Why do we see colors with our eyes closed?

Those mysterious blobs and patterns that bedazzle the backs of your eyelids are no illusion. What you see is real light — and it’s coming from inside your eyes.

Why do we see colors with our eyes closed?
Phosphenes can appear as geometric patterns as well as random spots of color. This is an artist's rendition of what they look like. [Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons user Al2]
By | Posted December 29, 2014
Posted in: Blogs, Ever Wondered?
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As you settle into bed at night, close your eyes and begin to doze off, you may notice the colorful light show happening inside your eyelids. When you rub the sleep from your weary eyes, the lights suddenly intensify and bursts of bright colors appear all across your field of vision. A few seconds later, the colors settle down again. While you might appreciate the bedtime entertainment, in the back of your drowsy mind you’ve probably wondered what the heck you’re even seeing.

These strange blobs you see have a name; they’re called “phosphenes,” and researchers believe that actual light may play a role. But not ordinary light — this light comes from inside your eyes. In the same way that fireflies and deep-sea creatures can glow, cells within our eyes emit biophotons, or biologically produced light particles.

“We see biophotonic light inside our eyes in the same way we see photons from external light,” said István Bókkon, a Hungarian neuroscientist who works at the Vision Research Institute in Lowell, Massachusetts.

Biophotons exist in your eyes because your atoms constantly emit and absorb tiny particles of light, or photons. This photon exchange is just a part of normal cellular function. Your eyes can’t tell the difference between photons from outside light and the biophotons emitted by your own atoms. Either way, your optic nerve simply relays these light signals to the brain, which must then decide if it accurately represents the real world around you, or if it’s just a phosphene.

Our eyes actually produce far more biophotons than we end up seeing as phosphenes. “When you rub your eyes, this generates biophotons in many parts of the eyes,” explained Bókkon. “But they are mostly absorbed locally.” Almost all of the biophotons you see are the ones both emitted and absorbed by atoms in the retina — the part of your eye responsible for detecting light.

Inside the retina, millions of tiny cells called rods and cones collect light and convert it into electrical signals. These signals travel through the optic nerve to a part of the brain called the visual cortex. Here, the brain reconstructs an image using the information received from the eyes. When a reconstructed image looks like nonsense, the brain is quick to label the image as unreal, or a phosphene.

But that information doesn’t always come from your retinas. According to Bókkon, phosphenes can originate in various other parts of the visual system, too. Research has shown that direct electric and magnetic stimulation of the brain can trigger phosphenes, and Bókkon hopes to soon be able to prove that biophotons are responsible for these phosphenes as well.

Depending on where a phosphene originates, it can take on a variety of shapes, patterns and colors. Different atoms and molecules emit photons of different wavelengths, which is why we see different colors. A phosphene with an orderly geometric pattern like a checkerboard may have originated in a section of the retina where millions of light-collecting cells are arranged in a similarly organized pattern. Researchers have also found that different areas of the brain’s visual cortex create certain specific shapes of phosphenes.

In the 1950s, the German researcher Max Knoll at the Technische Universität in Munich came up with a classification scheme for phosphene shapes. He studied phosphenes in over a thousand volunteers and came up with 15 categories, including triangles, stars, spirals, spots and amorphous blobs. He discovered that by prodding different areas of the visual cortex with an electrode device, he was consistently able to induce the same kinds of phosphenes.

In the lab, scientists generally use electric probes and fancy magnetic machines to make people see phosphenes. But the phosphenes we mostly see every day are not related to any type of electromagnetic stimulation. Instead, most phosphenes occur spontaneously when the atoms in our eyes exchange their biophotons. You can also trigger phosphenes yourself by applying pressure to your eyes — but be careful trying this at home!

The most common non-spontaneous phosphenes are pressure phosphenes, like the ones you see when you rub your eyes. According to Bókkon, any type of pressure on the eyes can cause them to emit an “excess of biophotons” that create intense visuals. Sneezing really hard, getting whacked in the head, and standing up too fast (causing a drop in blood pressure) are also ways to trigger pressure phosphenes.

