Sort of like a cheap digital Camera, the human eye has certain feedback that's perceived but doesn't actually exist in the real world; a little layer of Static that's especially noticeable in pitch black lighting or when one's eyes are closed. It's (in my experience) sort of rainbow colored.

What is the name/term for that rainbow static when you close your eyes? I've been trying to find information about this but I don't know the word for it.


3 Answers 3


It's essentially shot noise.

In optics, shot noise describes the fluctuations of the number of photons detected (or simply counted in the abstract) due to their occurrence independent of each other. This is therefore another consequence of discretization, in this case of the energy in the electromagnetic field in terms of photons. In the case of photon detection, the relevant process is the random conversion of photons into photo-electrons for instance, thus leading to a larger effective shot noise level when using a detector with a quantum efficiency below unity.

Researchers have taken notice of this as early as the 1960s See [2] I was unable to access this, but the abstract notes that it is probably not ideal shot noise, but I don't know what the De Lange filter adds to the shot noise model, it may be a small corrective factor.

A noise model incorporating the De Lange filter is applied to visual threshold performance. The model gives better agreement with the experimentally observed Weber-Fechner relation than does the ideal shot noise limited model, and it predicts that the critical time duration for integration of threshold stimuli depends upon the mean luminance level of the background field.

As noted in the introduction to [1], the noise stems from the transduction stage in the retina:

On the other hand, people working on vertebrate photoreceptor believe that the responses of rods to single photons are locally saturated and that the "quantum" responses in rods are surprisingly stereotyped. Thus the variability in responses to dim light flashes is believed to be basically due to the absorption of one, two, . .. , few photons [they cite (Baylor et al., 1984)].


[1] Petracchi D., Cercignani, G., Lucia, S. (1996) Photoreceptor Sensitivity and the Shot Noise of Chemical Processes. Biophysical Journal, 70: 111-120. pdf

[2] Ruddock, K.H. (1969)Some aspects of human visual threshold performance in relation to temporal frequency response characteristics. Optics Communications 1(4): 173-179.doi

  • $\begingroup$ Hm, how does this relate to Phosphene as JonW says? I'm thinking there are two different things at work here, I had (possibly incorrectly) assumed the noise seen when your eyes are open is related to the noise seen when your eyes are closed $\endgroup$
    – Ben Brocka
    Apr 26, 2012 at 14:26
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @BenBrocka If your eyes experience changes in pressure, the cells transduct the signal as if it were light hitting the retina (see this) -- some of it is K-channels opening due to pressure, as hyperpolarization is key in photoreceptors (see this). That is what causes phosphenes. What you are asking about is something different, and is related to the stochastic nature of the transduction of a minimal amount of actual light hitting the retina. $\endgroup$ Apr 26, 2012 at 17:57

The term you are looking for is Phosphene.

To quote Wikipedia:

A phosphene is a phenomenon characterized by the experience of seeing light without light actually entering the eye. The word phosphene comes from the Greek words phos (light) and phainein (to show). Phosphenes are flashes of light, often associated with optic neuritis, induced by movement or sound.


It could also be visual snow. I see 'visual static' even in bright lighting. Shot noise cannot explain visual static under bright lighting in which there are too many photons for statistical fluctuations in their detection to be perceived.


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