artistic representation of phosphenes
An artist's representation of how some people may see phosphenes by retinal stimulation.

A phosphene is the phenomenon of seeing light without light entering the eye. The word phosphene comes from the Greek words phos (light) and phainein (to show). Phosphenes that are induced by movement or sound may be associated with optic neuritis.[1][2]

Phosphenes can be induced by mechanical, electrical, or magnetic stimulation of the retina or visual cortex, or by random firing of cells in the visual system. Phosphenes have also been reported by meditators[3] (called nimitta), people who endure long periods without visual stimulation (the prisoner's cinema), or those who ingest psychedelic drugs.[4]


Mechanical stimulation

The most common phosphenes are pressure phosphenes, caused by rubbing or applying pressure on or near the closed eyes. They have been known since antiquity, and described by the Greeks.[5] The pressure mechanically stimulates the cells of the retina. Experiences include a darkening of the visual field that moves against the rubbing, a diffuse colored patch that also moves against the rubbing, well defined shapes such as bright circles that exist near or opposite to where pressure is being applied,[6] a scintillating and ever-changing and deforming light grid with occasional dark spots (like a crumpling fly-spotted flyscreen), and a sparse field of intense blue points of light. Pressure phosphenes can persist briefly after the rubbing stops and the eyes are opened, allowing the phosphenes to be seen on the visual scene. Hermann von Helmholtz and others have published drawings of their pressure phosphenes. One example of a pressure phosphene is demonstrated by gently pressing the side of one's eye and observing a colored ring of light on the opposite side, as detailed by Isaac Newton.[7][8][9]

Another common phosphene is "seeing stars" from a sneeze, laughter, a heavy and deep cough, blowing of the nose, a blow on the head or low blood pressure (such as on standing up too quickly or prior to fainting). It is possible these involve some mechanical stimulation of the retina, but they may also involve mechanical and metabolic (such as from low oxygenation or lack of glucose) stimulation of neurons of the visual cortex or of other parts of the visual system.[citation needed]

Less commonly, phosphenes can also be caused by some diseases of the retina and nerves, such as multiple sclerosis. The British National Formulary lists phosphenes as an occasional side effect of at least one anti-anginal medication.

The name "phosphene" was coined by J. B. H. Savigny, better known as the ship's surgeon of the wrecked French frigate Méduse.[10] It was first employed by Serre d'Uzes to test retinal function prior to cataract surgery.[11]

Electrical stimulation

Phosphenes have been created by electrical stimulation of the brain, reported by neurologist Otfrid Foerster as early as 1929. Brindley and Lewin (1968) inserted a matrix of stimulating electrodes directly into the visual cortex of a 52-year-old blind female, using small pulses of electricity to create phosphenes. These phosphenes were points, spots, and bars of colorless or colored light.[12] Brindley and Rushton (1974) used the phosphenes to create a visual prosthesis, in this case by using the phosphenes to depict Braille spots.

In recent years, researchers have successfully developed experimental brain–computer interfaces or neuroprostheses that stimulate phosphenes to restore vision to people blinded through accidents. Notable successes include the human experiments by William H. Dobelle[13] and Mark Humayun and animal research by Dick Normann.

A noninvasive technique that uses electrodes on the scalp, transcranial magnetic stimulation, has also been shown to produce phosphenes.[14]

Experiments with humans have shown that when the visual cortex is stimulated above the calcarine fissure, phosphenes are produced in the lower part of the visual field, and vice versa.[15]


Phosphenes have been produced by intense, changing magnetic fields, such as with transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). These fields can be positioned on different parts of the head to stimulate cells in different parts of the visual system. They also can be induced by alternating currents that entrain neural oscillation as with transcranial alternating current stimulation.[16] In this case they appear in the peripheral visual field.[16] This claim has been disputed. The alternative hypothesis is that current spread from the occipital electrode evokes phosphenes in the retina.[17][18][19] Phosphenes created by magnetic fields are known as magnetophosphenes.

Astronauts exposed to radiation in space have reported seeing phosphenes.[20] Patients undergoing radiotherapy have reported seeing blue flashes of light during treatment; the underlying phenomenon has been shown to resemble Cherenkov radiation.[21]

Phosphenes can be caused by some medications, such as Ivabradine.[22]


Most vision researchers believe that phosphenes result from the normal activity of the visual system after stimulation of one of its parts from some stimulus other than light. For example, Grüsser et al. showed that pressure on the eye results in activation of retinal ganglion cells in a similar way to activation by light.[23] An ancient, discredited theory is that light is generated in the eye.[5] A version of this theory has been revived, except, according to its author, that "phosphene lights are [supposed to be] due to the intrinsic perception of induced or spontaneous increased biophoton emission of cells in various parts of the visual system (from retina to cortex)"[24]