The only people who never see phosphenes are people who have been blind since birth. But people who lose their vision due to illnesses or injuries usually don’t lose all visual functions. Because phosphenes can originate in different parts of the visual system, “theoretically, all blind people who could previously see can retain the ability to see phosphenes,” explained Bókkon.

Researchers have also been studying ways to trigger phosphenes in blind patients to try and figure out a way to potentially restore their vision. If scientists can use technology to make the blind see phosphenes, perhaps they can use similar technology make them see real images.

So next time you crawl into bed, close your eyes and admire the phosphenes. Now that you can appreciate the visual effects in a whole new way, you can just lay back and enjoy the show.

Posted in: Blogs, Ever Wondered?

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  1. Ur talking about cells and atoms radiate biophotons in absencr of normal light due to facing photons for avery long time ! So y our body doesnt glow! Specialy our hands and parts continously exposes to light like our faces???

    Mahmoud, July 2, 2015 at 6:49 pm
  2. Hi,
    What are you thinking about visual snow? :(

    Semih, July 5, 2015 at 9:36 am
  3. My son has seen constant colors ever since he can remember. An MRI revealed some extra electrical activity at the back of his head. He also has migraines and occasionally loss of vision (goes completely white) Can this be calmed?

    Arlene, August 7, 2015 at 5:58 pm
  4. He also sees colors when his eyes are closed.

    Arlene, August 7, 2015 at 5:59 pm
  5. I see this all the time. It’s horrible and I have seen it since I can remember. Have tried to figure out what it is but the best I can come up with is visual snow. I see shapes, stars, colors, and it corresponds and lights up when I hear certain noises are different colors. My ears always ring and I hear music. It would be nice to know if there is a fix for it. Really just any information would be fantastic, I really want to understand why this is happening.

    Thank you for your time.

    Heidi Burchinal

    Heidi burchinal, August 17, 2015 at 3:36 pm
  6. When I was little I would look up at my ceiling and see colorful shapes and objects, like a chair, that were transparent like. My eyes were not closed. What were my eyes doing? It faded away as I got older.

    Patrick, August 30, 2015 at 5:49 pm
  7. Arlene,

    That can be classic migraine, I get a colour show appearing in a blob, which is temporarily blinding. Had it for randomly for 10 years not knowing what it was. It was actually the c’s – chocolate, caffeine, coffee and citrus in more than normal doses that were bringing it on.

    I get a lot of these visual things, such as the phosphenes described in the article which is a bit different.

    MT, August 31, 2015 at 7:28 am
  8. I can trigger the visual show without pressure on my eyes. But I sometimes forget I can do it and when it triggers itself I enjoy it and when the show it’s over I can do more;) The only thing is that my color is green only. Have fun;)

    Andreea, September 15, 2015 at 11:03 am
  9. Heidi, I get everything that you have described here except from the music part, it can be so annoying at times, especially the ringing and hissing ears!

    Bryan, September 20, 2015 at 4:26 pm
  10. I sometimes see this lights mostly in the color green., when I start to focus on this light moving around..it’s going to sound crazy but the green light works like a window I can actually see pass the green light into well through my eye lids

    Guillermo, September 23, 2015 at 10:56 pm
  11. I believe I am seeing my blood and things in it – is that possible?

    debbie shaw, September 29, 2015 at 7:03 am
  12. it trigger me to see the colours and faces figure when i look into the sun or any lights after reading the above is be very interesting and it did explain the concept of whats going on. thank you

    angela, October 7, 2015 at 2:40 pm
  13. I have always seen colours and cam make them change by thinking of a colour and then it will appear .I can also see faces in my sleep and find it very nice.

    tony, October 12, 2015 at 11:35 am
  14. DMT let me see for a few minutes in complete darkness (eyelids open) when I was in a jungle. My skin was glowing yellow and I could see only plants which were lit up electro-illuminescent. I could not see anything with my eyes closed and was not hallucinating. Weird but true…only thing I can think of as a scientist was the IR radiation of my skin and of the plants. Many Shamans say they naturally have this ability. I believe them as I have seen horses running at full gallop in complete darkness on a road without any hesitation. Yes, I know many animals have a tapetum lucidem or retroreflection that allows photons to travel through the retina twice. But with no light, there are few photons for retro-reflection. I think we have the phosphene channels turned off so it doesn’t interfere with the visible spectrum (create chromatic abberation with the long IR wavelength).

