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."

New Cross-Bred Cosmic Crisp Apples Can Stay Fresh for Up to a Year

Cosmic Crisp
Cosmic Crisp

Healthy snackers know only too well the disappointment that comes with biting into what looks like a deliciously crisp apple and getting a mouthful of mealy mush instead. It’s just one of the pome fruit’s many potential issues—they also brown quickly, bruise easily, and don’t last as long as whatever bag of chips you might be tempted to reach for instead.

Enter the Cosmic Crisp, a Washington-grown patented hybrid apple that could be the answer to all your apple-related complaints. According to New Atlas, researchers at Washington State University began breeding the new variety as a cross between Enterprise and Honeycrisp apples in 1997, and it’s officially hitting stores now.

cosmic crisp apple on tree
Cosmic Crisp

Not only does a Cosmic Crisp apple resist bruising and browning better than other kinds of apples, it also boasts an exceptionally long storage life. In a controlled atmosphere, it should stay fresh for a full year—meaning you’ll soon be able to enjoy a crisp, satisfying snack in the middle of March, when out-of-season apples usually leave much to be desired. In your own refrigerator, Cosmic Crisp apples are good for about six months, and they’ll even last for several weeks if you leave them out at room temperature. The long shelf life might cut down on the number of apples that you end up tossing in the trash because they went bad before you got around to eating them.

In a 2012 report published in the American Society for Horticultural Science journal HortScience, the Washington State University researchers found that a group of 114 consumers rated the Cosmic Crisp apple, or WA 38, higher than Fuji apples in sweetness, sourness, flavor intensity, crispness, firmness, juiciness, and overall acceptance. The apple's website even suggests that bakers can reduce the amount of added sugar in recipes that contain Cosmic Crisps.

The Cosmic part of its name comes from the whitish specks on the apple’s skin, which reminded taste testers of a starry sky. In reality, those specks are lenticels—porous openings that allow the apple to exchange gases with its environment.

If you don’t see Cosmic Crisp apples in your grocery store yet, here’s a simple trick for keeping any apples fresh for longer.

[h/t New Atlas]

The Reason So Many Babies Are Conceived in Winter

yurizhuravov/iStock via Getty Images
yurizhuravov/iStock via Getty Images

Does it feel like many friends and family members announce the pending arrival of a baby during the fall and winter months? That’s not exactly a coincidence. It turns out the cold season is associated with more reproductive activity than any other time of the year. The month of December alone accounts for 9 percent of conceptions in the United States. Science is gaining a better understanding of why.

All living creatures heed an evolutionary instinct to target seasonal births. If conception happens during colder months, babies will be born during warmer months, when resources will be bountiful. Northern states have births peaking in June and July, while southern states come a bit later in October and November. The farther south, the later the birth peak, since people in these warm climates are less influenced by frigid temperatures.

What are frisky humans responding to in colder months? Research suggests that the cooler temperatures and shortened days signal that it's time to get busy. Other theories suggest that men may be more fertile in colder months, or that a woman’s ovum receptivity might change with decreased daylight. Not only are couples potentially more sexually active, but that activity might wind up being more (re)productive.

Are there benefits to conceiving at other times? Possibly. One 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences gathered data from nearly 1.5 million births and found that average birth weight in the first five months of the year decreased by 10 grams. Babies born during the summer months were 20 grams heavier. Mothers who conceived in summer tended to gain more weight than those who conceived at other times.

If you have a disproportionate amount of friends with a September birthday, it’s likely that their parents consciously or unconsciously followed their evolutionary instinct nine months earlier.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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