Friday, April 17, 2009

Are your eyes playing tricks on you?

Most people (even many who work on the brain) assume that what you see is pretty much what your eye sees and reports to your brain. In fact, your brain adds very substantially to the report it gets from your eye, so that a lot of what you see is actually "made up" by the brain.

Some special features of the anatomy of the eyeball make it possible to demonstrate this to yourself. The front of the eye acts like a camera lens, differently directing light rays from each point in space so as to create on the back of the eye a picture of the world. The picture falls on a sheet of photoreceptors (red in the diagram), specialized brain cells (neurons) which are excited by light.

The sheet of photoreceptors is much like a sheet of film at the back of a camera. But it has a hole in it. At one location, called the optic nerve head, processes of neurons collect together and pass as a bundle through the photoreceptor sheet to form the optic nerve (the thick black line extending up and to the left in the diagram), which carries information from the eye to the rest of the brain. At this location, there are no photoreceptors, and hence the brain gets no information from the eye about this particular part of the picture of the world. Because of this, you should have a "blind spot" (actually two, one for each eye), a place pretty much in the middle of what you can see where you can'

Look around. Do you see a blind spot anywhere? Maybe the blind spot for one eye is at a different place than the blind spot for the other (this is actually true), so you don't notice it because each eye sees what the other doesn't. Close one eye and look around again. Now do you see a blind spot? Hmm. Maybe its just a little TINY blind spot, so small that you (and your brain) just ignore it. Nope, its actually a pretty BIG blind spot, as you'll see if you look at the diagram below and follow the instructions.

Close your left eye and stare at the cross mark in the diagram with your right eye. Off to the right you should be able to see the spot. Don't LOOK at it; just notice that it is there off to the right (if its not, move farther away from the computer screen; you should be able to see the dot if you're a couple of feet away). Now slowly move toward the computer screen. Keep looking at the cross mark while you move. At a particular distance (probably a foot or so), the spot will disappear (it will reappear again if you move even closer). The spot disappears because it falls on the optic nerve head, the hole in the photoreceptor sheet.

So, as you can see, you have a pretty big blind spot, at least as big as the spot in the diagram. What's particularly interesting though is that you don't SEE it. When the spot disappears you still don't SEE a hole. What you see instead is a continuous white field (remember not to LOOK at it; if you do you'll see the spot instead). What you see is something the brain is making up, since the eye isn't actually telling the brain anything at all about that particular part of the picture.


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