    William, October 31, 2015 at 6:54 pm
  15. I see geometric, changing shapes in all colors traveling in all directions in an orderly way. Sometimes they radiate outward from many different shapes and change colors and shape as they do so, but always geometric. This started a few months ago. I don’t see it all the time, only sometimes at night in a dark room with my eyes closed. It doesn’t bother me, I actually find it to be interesting. It doesn’t keep me awake either. Sometimes it is very intense when I wake up in the middle of the night. I have very vivid dreams and I wonder if my eyes are seeing what is behind the dreams, or our reality. :)

    Donna, November 9, 2015 at 8:30 am
  16. I 2 have been seeing colors (blobs), but not all the time, with eyes closed but can’t remember when it started. So glad I found this info, no one I’ve talked to has ever experienced it. Chiropractor & Massage Therapist never heard of it except associated with the Asian beliefs of Chakras. These are 6 (as I remember it) different “zones” in the body and each has it`s own color. Each zone effects different areas of the human`s energy.
    FYI: The colors I see tend to mute to lighter shades with full body massage.

    Deborah Mancuso, November 18, 2015 at 7:05 pm
  17. Yeah i knew about this but I was hoping to find more info about real images and such like pictures that you already experienced

    Or let’s see your loved one..

    I mean it’s okay but sometimes it gets creepy how it just pops up out of nowhere…


    Dari, November 26, 2015 at 8:03 pm
  18. Deborah Mancuso, The same thing happens to me when I close my eyes tightly

    james paternoster, December 18, 2015 at 8:10 pm
  19. OMG I’ve been wondering about seeing different patterns with my eyes closed ever since I was a toddler! I tend to see about 2 main “images” and notices this laying on my stomach with my head/eyes resting on my arm. I guess it was from the pressure on my eyes. I tend to see different shades of yellow in a rolling checkerboard kinda pattern. The other I think of as “outer space”. It’s black but with what looks like a galaxy of stars in different sizes and in different colors. Thanks for this article!

    Trav, December 20, 2015 at 2:33 pm
  20. I see this even with my eyes open if I try not to focus my eyes on anything. Unlike some of you I enjoy it cause I noticed that it goes hand in hand with my thoughts to trigger that first images that create my dreams. I can only sleep when this process is complete. I NEED THIS.
    I see different brighter patterns when I close my eyes under running water and it also changes with sound as mentioned above. If i try to look around or figure this out, it changes and sometimes disappear.

    AL, January 19, 2016 at 3:01 am
  21. In the dark with my eyes closed I see 2 things-
    First a thing bright ring (about the size of my iris) flash in my vision as I move my close eye from left to right.
    Second a tiny whit dot of light in my perpheral vision.
    No optician or ophthalmologist has been able to tell me what these are?

    Thérèse, January 22, 2016 at 11:03 am
  22. I see the flashes at the corner of my left eye. Also while washing my hair with eyes closed I was “seeing” light in my head tracing where my fingers were swirling around on the left side of my head to wash my hair. Never had this happen before. It started yesterday after I bent down to get something I dropped. I was looking at blueprints. After I stood back up and started looking at the plans again, I had a “floater” or little dark blockage in my vision in the left eye just a little left of center of vision. Then the lights started this morning.

