Natural Dog Training in New York City

Natural Dog Training in New York City
Featuring All 100+ Articles Lee Charles Kelley Wrote About Dogs for from 4/09 to 2/13, Plus New Articles Written in the Same Vein!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Wolves, Scrub Jays, & the Feeling of Being Watched

How do animals (and humans) know when they’re being watched?
Originally published in slightly different form on July 26, 2012 at

The Eyes of a Killer
The world is full of prey and predators. Each has to develop tricks to “outwit” the other. Instead of spinning webs, some spiders hide under leaves to lie in wait for their prey. A cuttlefish can instantaneously change its pigmentation to blend in with the background, either to avoid predators or to sneak up on its prey. Most mammalian predators “stalk” their prey, getting low to the ground and holding perfectly still whenever the prey looks in their direction.

Do animals know when they’re being watched? Have you ever had the feeling of being stared at? I know I have.

It was the summer of 1976. I was having lunch at the counter of a workingman’s diner on the “wrong side of town” in Provo, Utah. I was enrolled at Brigham Young University’s film school, was taking summer classes, so I had to abide by the university’s dress code, at least as it related to hair length (no longer than a man’s collar) and facial hair (no beards or long sideburns). In other words, I was a freshly-scrubbed college student hanging out on the scruffy, blue-collar side of town.

As I was enjoying my chicken-fried steak, I began to get a strange, uneasy feeling, one I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I glanced off to my left and saw a hardened-looking man staring intently in my direction. He was at a corner table with his chair arranged so that his back was to the wall, giving him a view of the entire room, and ensuring that no one could sneak up behind him. I later learned (from an episode of The Rockford Files) that this was common behavior in ex-convicts.

We locked eyes for a moment. His seemed to be telling me something.

I glanced away, went back to eating, then looked back over at him.

He was still staring at me. The message in his eyes was now clearer, “Get out of here or make no mistake about it, I will kill you.”

It was true that the locals didn’t exactly care for fresh-faced college students coming into their favorite hangouts. But this guy seemed to be taking it to a whole ’nother level.

I tried to finish my meal but the feeling of being stared at was too strong. I got up, put some money on the counter, and left. Once outside, I glanced back one more time, and saw a satisfied smirk on the man’s face.

A few weeks later I saw that face again, this time on the TV news. His name was Gary Gilmore, and he’d just been arrested on suspicion of killing two young BYU students, both of whom bore a slight resemblance to me. In other words, I seemed to fit his profile.

At first I wasn’t sure if it really was the guy I’d seen at the diner; people don’t always look the same in mug shots as they do in real life. But then I looked at his eyes, and knew it was him. He had the eyes of a killer.

Scrub Jays and Spanish Wolves
Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake has completed tens of thousands of trials on the sensation of being stared at and found that 60% of test subjects reported being stared at while they were actually under scrutiny while 50% mistakenly reported being stared at when no one was looking. According to Sheldrake, this suggests that there may be a weak sense of being stared at but no sense of not being stared at. Personally, I have to wonder if the percentages would have gone up if the volunteers had been stared at by someone with malicious intent.

Sheldrake: “The ability to detect [danger] makes biological and evolutionary sense. It may be deeply rooted in our animal nature, and widespread in the animal kingdom.”

This brings up an interesting behavior seen in scrub jays, a type of corvid. For some time now it’s been believed that they will cache and re-cache their food based on who they think is watching them. This has been touted as another example of corvid intelligence (along with crows and ravens using tools and remembering human faces).

Some have even said that this is proof that corvids may have a Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to be aware of one’s own mental states, and to impute mental states onto others. However, a new study, done using computer models, shows that the scrub jay’s behaviors can be explained as a stress response, having nothing to do with intelligence or a ToM.

Meanwhile, another study, this one out of Spain, shows that wolves living in the Galicia region choose to live in high places that are difficult to access, areas where vegetation hides the wolves from human eyes, even though this provides less access to prey. In fact, researchers determined that the influence of avoiding human contact was at 35% while food availability was only 17%!

Why do scrub jays feel stressed when another bird is watching them? And why would wolves rather avoid human contact than live in a habitat where food was more plentiful? An even better question might beabsent a Theory of Mindhow do wolves and scrub jays know when someone is watching them? And, for that matter, how did I know that someone dangerous was staring at me that day at the diner?

A Gut Feeling
Animals and humans will avoid stressful situations whenever possible. Being stared at in that diner in Provo, Utah was certainly stressful to me (though even more so when I found out who’d been doing the staring). Being watched also seems to create a stress response in scrub jays. And we could also interpret the new data on Spanish wolves in a similar fashion: apparently it’s less stressful for wolves to go hungry than it is to be seen by human eyes.

However, the data on scrub jays show that the birds only re-cached their food when the “watchers” were clearly visible; when they were hidden the birds didn’t seem to care. So it may be that wolves and humans have a sixth sense, while birds may not.

If wolves do have this sixth sense it would indicate that it’s not a recent evolutionary development, but an ability that all mammals might be endowed with. This begs the question since there are actual physical organs (eyes, ears, etc.) attached to the other five senses, what organs would process the sensation of being watched, and how would these organs go about doing so?

In her book Molecules of Emotion, neuroscientist Candace Pert writes, “The entire lining of the intestines, from the esophagus through the large intestine … is lined with cells—nerve cells and other kinds of cells—that contain neuropeptides and receptors. It seems entirely possible to me that the density of receptors in the intestines may be why we feel our emotions in that part of the anatomy, often referring to them as gut feelings.”

So it’s entirely possible that the body does, in fact, have a sensory organ capable of registering the uncomfortable feeling of being watched (particularly by predators). Just as our eyes register visual objects and our ears register audible signals from the environment, etc., the receptors in our intestines may register gut feelings of being watched by predators.

The enteric nervous system also produces neuropeptides associated with learning, and with motivating behavior. In fact, 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut while roughly 50% of the body’s dopamine is produced there. Both chemicals are important in helping animals determine what environmental stimuli are the most salient and important. And there’s very little in life that’s more important than avoiding danger.

The question of how these feelings are transferred from the eyes and mind of watcher to the enteric nervous system in the watched remains somewhat mysterious. But it probably takes place via disturbances or vibrations in an unseen medium or energy field. Of course Western Science objects to the idea of invisible energy fields (except when it comes to gravity and electromagnetism). Bio-energetic fields don’t exist as far as most scientists are concerned.

Yet acupuncture is said to operate through subtle energy fields in the human body. And even though the American Medical Association discounts the idea of these energy fields being an operative factor in the effectiveness of acupuncture, they do admit that it can be effective for some ailments.

There are also studies showing that Eastern practices such as tai-chi, yoga, and meditation—which are all theorized to operate via changes in the body’s energy field (or chi)—provide real health benefits.

Again, since there is no health benefit quite like the one of avoiding being killed by a predator, it seems to me that the feeling of being watched—even when you can’t see who’s watching you—may very well be a real phenomenon, one that’s worthy of further study.

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