What causes those weird colorful patterns when you rub your eyes?

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What causes those weird colorful patterns when you rub your eyes?

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“Rubbing your eyes increases the pressure within the eyeball and this pressure activates ganglion cells in the retina in the same way as light does.”

Normally, cells in your eye respond to different types of light, allowing you to see colors, shapes, shadows, etc.

The “weird colorful patterns” are what most scientists in the eye and neurology fields have called **phosphenes.** Basically, any kaleidoscope-like patterns, stars, lines, and swirls have all been categorized under the term **phosphene.**

The thought is that stimulation of the cells in the eyes from anything that is ***not light,*** like rubbing your eyes in this example, can stimulate the cells just enough to “burst” and activate for a brief amount of time. This is why you typically cannot sustain the image or focus on it because you are not truly “looking” at something or taking in light from a source.

Similar “fake activation” of these cells has been seen with sneezing and coughing (increased eye pressure), physical trauma (similar to direct rubbing), migraines/headaches (thought to have electrical influence), and even among astronauts in outer space (increased radiation).

As you can tell, there are a lot of non-specific causes and non-specific “visuals” people report. What the “visual” appears to be is completely subjective to the person and typically hard to describe as they are not seen for much time.

You can think of the cells in your eye as runners ready at the beginning of a racetrack, anxious to sprint at the sound of the starter pistol (light), but then someone in the audience opens a can of soda and the loud noise tricks them into a false running start (phosphene).

I had never been curious enough prior to this post, but upon consulting my colleague Google it appears the word **phosphene** has Greek roots in “phos” (light) and “phainein” (to show).

Bonus ELI5: this is also a nice illustration of a topic in philosophy called the form/object distinction: the difference between a thing you perceive and the way you perceive it.

Normally, we perceive the pressure our own hand applies to another part of the body (object) as the ordinary sensation of pressure (form). But when you press on your eye, you perceive the pressure in two forms simultaneously: the usual way and visually.

In the future, will wearable optics rely on different types of eye stimulation to replicate visuals?

Eye pressure tricks the cells into thinking you see something.

Your senses can be tricked a lot of ways and that just happens to be one of them. There was an office building that everyone constantly saw “ghosts” in. The cause was a broken vent fan causing a super low frequency sound to jiggle the fluid in their eyes and causing them to “see” things that weren’t really there.

your nerves will respond to most stimuli, even different than the ones they’re supposed to. So if you apply pressure on the eyeball, that pressures transfers to the receptors of the retina, which makes the optic nerve fire a signal.

They’re called phosphenes I believe. They are what is known as “seeing stars” after a blow to the head.

Is anyone else able to change the colours of the blobs by thinking of the colour you want to see? I do it quite often when I’m trying to relax, i.e. put pressure on my eyes until I see the colours and change the colours by thinking about the colour I want to see. Any explanation for this would be super interesting

I also want to know why and after reading the comments I do. I wasn’t even sure I was seeing them when I closed my eyes or if anyone else could.