    Monika, February 10, 2016 at 12:53 am
  23. @Monika
    I hope you see this.
    If you haven’t already been to an opthalmologoist… GO NOW.
    Sudden onset dark spots and flashing lights are classic warning symptoms of retinal detachment.
    I had these warning signs and although I went to the optician, because the detachment was beginning at the very very edge of my retina they somehow missed it. My next stage was an area of lost vision. I’ve had treatment (I have a scleral buckle, which means there is a piece of silicone stitched to the back of my eye) which has restored the vision in good light, but has left me with a ‘ripple’ in my vision and some general distortion and I still have the blind area in low light.
    Take this seriously and go get examined, NOW.


    ‘Warning signs and symptoms
    Most people will experience warning signs that indicate their retina is at risk of detaching before they lose their sight. These include:
    the sudden appearance of floaters – black dots, specks or streaks that float across your field of vision (usually only one eye is affected)
    a cobweb effect of lots of little floaters – others report a single large black floater that looks like a housefly
    sudden short flashes of light in the affected eye lasting no more than a second
    blurring or distortion of your vision
    Without treatment, sight in the affected eye will start to deteriorate. Most people describe this as a shadow or “black curtain” spreading across their vision.
    Retinal detachment usually only occurs in one eye. If your eye is affected, there is an up to one in 10 chance that retinal detachment will happen in your other eye’

    Anne, February 16, 2016 at 6:21 am
  24. @Therese
    I’m really happy to read someone else describing those thin rings. I see them too. I’ve only noticed them since I had eye surgery, but since I see them in both eyes and only had surgery in one I think it is just some natural effect that I’ve only noticed now because I’ve been so aware of my vision and how good/bad it is since my operation.
    Do you get it when your eyes are open as well? The first time I saw that it freaked me a little bit. I’m planning to ask about it at the consultant’s next time I go.

    Anne, February 16, 2016 at 6:26 am
  25. My experience is slightly different, since childhood my light patterns are of beautiful mandala kaleidoscopes, unpredictable when they happen and nothing seems to trigger them.

    Kate, February 19, 2016 at 6:45 pm
  26. I visit my optician on a regular basis, being in good health and showing no signs of deterioration. like most people’s comments the moving light patterns are an absolute pleasure :-)

    Kate, February 19, 2016 at 6:59 pm
  27. Wow, last night I went to bed late, shut my eyes, and was shocked by a vivid, colorful, deeply rippling image that leaped at me from behind my eyelids. I thought it would soon go away like most “afterimages” caused by staring at something too bright, but next I saw a rapidly sliding, flat, colored background with images “printed” on it in different colors. There was almost a textural perception. After awhile it seemed as though I was looking through a 3D world, toward a bright horizon, with colorful shapes “swimming” everywhere. It was highly entertaining, but I was really scared because I didn’t know what was causing it. Also, I was tired but very, very wide-awake and couldn’t sleep because of the extremely vivid colors (some bright and some just deep and intense) and all of the movement, almost dizzying. I could still see the images faintly in the shadows when I opened my eyes. I’m still confused and a little apprehensive as to why this suddenly happened to me. I’ve not been feeling well in general.

    Elaine, February 24, 2016 at 12:33 pm
  28. Hello.
    This is really interesting and I have made these colours happen since childhood. This week for some strange reason I was looking at the millions of small specs of light that are there when I close my eyes at night. I managed to focus in on one of the microscopic colours and to my amazement it was a blue crystal form. Has anybody else ever done this or does anyone know what it is? I have also trained my vision to see my eye lens and the shadows on the eyes which seem to be the lense pierced and inflamed bubbles. I can also see my sight travel in waves towards an objet I look at in certain locations. Is all of this normal and if not it would be great to talk to someone about it all. Thanks

