Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Wolves, Scrub Jays, & the Feeling of Being Watched

Do animals know when they’re being watched?

“Oh, grandmother! What big eyes you have!”
“The better to see you with,” said the wolf.

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.

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.”

Scrub Jays and Spanish Wolves
 This brings up an interesting behavior seen in scrub jays, a member of the corvid family, which includes crows, ravens and magpies. For some time now it’s been believed that scrub jays will cache and re-cache their food based on who they think is watching them. This has been touted by some 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 be, absent a Theory of Mind, how 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 the caching behaviors seen in scrub jays show that the “watchers” were clearly visible; when the observers were hidden the birds didn’t cache and re-cache their food. So it may be that wolves and humans have a sixth sense about being watched, 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, 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 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 things like 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 tai-chi, yoga, and meditation—which are all theorized to operate via changes in the body’s energy field (or chi)—provide real, measurable 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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