What's Really Happening When We See 'Stars' After Rubbing Our Eyes?

Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock.

It's likely happened to you before: You start rubbing your eyes and almost immediately begin seeing colors, specks, and swirls from behind your closed lids. So what's happening when you see these 2001-esque "stars"? Do they only occur upon rubbing? Does everyone experience them?

Before we can get to what causes the lights, we need to understand a bit about how the eyes work. Angie Wen, a cornea surgeon at New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai, tells Mental Floss that the retina—the innermost layer of the eye—consists of millions of cells, or photoreceptors. These cells, she says, "are responsible for receiving information from the outside world and converting them to electrical impulses that are transmitted to the brain by the optic nerve. Then, the brain interprets them as images representing the world around us."

However, what we see doesn't just stop there. Sometimes "we see light that actually comes from inside our eyes or from electric stimulation of the brain rather than from the outside world," Wen says. "These bursts of seemingly random intense and colorful lights are called phosphenes, and appear due to electrical discharges from the cells inside our eyes that are a normal part of cellular function."

People have been writing and theorizing about phosphenes for thousands of years. Greek philosophers thought the bursts of light were the result of fire inside our heads: "The eye obviously has fire within it, for when the eye is struck fire flashes out," wrote Alcmaeon of Croton (6th–5th century BCE), a philosopher and early neuroscientist, of the swirls and specks someone sees after getting a blow to the head. A century later, Plato—who believed that a "visual current" [PDF] streamed out of the eye—wrote that "Such fire as has the property, not of burning, but of yielding a gentle light they [the Gods] contrived should become the proper body of each day."

Plato's take was still the dominant one through the Middle Ages. Eventually, Newton (1642–1727) theorized a concept that's more in line with what's believed today about these strange sparkly visions: The phenomenon is due to light that's produced and observed when pressure and motion is placed on the eyes.

Eleonora Lad, an associate professor of ophthalmology at Duke University Medical Center who has a background in neuroscience, explains exactly why eye rubbing generates these visions: "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," including putting external pressure on the eyes. (Interestingly, due to retinal damage, blind people can't see phosphenes caused by pressure, but they can see them when their visual cortex is electrically stimulated. In hopes of turning this phenomenon into improved vision for the blind, scientists have developed a cortical visual prosthesis, implanted in the visual cortex, that generates patterns of phosphenes. The device has been approved by the FDA for clinical trial.)

As Alcmaeon rightly pointed out, there are causes for the bursts of light beyond just rubbing your eyes: Getting hit in the eye can produce this phenomenon—as can a sneeze, a surprisingly powerful event that tends to clamp our eyes shut, Wen says.

Receiving an MRI or EEG may also trigger it. MRIs, for example, produce a changing magnetic field which can stimulate the visual cortex, making a person see these flashing lights. When it comes to an EEG, depending on the brain stimulation frequency band (Hz) used, some patients experience the phenomenon when closing their eyes, which is believed to come from retinal stimulation during the process.

And the activity doesn't only happen on Earth; astronauts in space have also been known to experience them. As reported in 2006 in the journal Vision Research, "over 80 percent of astronauts serving in today's NASA or ESA (European Space Agency) programs have perceived phosphenes at least in some missions and often over several orbits." They're mainly attributed to interactions between the eye and cosmic ray particles in space, outside the Earth's protective magnetic field.

No matter the cause, the bursts of light are perfectly normal—but that doesn't mean you should engage in excessive eye rubbing. Wen says ophthalmologists advise against rubbing your eyes or applying vigorous pressure; according to Lad, too much rubbing may be damaging to the cornea and lens or "result in a loss of fatty tissue around the eyes, causing the eyes to look deep-set."

The ChopBox Smart Cutting Board Has a Food Scale, Timer, and Knife Sharper Built Right Into It

ChopBox
ChopBox

When it comes to furnishing your kitchen with all of the appliances necessary to cook night in and night out, you’ll probably find yourself running out of counter space in a hurry. The ChopBox, which is available on Indiegogo and dubs itself “The World’s First Smart Cutting Board,” looks to fix that by cramming a bunch of kitchen necessities right into one cutting board.

In addition to giving you a knife-resistant bamboo surface to slice and dice on, the ChopBox features a built-in digital scale that weighs up to 6.6 pounds of food, a nine-hour kitchen timer, and two knife sharpeners. It also sports a groove on its surface to catch any liquid runoff that may be produced by the food and has a second pull-out cutting board that doubles as a serving tray.

There’s a 254nm UVC light featured on the board, which the company says “is guaranteed to kill 99.99% of germs and bacteria" after a minute of exposure. If you’re more of a traditionalist when it comes to cleanliness, the ChopBox is completely waterproof (but not dishwasher-safe) so you can wash and scrub to your heart’s content without worry. 

According to the company, a single one-hour charge will give you 30 days of battery life, and can be recharged through a Micro USB port.

The ChopBox reached its $10,000 crowdfunding goal just 10 minutes after launching its campaign, but you can still contribute at different tiers. Once it’s officially released, the ChopBox will retail for $200, but you can get one for $100 if you pledge now. You can purchase the ChopBox on Indiegogo here.

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How to Watch SpaceX’s Historic Astronaut Launch Live

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken make their way to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft on launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken make their way to the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the Crew Dragon spacecraft on launch pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center on May 30, 2020 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

After scrubbing its original launch on May 27 due to bad weather, SpaceX will attempt to make history yet again today (May 30) when it launches its first crewed spacecraft from Cape Canaveral, Florida, at 3:22 p.m. EDT. Powered by a Falcon 9 rocket, the Crew Dragon spacecraft will transport NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the International Space Station, marking the company's first-ever crewed mission and the first crewed launch from the U.S. since 2011. If you want to watch the momentous event from home, there are plenty of ways to stream it live online.

Both SpaceX and NASA will be hosting livestreams of the May 30 launch. NASA's webcast kicks off at 11 a.m. EDT today with live looks at the Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 rocket at the Kennedy Space Center. The feed will continue streaming until the afternoon of Sunday, May 31, with the spacecraft set to dock at the International Space Station at 10:29 a.m. EDT. You can catch the coverage on NASA's website, its social media channels (including YouTube), or on the NASA TV channel through cable or satellite. SpaceX's stream will be broadcast on the company's YouTube channel. (You can watch the video below).

Several television networks will be covering the event (check your local listings), and ABC News Live will partner with National Geographic to air "Launch America: Mission to Space Live" at 3 p.m. EDT.

The launch has been scheduled down to the minute, but SpaceX still has time to change that depending on the weather. Wednesday's launch was canceled less than 17 minutes before liftoff, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has already tweeted that there's a 50 percent chance that weather could prove problematic once again. If today's launch doesn't happen according to plan, there is another window set aside for a third attempt tomorrow, Sunday, May 31, at 3 p.m. EDT, with CNN reporting that the odds of cooperative weather being slightly higher—about 60 percent—for tomorrow.

This story has been updated.