Anthropological research

In 1988, David Lewis-Williams and T. A. Dowson published an article about phosphenes and other entoptic phenomena. They argued that non-figurative art of the Upper Paleolithic depicts visions of phosphenes and neurological "form constants", probably enhanced by hallucinogenic drugs.[25]


See also

  • Closed-eye hallucination – Class of hallucination
  • Dark retreat – Tibetan Buddhism advanced practice
  • Isolation tank – Pitch-black, light-proof, soundproof environment heated to the same temperature as the skin
  • Prisoner's cinema – Visual phenomenon involving seeing animated lights in the darkness
  • Scintillating scotoma – Visual aura associated with migraine
  • Photopsia – Presence of perceived flashes of light in one's field of vision
  • Visual snow – Class of hallucination
  • HPPD – Medical condition


  1. ^ Davis, F. A.; Bergen, D.; Schauf, C.; McDonald, I.; Deutsch, W. (1 November 1976). "Movement phosphenes in optic neuritis: A new clinical sign". Neurology. 26 (11): 1100–1104. doi:10.1212/wnl.26.11.1100. PMID 988518. S2CID 32511771.
  2. ^ Page, N.; Bolger, J.; Sanders, M. (1 January 1982). "Auditory evoked phosphenes in optic nerve disease". Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. 45 (1): 7–12. doi:10.1136/jnnp.45.1.7. PMC 491258. PMID 7062073.
  3. ^ Nicholson, Philip T. (2002). "The Soma Code, Part III: Visions, Myths, and Drugs". Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies. 8 (3): 70–92. doi:10.11588/ejvs.2002.3.942.
  4. ^ Klüver, Heinrich (1966). Mescal, and Mechanisms of hallucinations. University of Chicago Press. p. 70. OCLC 1194424731.
  5. ^ a b Grüsser, Otto-Joachim; Hagner, Michael (February 1990). "On the history of deformation phosphenes and the idea of internal light generated in the eye for the purpose of vision". Documenta Ophthalmologica. 74 (1–2): 57–85. doi:10.1007/bf00165665. PMID 2209368. S2CID 30223977.
  6. ^ Sellman, TK (2018-03-11). "Phosphenes: Your Own Personal Aurora Borealis". Retrieved 2020-02-02.
  7. ^ Newton, Isaac. "Laboratory Notebook". Cambridge Digital Library. Retrieved 9 October 2014.
  8. ^ Newton, Isaac; McGuire, J. E; Tamny, Martin (2002). Certain philosophical questions: Newton's Trinity notebook. Cambridge University Press. p. 386. ISBN 978-0-521-53066-8. OCLC 728748184.
  9. ^ "From the library". British Journal of Ophthalmology. 87 (10): 1308. 1 October 2003. doi:10.1136/bjo.87.10.1308.
  10. ^ Savigny, J. B. H. (1838). "Phosphenes ou sensations loumineuses" [Phosphenes or light-hearted sensations]. Archives Générale de Médecine (in French). 3 (2): 495–497.
  11. ^ Serre, H. Auguste (1853). Essai sur les phosphenes: ou anneaux lumineux de la retine considérés dans leurs rapports avec la physiologie et la pathologie de la vision [Test on phosphenes: or luminous rings of the retina considered in their relation to the physiology and pathology of vision] (in French). Masson. OCLC 1194111898.[page needed]
  12. ^ Brindley, G. S.; Lewin, W. S. (1 May 1968). "The sensations produced by electrical stimulation of the visual cortex". The Journal of Physiology. 196 (2): 479–493. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1968.sp008519. PMC 1351724. PMID 4871047.
  13. ^ Dobelle, W. H.; Mladejovsky, M. G. (1 December 1974). "Phosphenes produced by electrical stimulation of human occipital cortex, and their application to the development of a prosthesis for the blind". The Journal of Physiology. 243 (2): 553–576. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.1974.sp010766. PMC 1330721. PMID 4449074.
  14. ^ Cowey, Alan; Walsh, Vincent (2001). "Chapter 26: Tickling the brain: studying visual sensation, perception and cognition by transcranial magnetic stimulation". In Casanova, Christian; Ptito, Maurice (eds.). Vision: From Neurons to Cognition, Volume 1. Gulf Professional Publishing. pp. 411–25. ISBN 978-0-444-50586-6.
