March 2, 2005 5:33 PM   Subscribe

When you close your eyes as tight as possible, what do you see? I see patterns and shapes constantly changing and moving across my vision. I searched and one page suggested that this phenomena was 'hypnagogic vision', but all other references seem to suggest that this is a part of the sleep pattern, and not when fully conscious.

Does anyone else experience this?
Is this the same as hypnagogic vision?
Why does this happen?

also, as an aside, can anyone think of a way to replicate in some way this phenominon (ie. using film/computer graphics)?
posted by iamcrispy to Health & Fitness (42 answers total)
I'm pretty sure it's caused by pressure accidentaly tripping the cones and rods in your eyes to fire off incorrectly.
posted by delmoi at 5:50 PM on March 2, 2005

just chiming in...i see similar things--patterns and shapes constantly changing and moving. for me, the movement is zooming in towards and by me, not as much across my vision. i often see checkerboard patterns and also sparkly multicolored dots like pinpoint christmas lights going off and on. i have *always* wondered what this was called, and wondered if everyone sees the same thing. i have asked my sister and she says she doesn't see patterns like i described and thought i was nuts! i, like you, have even wondered if there was a way to replicate it, although i was thinking more of artwork/painting/drawing. but film/graphics would be much better because it could show movement.
posted by rio at 5:51 PM on March 2, 2005

I see the same thing. I've no idea what it is, but when I was little I'd often just sit with my eyes closed, watching the pretty patterns.
posted by stray at 5:53 PM on March 2, 2005

My mind does this too. Sometimes it's spotty and sparkly like Christmas lights, sometimes it's nebulous shapes of color.

I have no idea how I would replicate it, since part of this phenomenon (for me, at least) is that there is no sense of depth or scale at all. I wouldn't know how to draw something that has no nearness or size. Sometimes, there's no sense of color. The thing I'm 'seeing' could be green, or purple. It's a particularly constant.

I was wondering about this a few nights ago. Good question, iamcrispy; I'm interested in seeing what is said about it.

And a funny anecdote about it -- when I was a little kid, four or five years old, I remember talking about it with some of my classmates, and one was convinced that when he saw green, he'd gotten really deep into his brain.
posted by cmyk at 5:57 PM on March 2, 2005

Argh. It's not particularly constant. Not.

Seems the colors behind my eyelids are infecting my ability to communicate.
posted by cmyk at 5:58 PM on March 2, 2005

I see the shapes and things as well. When I don't close them very tight, however, I just see darkness.
posted by tozturk at 6:05 PM on March 2, 2005

If I close my eyes tightly, I see square patterns. Radiating squares, a bit like this. If I rub my eyes then the squares start rotating. I hope someone chimes in on the reason behind it!
posted by nprigoda at 6:13 PM on March 2, 2005

It's called Entoptic Phenomena. I read about this a few years ago. They are images that are caused by the structures in the eye. Sometimes you may see geometric shapes, sometimes patterns of the veins and arteries in the eye.
posted by exlotuseater at 7:36 PM on March 2, 2005

Hypnogogia is something else entirely; hallucinations that can be either visual, auditory, or even tactile in nature, usually on the cusp of falling asleep or waking.
posted by exlotuseater at 7:43 PM on March 2, 2005

When I was young, I used to pretend that those squiggles were little atoms moving around. I thought maybe I was the only one with sharp enough eyes or concentration to see them.
posted by equipoise at 7:46 PM on March 2, 2005

wrt to replicating, for me, the closest thing is the moire effect.
posted by Sangre Azul at 8:03 PM on March 2, 2005

The lights you see when you close your eyes hard. Technically the luminous impressions are due to the excitation of the retina caused by pressure on the eyeball.

