By Linda Conlin, Pro to Pro Managing Editor

We’ve all experienced the feeling of someone looking at us, even if we don’t see them. A look over the shoulder or a turn of the head, and sure enough, there they are. Hopefully, the look is with admiration for our stunning eyewear or new outfit. But how did we know we were being watched? Scientists are finding evidence that it’s another feature of the eye-brain connection, rather than just a feeling.

Research indicates that we have an innate tendency to draw our attention to faces, and eyes in particular. Studies have shown that infants only a few days old prefer to look at faces with direct gaze.  A recent article in Psychology Today cited research that showed perception of faces in our peripheral vision quickly and automatically guides eye movements, with or without our awareness. Considering the information we get when looking at someone’s eyes, such as emotion or intention, the attention to gaze may have evolved to help form interpersonal cooperation and other social skills as well as survival.

One of the studies reported in Psychology Today found that “faces elicit extremely fast fixational eye movements that are initiated within about 100 ms—much faster than other image categories like vehicles or animals—and people often make unintentional eye movements toward faces, even when they are instructed to ignore the face.“ In subsequent research also reported, another team found that “when a face appears in our periphery, we don’t just see a blurry face-like stimulus and then look to the place where the eyes are expected to be; rather, our visual system actually detects specific features—importantly, the eyes—and guides our eye movements toward those features.” As part of that study, participants saw images of rearranged faces in which the eyes were placed below the mouth. In spite of the nonsensical images, participants’ eye movements still were drawn to the actual position of the eyes, rather than where they were expected to be.

It takes about 170ms for an image from the retina to reach and be processed by the visual cortex and initiate an eye movement. But studies showed eye movements initiated within 100 ms in response to faces. Research continues but is indicating that peripheral vision may have its own built-in face detection system that guides eye movement before the brain does. However, not enough is known yet to entirely separate the physiological from the psychological. For example, you may feel as though someone is looking at you and turn to check. They are indeed looking at you, but is it because they reacted to you looking at them? Do we really have the ability to sense someone staring at us from the corner of our eye, or do we just tend to assume that is happening? The answer lies in further study of the amazing visual system.

Learn more about the visual pathway with our CE, Unraveling Amblyopia, Strabismus, Phorias and Tropias, at