any form of paranormal or ‘P’-theory interpretation (PIE) redundant or superfluous. This rather pessimistic conclusion about the validity of PIEs is not purely a negative exercise, however. Psychological and statistical studies of EEs have yielded an interesting account of how the everyday operation of the processes of attention, perception and decision-making promote PIE thinking even when the alternative and more rational NIE-thinking can do perfectly well with the same experiential data. These analyses have revealed processes that make the genesis and high prevalence of PIEs understandable from a psychological viewpoint.

Subjective validation: This is a powerful effect of belief and selective attention. Subjective validation occurs when support for one’s beliefs is found in a piece of evidence independent of any objective support. This process is also known as ‘confirmation bias’.

Coincidences as ‘odd matches’: Another psychological mechanism is the compelling and widespread tendency to believe that coincidences cannot occur purely by chance. An ‘odd match’ is an association between two events that appears to lack a causal explanation. Kammann and I (Marks & Kammann, 1980) referred to the belief that such odd matches cannot arise by chance as Koestler’s Fallacy, after the most famous of its proponents (Koestler, 1972). In fact, odd matches can and do occur by chance. ‘One-in-a-million’ odd matches occur with a probability of precisely one in a million. The problem is that you and I are unaware of the million-minus-one combinations that do not strike us as vivid odd matches.

The principle of the odd match can be illustrated by considering odd matches in everyday events. Assume that at the end of an ordinary day a person can recall 100 distinct events. This gives 4,950 pairs of events. In 10 years and 1,000 people we have 18 billion pairs of events. This generates 18,000 ‘one-in-a-million’ events, some of which will be very striking.  The numbers of ‘one-in-a-million’ experiences over the entire human population become impressively large. From the statistical viewpoint, it is inevitable that these experiences happen. From a psychological viewpoint, it is equally inevitable that the individuals concerned will have difficulty dealing with the experience without a fatalistic or paranormal interpretation. If a few exceptional experiences inspire their authors to write about them in their full paranormal regalia (e.g. Koestler, 1972), we have discovered the genesis of parapsychology itself. The reason parapsychologists continue to work in their chosen field is not the often disappointing results they obtain from their formal studies, but their compelling personal experiences that have a PIE attached.

USP, not ESP By USP, I refer to ‘Urgent and Serious Problems’. The resources for scientific research are finite and it is a sensible strategy to target urgent and serious problems. This would be a wiser investment than further studies of relatively trivial phenomena such as ESP. Five examples of USP are: the endangerment of global life support systems and the possible impact on human survival; population growth; non-sustainable consumption of energy; poverty; and the rapidly increasing prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease. There are plenty of others – please add your own topics to the list and think how your own work can target one or more of these problems. Parapsychologists, this is your wake-up call.

In conclusion, NIEs are consistent with the evidence – PIEs are not. If we wait another thousand years, ESP and other paranormal phenomena will remain as elusive, evanescent and evasive as ever before. More research is needed on USP.

Full bibliographic references are available in the printed article.

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