Courtesy of "33 Names of Things You Never Knew had Names" from the The Book of Lists
posted by banished at 8:10 PM on March 2, 2005

I saw this when I was a kid, and when talking about it with adults it seemed like they thought something was wrong with me. I probably didn't do a good job communicating about it... they probably thought I was hallucinating and seeing distinct objects.
posted by rolypolyman at 8:21 PM on March 2, 2005

I get the pinpoints and blobs too...but it's weird...I "see" it but I have to concentrate for a couple seconds before I really see it. Almost like my brain has to catch up to my eyes.
posted by davebush at 8:25 PM on March 2, 2005

The closest I can get to how these look are those swirly vortex visualizations in MP3 players.

Does entoptic phenomena have anything to do with occasionally being able to see bacteria and other blink-and-I-miss-them things while awake? I'd always wondered what the name for that was.
posted by cmyk at 8:32 PM on March 2, 2005

If you apply pressure to your eyes it gets more intense. Then it starts to hurt. Probably because of the pressure on your eyes.

Might not want to do that.
posted by rfordh at 8:37 PM on March 2, 2005

They are images that are caused by the structures in the eye. Sometimes you may see geometric shapes, sometimes patterns of the veins and arteries in the eye.

Well, that's one theory. Another is that your brain might be using the eyes' inherent geometric structures to create *its own* additional patterns, perhaps based on your current state of body/mind or what's uppermost in your consciousness at the time. And, of course, another is that you're having a direct experience of the fundamentally fluid and fractal nature of reality, perhaps something similar to the flood of perception Aldous Huxley talked about during those moments when the pipeline of attention is more open to phenomena that are typically ignored.

Reductionist biology is only one possible option here.
posted by mediareport at 8:52 PM on March 2, 2005

Isotropic shapes, like a natural language we all share.

LSD will present you with nothing but these patterns.

Makes you wonder how the other half died.
posted by Mean Mr. Bucket at 9:32 PM on March 2, 2005

odinsdream: They're called floaters, very common. They're pieces of loose matter in your eye (so you're right in the sense that they're organic), you usually see them looking at a bright, even surface.
posted by abcde at 9:41 PM on March 2, 2005

Yea, lots of different phenomena at work here. This is a pretty good summary of hallucinatory patterns generated by your brain/retina, like the pressure phosphenes originally asked about. Similarly, an article simulating it with a neural network has pictures! So yes, they've mathematically modeled it. Another method not yet mentioned is the dream machine, which creates flashes of light to supposedly induce the right brain waves (or seizures).

Not in the same class: hypnogogic imagery (dreams appearing while falling asleep but still awake) and floaters (bits of detached vessels/debris in your eye diffracting light to actually form shapes on your retina).
posted by Xelf at 10:02 PM on March 2, 2005

Thanks for this question! I have this... Shapes and patterns always moving, evolving, zooming in and out, usually in glorious technicolor! Like cmyk, I could only compare it to something like a visualization plug-in, but more 3D in a way, and more vivid. Very entertaining. Until now, I thought everybody experienced this.

This only happens with my eyes closed, though they don't have to be closed tightly, and it doesn't necessarily happen "every" time I close my eyes. (It also seems like I can "encourage" it a bit, by... "relaxing into it", let's say.) From what I'm reading now about entoptic phenomenon, it doesn't seem like the same thing that I experience, though it does sound like what odinsdream describes.

(on preview... Xelf's links seem more like it — evidently my brain's cortex is quite excited!)
posted by taz at 10:09 PM on March 2, 2005

I get this too, but I get it with my eyes open or closed. Most of the time I ignore it, but I can see this stuff all the time if I look for it. I've got bad vision too, so when my glasses are off, I see stuff all over the place. I actually sit back and watch this stuff all the time.
posted by spaghetti at 10:34 PM on March 2, 2005

odin, abcde, thank you for asking that. I vividly remember those when I was younger staring out the window while in the car. I thought I was nuts. Glad I'm not alone.

