Do you see constant, unstoppable images when you close your eyes?
June 13, 2013 10:19 PM   Subscribe

Is there a problem with having constant vivid visions happening when one closes their eyes? Have you heard of this before? What's it about?

A friend of mine recently told me that since childhood, whenever he closes his eyes, he sees vivid visions and images - figures, animals, nature scenes, etc. But really clear images. Not, like, splotches of color on black, or impressions of whatever image I saw right before I closed my eyes, or even the occasional geometric light show, like I seem to see.

He also told me that at a recent meditation retreat, when he was in physical pain and feeling emotionally frustrated and exhausted, the images became darker and darker, and extremely violent and disturbed at times. (He didn't want to give me examples for fear of disturbing me, it sounds like, and only mentioned things like 'snarling wolves,' though from the sound of it, it got much, much scarier and led him to wonder if he was going to snap). When he found a way to meditate in a different way (actually, in a way that relaxed his attempts to not see the images), they returned to their more regular, pleasant nature. He says this is usually quite pleasant and interesting for him, even though it is literally every time he closes his eyes.

I guess my questions are: 1. do other people have similar experiences? 2. Is this worrisome? Should I be worried for my friend? It's not psychotic, as he's fully aware these things aren't real. 3. What could be the underlying mechanism here? Some overactive visual system? Any visual system neuroscientists in the house?
posted by namesarehard to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
1. Yes
2. No
3. Search for the word hypnagogic. IANAN (I am not a neuroscientist!)
posted by icanbreathe at 10:35 PM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you spend some time on sites oriented to people who explore hallucinogenic drugs you'll find a lot written about CEV vs OEV. Closed eye visuals vs open eye visuals. I don't naturally have vivid CEVs, at least not most of the time but I have had them occasionally even in childhood and its kind of sweet when it does happen. I envy your friend a bit.

If your friends strong natural tendency to have CEVs is not interfering with work, social functioning, or sense of well being I think we can say its not pathological.I'd call it a gift. Some people have profound synesthesia there whole lives. Sometimes we find other people's having way different mental experiences a little disturbing because a lot of us have a theory of mind that is that most humans are all "wired the same way". Its a good assumption to have for a lot of purposes but it might not be as true as we'd like it to be.

As to the neurobiology I don't have any idea. If he has lots of deja vu, jamais vu, and feels like he detects presences it would be a clue indicating temporal lobe stuff.
posted by logonym at 10:37 PM on June 13, 2013

When I am performing a task that has a strong visual component, and no words (pulling weeds of a particular species, or picking fruit), and I do it for dozens of minutes, I see whatever I have been looking at in vivid clarity when I close my eyes. The effect passes a short time after I complete the task.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:05 PM on June 13, 2013 [2 favorites]

#1: Yes, I experience the same thing! It's actually kind of bizarre to see it written out. It doesn't happen every time I close my eyes, however. It's usually when I am in bed, though it doesn't seem hypnagogic--it starts as soon as I lay down. Mine are almost always invasive and scary, and are usually various creepy faces (and sometimes more disturbing things). They move and are 3-dimensional but not in color. I always know they are not real.

#2: I only worry that these images are manifestations of inner anxiety and that they sometimes keep me from falling asleep. The phenomenon itself doesn't really affect my life in any substantial way. If your friend's visions are usually pleasant, the frequency doesn't seem as big of a problem. If they remain disturbing, and if they really occur every time he closes his eyes, I might bring it up to a doc or therapist.
posted by a.steele at 11:15 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

The fact that your friend can focus and make sense of these images is somewhat heartening. They obviously have emotional connotations and will probably change as time passes - the clearer these sorts of images are, the less power they have over us, since when an image is completely resolved, not only its subject but also its medium are clarified. It is both a blessing and a curse to have an imagination which readily fills empty spaces with forms and messages, but it is certainly with precedent and healthy.

Your friend is the sort of person who goes on meditation retreats - this should tell you something about the relationship he has with his consciousness and his desire to let people close to him know about it. In other words, it's no bigs.
posted by Teakettle at 11:22 PM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can tell when I have spent too long on a computer game because when I close my eyes I can still see the screens in front of me and am still doing things. I'm not actually asleep or consciously thinking about it. But like the Real Dan's experience, it passes after a bit.

I'm intrigued that you have geometrical patterns - I used to have those all the time when I was a kid, and now only rarely. When I was young it used to really upset me because they kept me awake looking at them and wouldn't stop when I closed my eyes. Now if it happens it doesn't last long and I just feel pleased and nostalgic. And now I have a name for them! (Hypnagogic.)

