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Scientist Explains Why You See Strange ‘Swirls and Waves’ When You Close Your Eyes

Visual representation of abstract swirls and waves similar to those experienced with closed eyes.

A scientist has explained the phenomenon of observing patterns and colors when your eyes are closed.

You crawl into bed, ready to secure a solid seven hours of sleep to gear up for another day. However, as you close your eyes, instead of darkness and relaxation, you’re greeted by spirals of color and zig-zag patterns, creating a visual display reminiscent of a kaleidoscope or a scene from Disney’s Fantasia, making sleep seem elusive.

Shared Visual Phenomena

Rest assured, if you’ve experienced this, you’re not alone. There’s been quite a stir on social media, with many expressing their alarm over this unexpected visual experience.

On the platform One X, a user expressed their curiosity, “Do u guys also have that weird thing where u can see colorful patterns when u have your eyes closed pls tell me someone knows what im saying.”

Another voiced their frustration, saying “YES ITS SO DISTRACTING WHEN IM TRYNA SLEEP.”

Echoing this sentiment, someone else added, “Yes!! It’s like a kaleidoscope.”

Normalizing the Experience

Addressing the concerns of a seven-year-old and the online community, Associate Professor Katrina Schmid from Queensland University of Technology conveyed reassurance that seeing colors with one’s eyes closed is a completely ordinary experience.

In her contribution to The Conversation, Professor Schmid outlines that ‘a few different situations can cause you to see colors with your eyes closed.’ A notable instance is when you shut your eyes while in brightly-lit environments.

“Some light does go through your closed eyelids. So you might see a dark reddish colour because the lids have lots of blood vessels in them and this is the light taking on the colour of the blood it passes through,” Prof. Schmid elaborates.

The Science of Seeing Without Light

The phenomenon, as she details, is attributed to ‘phosphenes,’ a natural aspect of our vision that presents as ‘the sensation of light that’s not actually caused by light.’

Prof. Schmid elaborates: “Our eyes don’t turn off in the dark, but instead they create very weak internal signals that mimic light. These signals are constantly being made by the cells at the back of your eyes.”

“The swirls and waves we see are made by changes in activity from these cells. The blobs may be coloured because the cells in your eyes that detect colour also show this activity.”
“These signals are transmitted to the brain, and the brain interprets this random activity. Your brain doesn’t know they weren’t produced by real light, so we think we’re seeing coloured lights and patterns that are not there. It’s a kind of illusion!”

While it’s highlighted that these visual illusions are typically harmless, Prof. Schmid advises that should these manifestations become ‘much more obvious’ or persist longer, one should consider a consultation with an optometrist.

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