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Author(s): Gerald Oster

Source: Scientific American, Vol. 222, No. 2 (February 1970), pp. 82-87
Published by: Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc.
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Accessed: 13-02-2018 08:39 UTC

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"Seeing stars" is seeing phosphenes, subjective images generated

,vithin the eye and brain rather than by light from outside. They
presumably reflect the neural organization of the visual path,vay

by Gerald Oster

he eye is a sense organ that can ports of phantoms and ghosts. Darkness top illustmtion on page 87]. Art histori­

T readily be turned off. One can ex­

clude optical inputs by entering a
totally dark room or wearing a light-tight
is not a requirement; only the absence
of external visual stimuli is needed.
Phosphenes are a hazard to the long­
ans, it seems to me, might well consider
the possible effects of phosphenes as an
"intrinsic" source of inspiration for men
blindfold. Yet visual perception does not haul truck driver peering for hours into of many different societies when they are
end; one does not have an impression a snowstorm. Airplane pilots often ex­ speculating on relations and cross influ­
of total blackness. As the eyes become perience phosphenes, especially when ences among primitive cultures.
adapted to darkness, and particularly if they are flying alone at high altitudes, "Seeing stars" is seeing phosphenes,
one relaxes, the visual field lights up: where the sky is cloudless and empty an experience that can be induced by a
wispy clouds and moving specks of light of the usual depth cues. (One wonders blow on the head or by other mechanical
appear, generally in pastel shades of what future astronauts will see on trips means. A less violent procedure is to
blue, green, orange and yellow. Pressing to Mars as they peer into the void for apply pressure to the eyeballs with the
the eyes evokes still other figures. These several months.) fingers. If, with the eyes closed, one
subjective images resulting from the gently touches the lid with the tip of a
self-illumination, as it were, of the vi­
sual sense are called phosphenes (from I t is instructive for an adult to ask an
articulate child what he sees when
finger, a phosphene appears: a glowing
circle or part of a circle, apparently
the Greek phos, light, and phainein, he closes his eyes at bedtime. Children about a quarter of an inch in diameter
to show). Because phosphenes originate have an ability, which diminishes with [see upper illustmtion on next page].
within the eye and the brain they-are a adolescence, to evoke phosphenes quite The phosphene's location in the visual
perceptual phenomenon common to all eaSily. Phosphenes may indeed be an field is opposite the point the finger
mankind, and they are extremely inter­ important part of the child's real envi­ touches: at the outer edge of the field
esting from a psychological and aesthetic ronment, since he may not readily dis­ when the eyelid is touched near the nose,
standpoint. Because their patterns must tinguish this internal phenomenon from low in the field when the center of the
be intimately related to the geometry those of the external world. The devel­ upper lid is touched.
of the eye, the visual pathway and the opmental significance of phosphenes is Increasing the pressure on the eyeball
visual cortex, they provide a means of suggested by a study, conducted by produces more dramatic phosphenes.
studying the exquisite functional organi­ Rhoda Kellogg at the Golden Gate Nur­ One procedure is to apply the index fin­
zation of the brain. sery School in San Francisco, of some gers at the inner edge of the eyeballs and
Phosphenes can arise spontaneously, 300,000 scribblings made by young press in and toward the temples [see
and they can also be provoked in a num­ children of different ethnic origins. Chil­ lower illustmtion on next page]. The
ber of ways. They appear spontaneously dren between the ages of two and four, visual field lights up and then, as pres­
only when the usual visual stimuli are capable of manipulating a pencil but not sure is maintained for a few seconds, a
lacking and particularly when the viewer of making naturalistic pictures, draw fig­ scintillating design appears-a kind of
is subjected to prolonged visual depriva­ ures that have a distinct phosphene char­ checkerboard or shifting field of glowing
tion. Phosphenes may account for the acter [see illustmtion on page 86]. Were dots, sometimes with elaborate substruc­
"illuminations," the visions or the experi­ phosphenes also part ofthe subject mat­ tures arrayed around a luminous center.
ence of "seeing the light" reported by ter of art in the childhood of the human When the pressure is released, the check­
religious mystics meditating in the dark; species? Phosphene-like figures appear erboard fades away, sometimes leaving
they are the "prisoner's cinema" experi­ in prehistoric cave drawings and in folk the central luminosity. If the pressure is
enced by people in dark dungeons; they art and more sophisticated works from then renewed, a pattern of bright, irreg­
may well constitute the fact behind re- many cultures and different periods [see ular lines appears that resembles a sys­
tem of blood vessels. When the pressure
is again released, a fine filigree image
PAINTINGS made by the author are attempts to capture the subjective impression of appears and remains for some time. The
phosphene shapes and colors. The paintings were done with an oil suspension of phospho­ checkerboard design is probably some
rescent pigments that glow in the dark and then diminish in intensity as phosphenes do. manifestation of the orderliness of the