So 1: not me personally, but it doesn't surprise me. 2: No. 3: No idea, sorry. But hypnagogia does seem like it's close to what's going on. Keep in mind that we still don't fully understand dreaming either (though there are a lot of theories that assert confidently it's just X or Y).
posted by Athanassiel at 11:25 PM on June 13, 2013

A second hand report: A guy told me nearly 40 years ago about going to an all night movie marathon at an XXX rated theater. He said for the next three days, every time he closed his eyes, shtoonka, shtoonka, shtoonka.
posted by Bruce H. at 12:13 AM on June 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

I get this sometimes, but only when I'm extremely tired. As in, lying in bed with my eyes closed but still conscious, and again, only when I'm exhausted. I always thought it was related to dreaming, but my brain got a little ahead and started it before I fell asleep. No idea if that's true, but it's what it feels like to me. I'll be interested to see what others have to say.
posted by Weeping_angel at 1:12 AM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

And... I just googled hypnagogic. Yes! That!
posted by Weeping_angel at 1:14 AM on June 14, 2013

Perhaps this is relevant somehow... When I go on or off anti-depressants, I have a period where when I go to bed at night, I start dreaming before I fall asleep. What I mean is, I'll close my eyes and see rapid-fire, surreal imagery, sometimes random and sometimes following a sort of narrative. If I open my eyes, it instantly stops. But then when I close my eyes, the "waking dream" immediately resumes. I find it cool/annoying/scary.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:53 AM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes I get this but the images aren't in vivid clarity and there is no coherence to them. It happens when I am in bed and close my eyes, but I don't have to be especially tired, just not mentally preoccupied. Random images will just pop up, and they don't seem emotionally loaded: a piece of fried fish, a person holding an umbrella, a dog with a big collar, etc. The images are always kind of out of the blue and surprising, and I enjoy just laying there and seeing what floats by. I always thought that this was my brain kind of starting to build dreams before I fell asleep, and their completely random and incoherent nature has made me wonder many times about how a dream can string together a narrative from all these seemingly unrelated elements. I've always wondered if other people have this too.
posted by whalebreath at 4:16 AM on June 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

On preview, like Ursula Hitler said, this did seem to happen to me much more frequently when I was on antidepressants (lexapro).
posted by whalebreath at 4:17 AM on June 14, 2013

Your friend is experiencing visual hallucinations. Despite their association with drug abuse and mental illness, hallucinations are quite common.
posted by deathpanels at 6:19 AM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have this! For me it's usually after a busy day where I've had lots of stimuli coming at me - which causes me anxiety, and then when I lay down in bed it's like my brain just won't stop firing. I mostly see people/situations/normal type stuff - except that it's definitely not memories, or things I've seen on tv, it's just random stuff. This is part of why I like the tv on while I'm falling asleep.
posted by polly_dactyl at 6:36 AM on June 14, 2013

Oh - and it used to worry me, because "having visions" sounds like you're on the road to schizophrenia or something, but 1) I'm probably too old for that and 2) It seems to follow a pattern and does not happen in a way that is interfering with my perception of reality. Now, I sometimes try to go with the vision - like, I'm seeing a lady sitting in a cafe, and if I try to focus on the flashes I can see her face, the decor, what she's drinking, etc - it's sort of an interesting exercise, honestly.
posted by polly_dactyl at 6:41 AM on June 14, 2013

I experience such things. I have even learned to control them, forcing them to show me what I want to see. This is how I can lay my head down on a pillow and be out of it in a matter of seconds. My gut tells me that these lead directly into my dreams.
posted by QueerAngel28 at 8:30 AM on June 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

It could also be his brain just filling in the random junk that most people see when they close their eyes to try and make sense of it, the human brain likes patterns. Must the same way a pattern on the floor stared at becomes a face, or a cloud a whale (or whatever) his brain just fills in the nearest image instead of just the random squiggles and flashes most people see when they close their eyes. If he's feeling in a bad place his brain is throwing up not so nice images. They don't seem to worry him, and he's successful at stopping them being bad if they go that way so it seems like he's in control of them so I wouldn't be too worried. Now if he was seeing things and they were distressing him and he couldn't stop them then I'd be concerned.
posted by wwax at 8:40 AM on June 14, 2013

Huh. I never realized that hypnagogia was a "thing", but I also assumed everyone experienced that at one point or another.

I see geometric patterns every single time I close my eyes. I have seen them when my eyes are open. They are the exact same geometric patterns I have seen my while life.

I also have experienced what whalebreath describes. I always thought of it as the beginning of dreams. I would guess I would be able to experience something similar to that while meditating.

So no, I don't think your friend is crazy or should be worried.
posted by inertia at 11:34 AM on June 14, 2013

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