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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.

About the Author

Hanneke Weitering

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

88 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.

Raveonatabu says:

I luv watching the colors. Often I’ll see various colors and in the center I usually see images. Once in awhile I’ll see a tiny far off light that increases in size until an image forms. Missy recently now colors are blending rather than just changing from say blue to green to purple then pink..so on n so forth.I asked my family missy of them said they simply saw black or nothing.I’ve had this since I was a young child.there are times when it’s been black.I missed the dancing shapes n pictures.THE body is an amazing thing.

Cynthia Lewis says:

When I am a passenger in a car, sitting with my eyes closed and the sun is on my side of the car and is being filtered through tree branches and leave as the car is moving along I see kaledscopic patterns flashing before my eyes

Grisel Del Castillo says:

Is there a link between phosphenes and snow vision? Also, I see phosphenes in dim light and sometimes they can start shaping in to caricature like shapes.

Allison says:

You guys are funny that’s the third eye. As if they were so close to explaining it. Now just pray and imagine images with the colors. Also meditating because you can’t have fear you work with god. Don’t let things fool you first starting out and be sober or it will be paranoia.

Rebec_arose says:

The first time I saw these colours I was 7 and was going through a very scary moment but I stared at the wall and everything around the point I was focusing on went black and a large amount of colours began to warp around the point.
As I’ve gotten older the colours are amazing but scare me (which stops me from tapping in I guess) because I never thought it was normal. Thanks for everyone’s comments. The reassurance is incredible.

Gregory G Null says:

A few years back, I went to bed, at that time I would frequently watch the colors, and light patterns before going to sleep, this only happened to me once, upon going to for a few hours I started seeing all the colors like a tie die shirt, I woke with my eyes closed watching the colors swirling, and the colors grew brighter, and intense, I sit up and upon opening my eyes I projected the colored light onto the walls, the curtains, and the beautiful swirling colored light of filled the room, very intense bright colors filling the room, then they started to fade, and stopped completely, I was filled with elated joy, I got up , and had a cup of coffee, and wondered what just happened to me, I went back to bed hoping that this would happen again, but it never has, Does this have a name? Has anyone else experienced this?

Julie says:

I see colors like looking through a kaleidoscope. The colors are purple and yellow diamond shapes. This happens almost nightly. I also see pink circles when coming in from outside…amazing!

Heather Winiesdorffer says:

Since I can remember at least 2 years. Old. When I have rubbed my eyes due to tiredness , I have always seen a pattern of gold and greyish checkerboard – descending in the center – just thought that’s what happens when you rub your eyes

Draija says:

I use the phenomena to select which dream to enter.

Stephen Viana says:

Why can’t I focus on one particular “light” during a phosphene moment?Try to follow it and it changes.

Madeleine Sanchez says:

The weirdest thing happened to me which made me look for information on this. My husband woke and turned the light on I still had my eyes closedSo I just woke up still my eyes closed I see this but it wasn’t blobs of light or geometrical shapes They were 0s and 1s I swear to you they were Like flying towards me I kinda freaked out WTF was that?!

Patrick hennessey says:

I see the geometric lines very often just black lined shapes that merge into black shapes outlined in light …. i have never seen any colours though .

Amy says:

sounds strange but I don’t see anything specific. When I close my eyes all I see is Red when I am in pain, Green when I feel good and Blue when I am relaxed. I have at times also seen Yellow when I am stressed. I thought this was normal until a few years ago, it was brought up in conversation and everyone thought I was nuts. They were talking about seeing floaters. I don’t tell anyone anymore.

Pamela says:

When I close my eyes at night I see blobs of color moving in out of each other together. I compare it to a lava lamp. Often they are colors that are not my favorites such as orange and green together. I asked a doctor about it, it actually has a name, it is some kind of visual hallucination, not drug induced!

T Jones says:

I can also generate shapes, flashes patterns and shadings of colours with my eyes open. I can just stare at something, the darkness comes in from the edges of my vision and then they appear. Sometimes there seems to be a splitting of light, into pink/fuchsia and green. Or if I stare st white text on black or white shapes on black I get the negative image almost burned into my vision for the next 5 minutes. Or staying at red and glancing away I get the sane red shape showing as a ghostly green wherever I look. Does anyone do this also? I have also experienced several episodes of ophthalmic migraine which produces amazing fractal like visual displays dancing in black and white.

J. says:

Hmmm. So this purple lights display has an explanation, lol. Is seeing faces/images in different surfaces connected with phosphenes? I saw some patterns/faces in our ceiling one time and as i keep on watching them, different colored lights then more images just blend in with it (mostly purple but also some shades of gold/tan/blue/lightgreen/red/pink). I thought it was kind of a portal back then, lol. There was also this one time when i had a nightmare where something heavy seems to be sitting on my middle and i keep on praying and forcing my self to open my eyes. When i did open my eyes i saw this white/golden orb floating on top of me moving slowly from my middle to my head until it vanished outside my opened window (i was sleeping on a loft with an open window directly over my head). It didn’t vanished right away even after being outside, only when i decided i had enough and looked away first. To this day i regret not reaching out and touching that orb. Seeing purple/different lights with open/close eyes comes and goes for me. But i noticed they mostly happen to me after some kind of physical/emotional/spiritual strain that leaves me ‘open’. I also experienced whistling outside at night and i swear the air/wind whistled back the same tone several times (i know it’s not about lights but i just feel like sharing lol). I keep trying to experience that again but no luck. I hope there’s a clearer explanation for these things, aside from me being loony lol.

