Is the human gaze a physical force? It sure feels like it sometimes. Princeton University researchers scanned subjects' brains to gain insight into why we subconsciously interpret "other people's visual attention as an invisible, force-carrying beam projecting from the eyes." This isn't about the paranormal investigations into whether you can "feel" when someone is staring at you from behind, but rather how experiencing gaze as a physical thing is a cognitive shortcut that helps us quickly interpret social meaning. From Scientific American:
You might expect that such an erroneous interpretation would be detrimental. In fact, while there seem to be few if any adverse consequences these findings may underlie rich and diverse cultural references to the outward force and power of the gaze. The results of the experiment demonstrate an ancient human idea linking gaze with physical properties. This notion, as old as the Greeks, is known as the "extramission" theory of vision. Extramission literally means "sending out," and the extramission theory is the belief that vision is a force emitted from the eye. It is an intuitive understanding of vision common among children that persists among many adults. In contrast, the modern visual theory is called "intromission," and is based on the notion that vision results from light entering the eyes[…]
Gaze is a powerful element of social interaction. It reveals where a person is focusing their attention, and, when directed at us, it can have a strong emotional effect. Gaze can play a role in social organization, with a direct gaze demonstrating social dominance and gaze aversion indicating passivity. Eye contact can elicit alertness and bodily awareness, while indifference or aversion to eye contact can signal emotional or neurological disorders. When we direct our gaze at something or someone, others who notice subconsciously direct their gaze in the same manner. We can take advantage of this tendency to deliberately influence the gaze of others.
illustration: Rob Beschizza