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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.

December 29, 2014
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]

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.

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About the Author

Hanneke Weitering is a lifelong physics fanatic from Knoxville, Tennessee. While pursuing a B.S. in Physics at the University of Tennessee, she discovered her passion for science communication and dove into the world of journalism. First, she began writing stories for the Sci/Tech column at Tennessee Journalist. Afterwards she joined the Joint Institute for Computational Sciences at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where she wrote features about research being performed on the Kraken and Nautilus supercomputers.

Discussion

63 Comments

was hoping for different information on this, as this is part of being intuitive, seeing your angels, etc As I see my colors or images when I’m sleeping and its like a Kaleidoscope.

Bruce Wain says:

Angels? Really? I dispair.

In the lab, scientists generally use electric probes and fancy magnetic machines to make people see phosphenes.

Steph says:

I recently had cataract surgery and my natural lenses were replaced by manufactured ones. Since I’ve had this surgery, I no longer see the shapes. I see a blank screen at night. I sort of miss it, because I enjoyed watching the colors morph and dance around. I hope it can return one day.

Aleeza says:

My mother who just recently started meditating is seeing different colored lights making beautiful patterns. Some lights just pass across swiftly, appear, hide and reappear. It never happened with her before meditation. I guess they are not just phosphenes.

was hoping for different information on this, as this is part of being intuitive, seeing your angels, etc As I see my colors or images when I’m sleeping and its like a Kaleidoscope

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.

I like it

Tom Sawyer says:

My father who just recently started pleasing himself and he really enjoys it, he strokes it in different beautiful patterns. Some white light looking particles materialize swiftly appear and then his ding hides. It never used to happen before he started touching himself.

Adam says:

Has anyone spoke about these matters being a Science/spiritual subject? They coincide I believe. These Purple spots I experience quite often. First time I meditated on a Kubera Mantra gazing at the Sri Yantra. When I finished I was struck with a florescent white warm pillowiewhite light.after I continued to meditate I experienced the purple smudges that floated. I focused on that purple seeing it turn into a flying light that from there turned into a reddish Heart. When that red appeared I dropped and this is where it gets a little weird, I deopped into a different realm and was presented in front of a being with an ever changing face asking me what I would like to know. Keep in mind I do not do drugs nor any hallucinagens. I believe this has to do with frequencies of the brain. I wish there were more studies to this matter instead of being non believing and calling it just a biological science or neural for that matter. If anyone would like to contact me my email is above I would love to hear your theory or experience. Also if you have any questions. Btw this experience is apparently called to the Hindu religion Samadhi. Please contact if there is any questions or comments. No offense but it seems the doctors do not have a serious backing of an answer.

Thank you

adam

Melissa says:

I’ve always seen the colors moving around when I close my eyes, and when I rub my eyes they’re even more Vivid. Now that I am on primidone for tremors, I’m seeing the geometric patterns with a white light flashing on tiny areas to expose the colors. It’s hard to explain that the flashing light moves around. That exposes the colors of the otherwise gray geometric pattern. Usually I see blue and yellow, but I saw some pink last night, and when I focused on the color, the color stayed and grew in that area. At 74, I’m so glad to find I’m not the only one seeing these colors now can see the patterns.

Darby says:

I discovered the lights during meditation. I can see them anytime I close my eyes . Then, I can still see them when I reopen my eyes in the dark. At first I saw only white, but now I see red, blue, orange and purple. It’s very calming.

Nir a yakir says:

I see phosphates all the time with eyes open or closed. For a number of years. Is there anything that can change this since they affect my reading and driving?

Arjan says:

I think this may be a subject of study were we can find links between spirituality and understanding the science behind it. If you’ve ever read into or felt chakra manipulation, studying phosphenes really provides some scientific basis into how we perceive thoughts and feelings of other people but also ourselves.

The belief that each of the seven chakra points in our body manifest the emotions that we feel is a purely subjective feeling which only you can experience. However into studies like this its perhaps beginning to objectify these thus allow other people to understand this method of thinking/feeling.

In the example I’ve given about chakra, of our mind manifesting our emotion in terms of the colours/wavelengths of light we can perceive. Studying topics like phosphene bridges the link between everyone’s subjective feeling but also the objective nature of the science of why it’s occurring.

Just a thought but I’d love to discuss this with anyone who wants to.

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