Friday, September 22, 2006

Seriously Creepy Research: The Neurology of the Feeling That Someone's Watching You

Here's some crazy brain research for you: Most people, at some point or another, have had that creepy feeling that somebody's nearby. That they're being watched. Well, a group of scientists just figured out that they can stimulate that disturbing feeling by applying electric stimulation to a specific area in a patient's brain. But they didn't do it on purpose:
"Doctors unintentionally produced the delusion while evaluating a 22-year-old epileptic woman for possible surgery. Though the woman had no history of psychological problems, she repeatedly perceived a "shadow person" hovering behind her when doctors electrically stimulated an area of her brain called the left temporoparietal junction. "Our data most importantly show that paranoia might be related to disturbed processing of one's own body, [which] in some instances may become misrecognized as the body of somebody else," said Olaf Blanke, a neuroscientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. The hallucinatory condition was temporary and ended when stimulations were stopped.

"During her ordeal, the patient described sensing an unknown person standing just behind her, mimicking her body positions. "He is behind me, almost at my body, but I do not feel it," she told doctors, who report their discovery in this week's issue of the journal Nature. When asked to lean forward and grasp her knees, the patient reported that she felt as if the shadow person were embracing her—a sensation she described as disturbing. When performing assigned activities, such as a language-testing card game, she said that the shadow tried to interfere. "He wants to take the card," she told doctors. "He doesn't want me to read."
The photo above is a computerized drawing -- she shadow behind the woman illustrates where she felt this man (and interesting that it was a man, not a woman). What's perhaps most creepy is, the patient -- who had no history of delusions -- thought this was real. She had no idea she was experiencing some kind of hallucination. The researchers think the electronic stimulation temporarily confused her brain's ability to comprehend its own body. Which could make sense, since the part of the brain they zapped is connected to self-perception, distinguishing self from non-self, and understanding where your body is in space.

Of course, this doesn't actually tell us much in the end, since it only happened to one patient, but it's totally fascinating. Perhaps someday it will lead to a larger study that looks at this phenomena ... Finding volunteers for that one might be tricky though. I sure wouldn't do it. Tooooo creepy.

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Blogger Stroll said...

I think that "paranoia might be related to disturbed processing of one's own body" is something pot smokers have known for decades.

Seriously though, fascinating article. I might volunteer for such a study...but maybe I would chicken out.

7:52 PM  
Anonymous jcw said...

With dick cheney as vice president, i imagine that president bush is very familiar with this phenomena...

1:50 PM  
Blogger Lisa Guidarini said...

I get that feeling of being watched a lot. Usually I find it's because I'm having a mutant hair day. Even if I know what I'm seeing in my peripheral vision are several strands of hair sticking out of my head at freakish angles I still jump every single time. I have an overactive fight-or-flight response in general, but on bad hair days I could use some sedation.


Fascinating that feeling can actually be produced, though. Makes you wonder what other cruel and potentially entertaining stimulu we're missing out on.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Lisa Guidarini said...

P.S.: I really can spell. That should have been STIMULI.

How embarrassing. But the real question is, is it more embarrassing I just highlighted the mistake and now NO ONE will gloss right over it.


1:23 PM  

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