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neural network of the retina; it shifts in also appears as a negative if, instead of produced by inertial drag exerted on
the visual field as the gaze is shifted. The staring at a white wall after looking at the retina by the vitreous humor, the
filigree, on the other hand, may be gen­ the bright source, one closes one's eyes clear gel that fills the eyeball.
erated farther along the visual pathway, and superposes a pressure phosphene; Phosphenes are also induced by a .
since it remains stationary regardless of the "light" from the phosphene serves as wide variety of chemical agents. Alcohol
where one looks. As the reader will dis­ the luminous background. Pressure phos­ is one; a person with delirium tremens
cover when he and others try these ex­ phenes have their own negatives. A may see a field of bright, moving specks
periments, individual sensitivity varies phosphene produced by touching the that he may interpret as insects crawling
widely. I know one woman who, if she eyelid gently appears as a dark circle if on the wall. Toxins such as those asso­
inadvertently rubs her eyes with a towel the eye is kept partly open and fixed on ciated with scarlet fever may evoke sim­
in the morning, provokes such intense a well-lighted surface. ilar phosphenes. Hallucinogenic drugs
phosphenes that they are superposed on A different kind of mechanically in­ such as mescaline, psilocybin and LSD
her normal vision for hours afterward. duced phosphene results when one sud­ often evoke phosphenes of abstract de­
denly moves one's eyes after having been sign. Indeed, phosphenes appear to be
p ressure phosphenes act like external in the dark for some time. The best oc­ a significant feature of psychedelic in­
light in that they influence afterim­ casion for this is on waking up while the toxication. Some years ago I took a small
ages [see "Afterimages," by C. S. Brind­ room is still dark. The characteristic pat­ dose of LSD (75 micrograms) in the
ley; SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, October, tern is a fan-shaped burst of yellow arcs course of an experiment in visual psy­
1963]. An afterimage is the image per­ that are clearly defined at first but that chology. Long after the other effects of
ceived when one closes one's eyes after become fuzzy when one tries to generate the drug had worn off-for six months,
having stared at a bright source of light the phosphene again [see illustration on as a matter of fact-I saw magnificent
for about 10 seconds. If one turns from opposite page]. The late Bernard Nebel phosphenes at bedtime. For the most
the bright source to gaze at a dimly of the Argonne National Laboratory part they were variations of rather sim­
lighted white wall, the afterimage is studied these eye-movement phosphenes ple geometric forms in pastel shades of
dark-a negative image. The afterimage in detail. He suggested that they may be yellow, orange and green. (Psilocybin,

LIGHT TOUCH on the eyelid (right) produces phosphenes that phosphenes induced by gentle pressure tend to appear at the side of
are circular in form: disks or concentric circles or arcs (left). The the visual field opposite the point at which the pressure is applied.

STRONG PRESSURE on the eyeballs (right) produces a phos­ (left). The effect has been simulated here with a moire pattern
phene that resembles a checkerboard or a field of lights in motion but the dynamic quality of such a phosphene is hard to reproduce.