Ask Metafilter: answering the questions I was afraid to ask when I was 8.
posted by Arch Stanton at 10:57 PM on March 2, 2005

I see the radiating squares, like nprigoda does. When I was younger they were black and white; I noticed as I got older they became light-blue and black instead.
posted by neckro23 at 11:12 PM on March 2, 2005

I see a dark background with a lighter pattern on top. It's almost like the texture on parchment paper or maybe like a low grit sandpaper, only it's more regular than that. I also see the sparkly lights but not as often as when I was a kid.
posted by deborah at 11:41 PM on March 2, 2005

There seems to be two broad categories here - the kind caused by pressure and other internal states of the eye stimulating the rods and cones and causing blobs of color, and the more aggressive, geometric patterns caused by the brain filling in due to lack of input when your eyes are closed. A related topic is how some people with eye conditions that reduce your field of vision will fill in the empty spots with hallucinatory imagery. I would venture that people who can get structured imagery just from closing their eyes might tend to have more vivid dreams and be better at visualizing things in general.

To contribute, I used to get glittering grids through my field of vision when I was a kid and the light went off after being really bright, and I was puzzled at the time because certainly squares are not something that your eyes could organically produce, but thinking back now it's obviously mental.
posted by abcde at 12:13 AM on March 3, 2005

*there seem to be
posted by abcde at 12:17 AM on March 3, 2005

In regards to replicating this phenomena, the late Stan Brakhage made a career out of it.
posted by StopMakingSense at 2:11 AM on March 3, 2005

Response by poster: wow, some really great answers here, thanks to everyone who has answered, and anyone who may still have an answer. And as for Brakhage, I think I've just found a new hero.
posted by iamcrispy at 4:51 AM on March 3, 2005

During elementary school, if the cafeteria got too loud during lunch time, they'd make us put our heads down. I used to pretend that the colors and shapes that I saw were deep space, and that I was flying through them.

I also have floaters, and when I look at the sky on a bright day, I see a sort of pulsating tunnel. When I was little I used to try to focus it at things to see if I had laser vision or something.
posted by patgas at 5:56 AM on March 3, 2005

odinstream/Arch Stanton - I have floaters too, and I'm also glad to see I'm not alone. I have always thought it was either amoeba and/or dust.
posted by grateful at 6:19 AM on March 3, 2005

I can't add much beyond shared experience but depending on which part of the eye you press on you can manipulate the colors and patterns. The squares that spin and zoom were cool but my favorite was the tube of swirling colors. This was difficult to accomplish and took lots of practice.

If you open your eye quickly and stare at something you can see the patterns briefly overlay onto what you are looking at. Trees moving in the wind are a particularly thrilling backdrop. This used to be a favorite pastime of mine when I was very young.

The fact that I did it a lot and suffered no ill effects leads me to believe this is relatively safe. I never pressed too hard though. A lighter touch seemed to produce the best results.

And odinsdream: I was crushed when I found out that those were not real amoeba and bacteria that I was seeing on my eye. Apparently it's very common but my eye dr. warned that if they get noticeably worse over time it can be a sign of bad things and should be looked at.
posted by tinamonster at 7:52 AM on March 3, 2005

I don't mean to demean helpful posters, but nearly everything posted above is wrong.

The original poster is not describing hypnagogic vision. The patterns produced by pressure on the eyeballs do indeed originate in the retina, but they are not solely due to pressure. In fact, increased intraocular pressure to this degree causes retinal ischemia (decreased blood flow to the retinal neurons). Ischemic neurons, deprived of oxygen and glucose, and building up CO2 and metabolic wastes, are apt to fire off spontaneously, because they lose ATP power to their Na/K exchangers, and, hence, depolarize. This is why the patterns take a moment to appear once the pressure is on, and do not disappear immediately once the pressure is off.

There's a good deal of image processing done in the retina. Information representing moving angled lines and spots, circles, color/shapes, and angles subtending various arcs already is partially encoded by the time it leaves the retina, long before it gets to the thalamus or visual cortex. When neurons responsible for such encoding become ischemic and "fire" (depolarize), the primitive patterns that the retina can encode become manifest as visual phenomena.

Hypnagogic vision is extremely rare and is probably an epileptiform phenomenon. It only happens when you're drifting off to sleep and is associated with things like sleep paralysis and narcolepsy.

