Perplexities of Consciousness, Chapter Eight:

When Your Eyes Are Closed, What Do You See?

Eric Schwitzgebel

in draft

This chapter raises a number of questions, not adequately addressed by any researcher to date, about what we see when our eyes are closed.  In the historical literature, the question most frequently discussed was what we see when our eyes are closed in the dark (and so entirely or almost entirely deprived of light).  In 1819, Purkinje, who was the first to write extensively about this, says he sees "wandering cloudy stripes" that shrink slowly toward the center of the field.  Other later authors also say such stripes are commonly seen, but they differ about their characteristics.  In 1897, for example, Scripture describes them as spreading violet rings.  After Scripture, the cloudy stripes disappear from psychologists' reports.  Other psychologists describe the darkened visual field as typically -- not just idiosyncratically, for themselves -- very nearly black (e.g., Fechner), mostly neutral gray (e.g., Hering), or bursting with color and shape (e.g., Ladd).  I loaned beepers to five subjects and collected their reports about randomly sampled moments of experience with their eyes closed.  Their reports were highly variable, and one subject denied ever having any visual experience at all (not even of blackness or grayness) in any of his samples.  I also briefly discuss a few other issues: whether we can see through our eyelids, whether the closed-eye visual field is "cyclopean", whether the field is flat or has depth or distance, and whether we can control it directly by acts of will.  The resolution of such questions, I suggest, will not be straightforward.

Eyes Closed (HTML, November 5, 2009)

Eyes Closed (PDF, November 5, 2009)

Or email eschwitz at domain: for a copy of this paper.


Return to Eric Schwitzgebel's homepage.