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according to other investigators, tends
to produce phosphenes in disquieting
colors-deep blue and dark green.)
Pronounced phosphenes are associat­
ed with a number of disorders. A person
suffering from migraine headache may
see a checkerboard or "fortification" pat­
tern [see top figure in illustration on
page 82], usually in the half of the visual
field that is opposite the side of the head
where the ache is localized. Ophthalmol­
ogists recognize a pronounced phos­
phene that regularly accompanies move­
ment of the eye as a svmptom of a de­
tached retina. Disturbing phosphenes
may also arise from pressure on the optic EYE·MOVEMENT PHOSPHENE is produced by a flick of the eye, particularly on arising
nerve or on the visual regions of the from sleep in a dark room. It first appears (left) as an array of arcs originating near the
brain, caused by a tumor or by some fOHa (dot); an attempt to repeat it yields a softer image (right) on the fatigued retina.

vascular disorder within the cranium.

A convenient way to produce phos- effective in producing phosphenes. He Shlank and I found that there is a maxi­
phenes for experimental purposes is tested more than 1,000 people and found mum frequency above which the Bicker­
with electrical impulses. The electrical that all of them, after becoming dark­ ing light disappears. Ordinarily light
induction of phosphenes was discovered adapted, saw at least a Bickering light; above a certain frequency (the critical
in the 18th century, when it was consid­ by concentrating carefully about half of fusion frequency) seems steady. (A
ered entertaining for a group of people the subjects also saw geometric figures. tungsten lamp Bickers in the New York
to join hands in a circle and receive a As Knoll varied the frequency of the City subway, where the current alter­
shock from a high-voltage electrostatic pulses the patterns changed, and by nates at 30 cycles per second, but it ap­
generator. Benjamin Franklin, partici­ altering the frequency Knoll's group pears steady on a 60-cycle home circuit.)
pating in one of these diversions in Paris, identified 15 classes of figures [see bot­ With electrically induced phosphenes,
noticed that along with the shock came tom illustration on page 87] and a num­ however, as the frequency is increased
a Bash of light that could be seen with ber of variations within each class. For the flickering does not smooth out; in­
the eyes closed. Alessandro Volta spent each person tested the spectrum of phos­ stead the field goes black above about
much time investigating this phenome­ phenes (the kind of pattern at each fre­ 40 cycles. The effect is eerie: as the fre­
non. He discovered that the flashes ap­ quency) was repeatable, even after six quency is increased past the critical
peared only at the making or breaking months. The frequency dependence of point the phosphenes suddenly disap­
of the circuit, not during current flow, phosphene form is suggestive of some pear, leaving one with a feeling of being
and that phosphenes were most eaSily kind of resonance phenomenon, with left alone in space. Apart from its emo­
induced by electrodes placed at the tem­ different groups of nerve cells acting tional effect, this phenomenon may be
ples. In 1819 the Bohemian physiologist together when they are driven electrical­ worth studying in order to separate the
Johannes Purkinje published the most ly at a certain rate. The Munich group ptfi'ely neurological aspects of viSIon
detailed early account of phosphenes. found, incidentally, that electrically in­ from those originating with the external
He applied one electrode to his forehead duced phosphenes were conSiderably light stimulus.
and the other to his mouth, and by rap­ more elaborate for subjects who had Using two electrically independent
idly making and breaking the current been given a very small dose of a hal­ generators and four electrodes, we have
with a string of metal beads he was able lUCinogenic drug, say 10 micrograms of applied pulses of two different frequen­
to induce stabilized phosphene images. LSD. cies at the same time. Each is just above
The most extensive investigation of The formless, Bickering phosphenes the critical point and would therefore
electrically induced phosphenes was car­ that are apparently induced in all sub­ produce no phosphenes by itself. To­
ried out by. the late �1ax Knoll and jects by electrical pulses have been the gether they generate beats, which are
his colleagues at the Technische Hoch­ subject of a number of investigations. I seen as undulating phosphenes that
schule in Munich. (Knoll is better kno\\"]1 find that the Bickering does not seem to move slowly across the field of view. It
as the builder, with E. A. F. Ruska in \\"ander with the gaze, suggesting that it would appear that some neural mecha­
1932, of the first electron microscope.) arises deeper than at the retina. Probing nism "mixes" the two signals, which in­
The contemporary way to produce re­ the eyelid with a small electrode pro­ teract periodically to produce a beat,
petitive on-off changes in voltage is to duces flickering in the same part of the just as the auditory system mixes tones
use a square-wave generator. Knoll ap­ yisual field as the electrode; this is in of two different frequenCies when they
plied low-voltage square-wave pulses contrast to the phosphenes produced by are applied Simultaneously, one to each
(about one volt, with only a milliampere slight pressure, which appear on the side ear.
of current) to the temples, wrapping the of the field opposite the pressure. When Bickering phosphenes are com­
electrodes in felt soaked in a salt solution bined with normal vision, the phos­