Karen says:

Between the article and comments I feel more confused as ever. I recall in the past year or so seeing this before drifting off to sleep. Last night I stayed awake all night eyes open and watched these brightly colored shapes with like stringy light auras floating around them. Blue, green, red, orange and purple going from circular to square to rectangular to slightly off balanced on one side or the other. At 60 it’s kinda hard to figure out because it’s not normal to you. Then again people are hearing different pitches and claim it’s an information download to the brain. Although religious I am not super religious and think I am open minded that it could be anything explained easily or sure why not go there and say it’s a gift

Sammike says:

Hi everybody, I can see colors like electric charges moving around when I close my eyes with room light switch off. I also can see movie of people faces, bridges, buildings or anything when I close my eyes when I want to sleep. This problems been with me since I was a kid. Now I over 45, I wish to be part of medical science research as guinea pigs. Please free to CTC me as I m having insomnia that I only sleep during morning to afternoon. At night I usually cannot sleep unless I take drugs or alcohol.

Bill MacMichael says:

Oh crap. And I thought I was special. But what I always saw changed completely when I wore an eye mask. Something about zero light.

B says:

The vibrant colors i used to see are sadly fading. I don’t if its due to age or what but I feel sad about it. Focusing on the colors before bed always gave me a sense of ” good feeligs” hope I dont sound crazy lol.

life is a mystery says:

Yup I see these specks of light even when I open my eyes. They get more obvious when it’s dark. It’s like a Matisse painting lol. When I was young, I could focus on a spot and see some kind of caricature swirling out of that spot. I have seen one single color among the scattered flecks of light in the dark, which transforms into another color after a few minutes.

When I close my eyes these days, I see grid lines, or some tiny lights moving from the center to the border of my vision as if I’m travelling inside a tunnel, or blobs of light that are either one single color or a ombre of two different colors at the background with strange blob beings travelling in all directions at the front.

Something random, there was this one time I was lying face down on bed and was able to manifest a heavy being lying on top of me. I pushed that being away and felt it grabbing my hand with a fingernail pressed into my palm. I opened my eyes and saw nothing sadly. I think I manifested an egregore.

I also saw a floating white longish blob beside me with holes that resemble a face in a semi dark room. I was too sleepy to bother and just closed my eyes but got paralysed by something for a few seconds.

Kjirstin Youngberg says:

OMGoodness, Madeleine Sanchez! You do know 1’s and 0’s are binary code, correct? Did you happen to write it down in order? You can translate it into English and see what it was saying!
Or, it’s just the way your phosphenes and biophotons getting fancy.
Either way, it’s fascinating!

peter says:

They can write what ever but when i close eyes, especially better in dark, i can see plelty things
from flowers to outstanding buildings and many different people etc. Sometime in great collors.
Not just simple images. And this happen almost every day.Sometime better than in dreams.

Brian Scattergood says:

@Bill – “swirling fingerprints”. How to describe it is difficult, and it may differ with different people. My own closed eye visualisation of fingerprints resemble contorted tree rings, and I can examine them for a while, before I have to let a new one happen. They then usually occur somewhere else within my visual field, and then I can turn my attention to them.. My closed eye background colour is a “mottling” of deep purple & subtle oranges, and from that I can allow other stuff to happen, or I can turn it off altogether. When I let it continue, I can also see flashes of colour, if I choose to. I can think of a colour, and make it predominate.

All of this happens without me applying any pressure to my eyeballs, and it’s not that weird white “sideways jellyfish tentacles” when I look to the far left or right, with my eyes closed. The bedroom is dark, my eyes are closed, and the covers are over my face. I have blackout curtains over the only window. Very oddly, if I move a hand over my covered face, I can detect “something crossing” – a “movement”. I asked my wife to do the hand movements for me, so that I wouldn’t know which way her hand was moving. She declined, for some strange reason, obviously!

Carolyn says:

This thread is fascinating! All my life, I just figured everyone saw colors and pictures when their eyes were closed. Then I started asking other people about it, and I could find no one else who experiences what I do. Peter, I’m more like you than the others, in that I see colors, shapes, objects, and often very vivid and complex pictures. When they come, I can just lie there and enjoy the show. I can’t control what I’m seeing, and if I concentrate too hard or start thinking about other things, the pictures disappear. It’s fascinating. Usually, it will start as a just shapes and colors and then begin to morph into more complicated images, sometimes landscapes or buildings or crowds of people or works of art. The pictures just keep swirling and changing. If I try to describe them to my husband while they are happening, they fade away. One night I was talking with my husband about them and he looked it up, thus leading me to this forum. It’s fascinating to hear your stories!

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