  15. ^ Tehovnik, E. J.; Slocum, W. M.; Carvey, C. E.; Schiller, P. H. (January 2005). "Phosphene Induction and the Generation of Saccadic Eye Movements by Striate Cortex". Journal of Neurophysiology. 93 (1): 1–19. CiteSeerX doi:10.1152/jn.00736.2004. PMID 15371496.
  16. ^ a b Kanai, Ryota; Chaieb, Leila; Antal, Andrea; Walsh, Vincent; Paulus, Walter (December 2008). "Frequency-Dependent Electrical Stimulation of the Visual Cortex". Current Biology. 18 (23): 1839–1843. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2008.10.027. PMID 19026538. S2CID 15466470.
  17. ^ Kar, Kohitij; Krekelberg, Bart (15 October 2012). "Transcranial electrical stimulation over visual cortex evokes phosphenes with a retinal origin". Journal of Neurophysiology. 108 (8): 2173–2178. doi:10.1152/jn.00505.2012. PMC 3545027. PMID 22855777.
  18. ^ Schwiedrzik, Caspar (2009). "Retina or visual cortex? The site of phosphene induction by transcranial alternating current stimulation". Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience. 3: 6. doi:10.3389/neuro.07.006.2009. PMC 2691656. PMID 19506706.
  19. ^ Schutter, Dennis J.L.G.; Hortensius, Ruud (July 2010). "Retinal origin of phosphenes to transcranial alternating current stimulation". Clinical Neurophysiology. 121 (7): 1080–1084. doi:10.1016/j.clinph.2009.10.038. PMID 20188625. S2CID 11763513.
  20. ^ Fuglesang, Christer; Narici, Livio; Picozza, Piergiorgio; Sannita, Walter G. (April 2006). "Phosphenes in Low Earth Orbit: Survey Responses from 59 Astronauts". Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine. 77 (4): 449–452. PMID 16676658.
  21. ^ Tendler, Irwin I.; Hartford, Alan; Jermyn, Michael; LaRochelle, Ethan; Cao, Xu; Borza, Victor; Alexander, Daniel; Bruza, Petr; Hoopes, Jack; Moodie, Karen; Marr, Brian P.; Williams, Benjamin B.; Pogue, Brian W.; Gladstone, David J.; Jarvis, Lesley A. (February 2020). "Experimentally Observed Cherenkov Light Generation in the Eye During Radiation Therapy". International Journal of Radiation Oncology, Biology, Physics. 106 (2): 422–429. doi:10.1016/j.ijrobp.2019.10.031. PMC 7161418. PMID 31669563.
  22. ^ Tardif, Jean-Claude; Ford, Ian; Tendera, Michal; Bourassa, Martial G.; Fox, Kim (1 December 2005). "Efficacy of ivabradine, a new selective If inhibitor, compared with atenolol in patients with chronic stable angina". European Heart Journal. 26 (23): 2529–2536. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehi586. PMID 16214830.
  23. ^ Grüsser, OJ; Grüsser-Cornehls, U; Hagner, M; Przybyszewski, AW (1989). "Purkynĕ's description of pressure phosphenes and modern neurophysiological studies on the generation of phosphenes by eyeball deformation". Physiologia Bohemoslovaca. 38 (4): 289–309. PMID 2531426.
  24. ^ Bókkon, István (May 2008). "Phosphene phenomenon: A new concept". Biosystems. 92 (2): 168–174. CiteSeerX doi:10.1016/j.biosystems.2008.02.002. PMID 18358594.
  25. ^ Lewis-Williams, J. D.; Dowson, T. A.; Bahn, Paul G.; Bednarik, Robert G.; Clegg, John; Consens, Mario; Davis, Whitney; Delluc, Brigitte; Delluc, Gilles; Faulstich, Paul; Halverson, John; Layton, Robert; Martindale, Colin; Mirimanov, Vil; Turner, Christy G.; Vastokas, Joan M.; Winkelman, Michael; Wylie, Alison (April 1988). "The Signs of All Times: Entoptic Phenomena in Upper Palaeolithic Art [and Comments and Reply]". Current Anthropology. 29 (2): 201–245. doi:10.1086/203629. JSTOR 2743395. S2CID 147235550.
  26. ^ Lewis, Philip M.; Rosenfeld, Jeffrey V. (January 2016). "Electrical stimulation of the brain and the development of cortical visual prostheses: An historical perspective". Brain Research. 1630: 208–224. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2015.08.038. PMID 26348986.
  27. ^ Jiang, Linxing; Stocco, Andrea; Losey, Darby M.; Abernethy, Justin A.; Prat, Chantel S.; Rao, Rajesh P. N. (26 September 2018). "BrainNet: A Multi-Person Brain-to-Brain Interface for Direct Collaboration Between Brains". arXiv:1809.08632. doi:10.1101/425066. S2CID 52815886. ((cite journal)): Cite journal requires |journal= (help)