in order to make good electrical contact. n my laboratory at the Mount Sinai phenes begin to take on a form. If one
He found that pulses in the same fre­ School of Medicine in New York we stares at a brightly lighted white sur­
quency range as brain waves (from five have explored the relation between the face while rather high-frequency pulses
cycles per second to about 40) were most flickering field and frequency. Mordecai (100 cycles per second) are applied, fig-

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© 1970
ures resembling a contour map appear. beats could be seen even when the fre­ to produce phosphenes. This has been
If the light is periodically interrupted by quency of the interrupted light far ex­ demonstrated by a number of investiga­
a shutter rotating at about the same fre­ ceeded the critical fusion frequency; evi­ tors, usually in the course of brain op­
quency as the voltage being applied, the dently information about frequency was erations during which the patient is con-
contour phosphenes slowly wax and somehow getting through the visual scious under local anesthesia. In 1928 a

wane in intensity. This is another beat apparatus even though the light alone German neurosurgeon, Otfrid Foerster,
phenomenon, with the frequency of the would have seemed steady in the ab­ noticed that when he electrically stim­
beat determined by the relative fre­ sence of the electrical signal. That nerves ulated the surface of the OCcipital lobe
quencies of the electrical and the light should distinguish among high frequen­ at the back of the brain, the patient ex­
stimuli. G. S. Brindley of the University cies is of course not surprising; the audi­ perienced the sensation of light.
of Cambridge found that when the fre­ tory nerves do, after all. The technique of electrical stimula­
quency of the light is an exactly integral tion of the surface of the brain (the cere­
multiple of the electrical pulses, the ap­ N. I have mentioned, phosphenes seem bral cortex) has been highly developed
pearance of the beat is quite sensitive to to originate at different points along in recent years by Wilder Penfield and
the phase relations of the two stimuli. the visual pathway. The visual areas his colleagues at the Montreal Neuro­
He also found, interestingly enough, that of the brain can be stimulated directly logical Institute. They apply an alternat­
ing current to two closely spaced elec­
trodes in contact with various areas on
a the surface of the brain. Stimulating the

Ji - visual cortex at the extreme rear of the

brain interrupts the patient's normal
vision and causes him to see specks of
light. When the electrodes are moved to
tlle adjacent region, the visual associa­
tive area, the patient reports seeing
b phosphenes of geometric deSign. When
the electrodes are moved farther for­
ward, the patient frequently reports a
visual scene of some past experience
that is so vivid as to seem to be current.
Penfield's experiments do not establish
just where in the brain tlle phosphenes
are being produced. It could be at the
site where the electrodes are applied, or
conceivably at some other locus in the
visual pathway to which the electrical
impulses may be transmitted. In any
case there is apparently some relation
to eye motion, since ilie phosphenes pro­
duced by stimulation of the visual cortex
move in the direction in which the pa­
tient gazes.
d The human brain is notable for its
large area devoted to vision. The region
of the visual cortex devoted to fine visual