It's bad for your eyes to put pressure on them this way, by the way. Dangerous outcomes include lens and retinal detachment, other retinal injuries, corneal abrasion or other corneal damage, and cardiac arrhythmias and syncope owing to vagal overdrive. Bottom line: you shouldn't do this.

I've answered odinsdream's question at least twice before in this space. Here's the relevant link again, to the San Francisco Exploratorium site. Basically, viewing certain shades of blue allows you to see the red blood corpuscles (RBCs, erythrocytes) as they wend their way through the transparent layer of capillaries overlying your retina.

Floaters are something different than either of these. You see them all the time, without pressure, and they are caused by opaque material, fixed in position in the thick jelly of the vitreous humor.

Finally, migraine auras present with typical patterns, distinct from the retinal patterns described by the original poster, which are thought to be manifestations of hyperexcitability of the primary and secondary visual cortex of the occipital lobe of the brain. Such patterns seem to be more complex than the retinal ones.

I've often wondered if something could be learned about visual processing by somehow collecting reports of the appearance of these retinal discharge images, but I never looked into it further.
posted by ikkyu2 at 7:57 AM on March 3, 2005 [2 favorites]

Odinstream - In addition to floaters, it is possible that you are seeing your white blood cells.
posted by AllesKlar at 8:01 AM on March 3, 2005

Shit Shit Shit. I >swear< the preview button was broken.
posted by AllesKlar at 8:02 AM on March 3, 2005

What they all said. How cool it is that everyone gets more or less the same effect!
posted by five fresh fish at 9:30 AM on March 3, 2005

Excellent answer, ikkyu2.

When I apply pressure to my eyes, the most prominent shape I see is a large, usually reddish oval with a dark area in the center. Salvador Dali said in his autobiography that this is the image he was getting at with the "two eggs fried in a pan without the pan" that he would occasionally paint. (He also claimed that it was his most vivid memory from when he was still in the womb. Interesting guy.)
posted by squidlarkin at 9:37 AM on March 3, 2005

Entoptic phenomena, possibly induced by rhythmic driving, flickering light, migraines, drugs, etc are one of the hotter current explanations for global uniformities in prehistoric rock art patterning, such as chevrons, dots, grids, etc. Dated overview, another slightly dated reference with pictures.

Basic idea is behaviours associated with shamanism or rituals such as drumming, dancing, flickering light can induce these phenomena and they were included into rock art which may be a representation of such experiences.
posted by Rumple at 1:39 PM on March 3, 2005

This is a great thread. I see the swirling, geometric "Winamp Visualizer" patterns too, especially if I have been rubbing my eyes and have them closed for a while afterwards. I always just thought they were called phosphenes and didn't really think much about them except that they were way cool.
posted by matildaben at 1:53 PM on March 3, 2005

Rumple, you are my hero for posting that link.

(And everyone else, keep talking! This is fascinating.)
posted by cmyk at 2:12 PM on March 3, 2005

ikkyu2: Thanks for that, I never knew the eye put out anything but raw data. Very interesting. So I guess the people who get simple geometric imagery when they close their eyes are just subject to the particular ways their retinas interpret random firing.

Derail: I'm pretty surprised that hypnagogic imagery is considered epileptiform. It's possible to induce full hypnagogic hallucinations just by specific focusing techniques as you fall asleep (often deemed out of body experiences), would that then be an eplieptic brain pattern that anyone can induce?
posted by abcde at 11:48 PM on March 3, 2005

I have narcolepsy and have auditory hypnagogic hallucinations when I go to sleep. They sound like a voice I am overhearing and when I try to focus on them, they slip away like dreams. I have been trying to concentrate on them lately. I'm a 25 yr old woman, last night, I heard the voice of a teenaged boy complaining to his coach, but then it stopped. I hope to use these voices to inspire my work, as I like to write fiction. Less frequently, I have visual hallucinations upon waking up. Those are scary.
posted by jessicool at 10:55 PM on March 16, 2005

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