    Malcolm Weaver, March 3, 2016 at 1:22 pm
  29. I have seen dot matrix patters, abstract blobs (think of lava-lamp blob shapes),in vivid pinks, purples, blues, greens, oranges, yellows, just about all of the primary bright colors, but most of the time the colors are pinks and purples reds and oranges. Once at a dear friends funeral, and at a very emotional part of the service, I closed my eyes and everything was bright crimson red in kind of a boiling pattern. I believe emotional conditions create different colors and patterns. I can also manipulate these dots into images as I get closer to falling asleep. I have a very difficult time taking opiate drugs like Vicodin or Codeine. After the second dose of any opiate, my mind races and the dot and blob patterns turn into recognizable shapes. I can conjure-up know imagery and in many instances thoughts can produce ugly or scary faces or images. A nightmare can exacerbate the dot patterns, in that when awakened from a bad dream the dots and blobs are bunched-up and in an excited state of being, almost rattling or buzzing in tight formation. Electric blankets also bring out an excessive amount of these dots to the point that I can not sleep comfortably while the power to the blanket is on. My son gave me a Himalayan salt crystal once. It was about the size of a bar of soap. He said that it had the ability to produce energy that was beneficial to your mind and body and told me to put it next to where I sleep. One night after receiving this gift, I rubbed the crystal onto my face, temples, neck and around the top of my head and then tried to go to sleep. Almost instantly a massive amount of colored dot imagery appeared and began buzzing or vibrating, again to the point that I could no longer try and sleep. It took several hours for these vibrating dots and blobs to calm down enough for me to fall asleep. My mom used to tell me that I was a very sleepy child who took long naps when I was young. I wonder if it was because I continued to see light while trying to sleep, making for poor quality sleep. I,like many others here have asked all the professionals including optometrists, ophthalmologists, neurologists, psychiatrists, family practice doctors, and many other professionals and non-professionals about these dots and blobs and have NEVER had anyone know anything about this condition. It is so rewarding that after 56 years I have finally found this article to confirm my condition. These images are at times wonderful to absorb and think about and at other times they can be so tormenting and hard to deal with.

    John, March 11, 2016 at 6:06 pm
  30. Some of you are describing reactions to sound and other stimuli that doesn’t fit within the descriptions in this article. If this is you, look up Synesthesia… it will explain a lot. For instance, this explains why I see patterns & colors impacted by music/sounds.

    Bob, March 14, 2016 at 4:12 am
  31. A’friend’ told me that pot makes the whole bio photon experience a truly wonderful and rewarding experience. It’s like a star show as wide as a galaxy that ebbs and flows to the vibe of your whole being and is like a lovely dream that you can control. Brilliant. That’s what my ‘friend’ says anyway.

    Ivan, March 19, 2016 at 5:36 am
  32. @Anne
    Hi, since my writing I have learned that the White ring is probably a pressure phosgene – well according to another article that I read. It seems consistent with when I get it – as I had a recurring tiny lump under my upper eyelid and it seemed to be when I moved my eye passed that part of my eye that I saw the white ring in front of my vision. It is only obvious in the dark with my eyes closed or when I blink in a very very dark room. I haven’t noticed it for a long time and I would need to concentrate to try and notice it when lying with my eyes closed. I have mentioned to several consultant ophthalmologists and they couldn’t explain it nor could any optometrist I have mentioned it to. I also have dry eyes and notice it after I put my carboner solution in my eyes at night to go to sleep. Did you get any more explanation?

    Thérèse, March 20, 2016 at 11:36 am
  33. Sorry for typo above it should read “phosphene”

    Thérèse, March 20, 2016 at 11:40 am
  34. I see the color blue when I get this light show. Also I have to put pressure on my eyes and when I do put pressure I feel a somewhat burning feeling in my nose. Anyone else have that happen?

    Justin, March 30, 2016 at 3:27 pm
  35. Not sure if this is the same thing, but this phenomenon is what led me to look this stuff up. When my eyes are closed or even open, in complete darkness, I always see white lines in the form of circles. They move from the outside of my eyes to the center decreasing in size untill they reach the center.the only way I can describe it is as reverse ripples. The weird part is that if I concentrate I can stop the ripples from reaching the center, and sometimes I’m able to reverse their movements. Mind you only for a few seconds. I was just wondering if anyone else has this happen, or know what this phenomenon is. It’s been bugging me FOREVER!!!

    AustinE, April 29, 2016 at 5:19 am
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