o 0 detail alone is some 10,000 times as large

in area as the fovea, the central region
of the retina whose closely packed cone
cells discriminate fine detail. Because the
visual cortex is the most convoluted por­
tion of tlle brain, much of it is not avail­
able to Penfield's surface electr'odes, and
so other techniques are required in order
to stimulate it selectively.
One reason for pursuing research into
such methods is the possibility of devel­
oping a visual prosthesis for people
blinded by injury to the eyes or the optic
nerve. The cortex of such a patient may
be subject to electrical stimulation even
though he may not have received visual
CHILDREN'S SCRIBBLINGS may he derived in part from phosphenes. A child's drawing inputs for several years. At Cambridge,
progresses, according to Rhoda Kellogg, from "basic scribbles" (a) and "diagrams" (b,) Brindley and W. S. Lewin estimated on
through "combines" (c) and "aggregates" (d) to pictorial figures (e). Many of the forms the basis of the topology of the visual
that appear in scribbles and diagrams are similar to typical electrically induced phosphenes. cortex that if 50 closely spaced centers

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© 1970
could be excited, the patient would have
enough resolving power to "read" or­
dinary printed letters one at a time;
for normal reading speeds 600 centers
wO,uld be required. Brindley and Lewin
first experimented with baboons. They
encapsulated tiny resonators-essentially
radio receivers-in silicone plastic and
implanted them under the scalp. Each
resonator was connected (by a cable
that passed through a hole in the skull)
�lf.1 f: ;i.1
to a corresponding platinum electrode in "I

contact with the visual cortex. The Cam­
�" l

:: �.
bridge workers were able to excite dif­

: .
ferent electrodes by moving over the �.
scalp a radio transmitter tuned to the
natural frequencies of different resona­
tors. (Such a transmitter might, if it were
desired, be activated instead by photo­
'A·.'Y.'fA·A'A��.YA·A�A"£"f"· ...."'....
cells arranged so as to sense a pattern of
l£AAjl AAAAAAAj£ •• , •.
After preliminary studies with ba­
jj�, j � " A' A •• j, .. A �. 'Ai' II • j
boons, Brindley and Lewin applied an
array of 80 electrodes to the visual cor­
tex of a human volunteer, a woman who
had been blinded in both eyes by glau­
coma. The patient reported seeing two
distinct point phosphenes when resona­
tors separated by only a tenth of an inch
were excited. The phosphenes disap­
peared as soon as the stimulus was re­
moved, although an afterimage was
seen if the stimulus was very strong. As
one might expect, there is no simple one­
APPEARANCE of certain geometric forms in art from many times and places suggests
to-one correspondence between the loca­ that they may have a common origin in phosphenes. Such forms appear in a prehistoric
tion of the excited resonator and the po­ painting from Almeria in Spain (top) and in clay stamp motifs from Mexico (bottom),
sition of the point phosphene in the
visual field; if a patient were to recog­

nize letters, it would be by learning to

associate a particular pattern of phos­
phenes with certain letters. An alterna­
tive approach would be to somehow
process the electrical inputs to the brain,
2 3 4 5
coding them to provide a more literal
picture of the letters.
The resonator-implant method may
never be effective for someone who has .....

@ {] <> @

. ..
been blind since birth. Such people do · . .

not report phosphenes, whereas many

. .
· .

. . .
· .
persons blinded by accident or disease

· .

are conscious of phosphenes and indeed

find them a source of visual entertain­ 6 7 8 9 10
ment. I am now working with oph­
thalmologists to test the sensation and
character of the phosphenes elicited by

~ •
pressure and by electrical stimulation in

L /f )C
patients suffering from various kinds of
blindness, ranging from detached ret­
inas through nerve destruction to inva­
sion of the visual cortex by tumors. The
11 12 13 14 15
idea is to see at what level one can
induce the phosphene experience and CLASSIFICATION of electrically induced phosphenes was undertaken by Max Knoll. On
therefore at what level it may one day the basis of reports from more than 1,000 volunteers he grouped the phosphenes into 15
be possible to intervene with some kind categories, each represented here by a typical example and numbered in accordance with its
of visual prosthesis. commonness. Certain forms are characteristic of each pulse frequency for each individual.

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