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."

How Did 6 Feet Become the Standard Grave Depth?

iStock
iStock

It all started with the plague: The origins of “six feet under” come from a 1665 outbreak in England. As the disease swept the country, the mayor of London literally laid down the law about how to deal with the bodies to avoid further infections. Among his specifications—made in “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague”—was that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.”

The law eventually fell out of favor both in England and its colonies. Modern American burial laws vary from state to state, though many states simply require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket or burial vault (or two feet of soil if the body is not enclosed in anything). Given an 18-inch dirt buffer and the height of the average casket (which appears to be approximately 30 inches), a grave as shallow as four feet would be fine.

A typical modern burial involves a body pumped full of chemical preservatives sealed inside a sturdy metal casket, which is itself sealed inside a steel or cement burial vault. It’s less of a hospitable environment for microbes than the grave used to be. For untypical burials, though—where the body isn’t embalmed, a vault isn’t used, or the casket is wood instead of metal or is foregone entirely—even these less strict burial standards provide a measure of safety and comfort. Without any protection, and subjected to a few years of soil erosion, the bones of the dearly departed could inconveniently and unexpectedly surface or get too close to the living, scaring people and acting as disease vectors. The minimum depth helps keep the dead down where they belong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2012.

One Good Reason Not to Hold in a Fart: It Could Leak Out of Your Mouth

iStock/grinvalds
iStock/grinvalds

The next time you hold in a fart for fear of being heard by polite company, just remember this: It could leak out of your mouth instead of your butt. Writing on The Conversation, University of Newcastle nutrition and dietetics professor Clare Collins explains that pent-up gas can pass through your gut wall and get reabsorbed into your circulation. It's then released when you exhale, whether you like it or not.

“Holding on too long means the build up of intestinal gas will eventually escape via an uncontrollable fart,” Collins writes. In this case, the fart comes out of the wrong end. Talk about potty mouth.

A few brave scientists have investigated the phenomenon of flatulence. In one study, 10 healthy volunteers were fed half a can of baked beans in addition to their regular diets and given a rectal catheter to measure their farts over a 24-hour period. Although it was a small sample, the results were still telling. Men and women let loose the same amount of gas, and the average number of “flatus episodes” (a single fart, or series of farts) during that period was eight. Another study of 10 people found that high-fiber diets led to fewer but bigger farts, and a third study found that gases containing sulphur are the culprit of the world’s stinkiest farts. Two judges were tapped to rate the odor intensity of each toot, and we can only hope that they made it out alive.

Scientific literature also seems to support Collins’s advice to “let it go.” A 2010 paper on “Methane and the gastrointestinal tract” says methane, hydrogen sulfide, and other gases that are produced in the intestinal tract are mostly eliminated from the body via the anus or “expelled from the lungs.” Holding it in can lead to belching, flatulence, bloating, and pain. And in some severe cases, pouches can form along the wall of the colon and get infected, causing diverticulitis.

So go ahead and let it rip, just like nature intended—but maybe try to find an empty room first.

[h/t CBS Philadelphia]

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