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Phosphenes: Your Own Personal Aurora Borealis

One night while sleeping, I rolled over, partially awake, but with my eyes closed. I noticed something strange: swirls and flashes of greenish light projecting across my eyelids.

Strange display of lights in my eyes

What could be causing this strange display of lights in my eyes?

Naturally, my eyes shot open and I was no longer partially, but completely, awake. There were no lights in my room that might have instigated such a phenomenon. It was after three in the morning, and I live in the woods, away from traffic, buildings, or other external light sources. In fact, it was so dark that I’m pretty sure it was a New Moon.

I closed my eyes again, and there they were, again! Strange green ghosts flitting across the screen of my eyelids.

My own personal aurora borealis!

Since then, I’ve experienced lights that were yellow or pink or lavender, or the lights came as quick darting flashes or temporary dots instead of swirls or vapors.

Naturally, I blamed it on having multiple sclerosis. So easy to cast aspersions on the monster, after all.

The visual symptoms of MS

MS is the pesky trouble-maker who messes with many of our sensory experiences, including our vision. We can have strange “shaking” eyeballs (nystagmus), extreme pain and blurriness from optic nerve damage or droopy eyelids …why not some strange, colored vapor when our eyes are closed?

Say hello to phosphenes

It turns out my “northern lights” have a name: phosphenes.

Phosphenes are a kind of visual experience in which unusual lights are generated in the eyes due to pressure against the actual eyeball or through stimulation of the visual field directly through a source other than light itself.

Cause and occurrence of phosphenes

They occur when the cells in the retina fire in the absence of light, leading to impressions “seen” on the inside of the eyelids that are perceived as stars, bursts, defined shapes like circles, or swirls of light.

Usually, they are caused by sounds, sudden movement, or pressure on the eye, all of which can aggravate or inflame the optic nerve. Strong magnetic fields might also elicit a phosphene response.

If you’ve ever closed your eyes and rubbed really hard, you may experience an eye-shaped phosphene projected onto your eyelid afterward that lasts for a second or more before disappearing.

Phosphenes and multiple sclerosis

Phosphenes are considered a normal phenomenon, but they have also made a brief acquaintance with MS.

The most obvious relationship phosphenes have with MS is by way of the common symptom, optic neuritis.

Optic neuritis

In optic neuritis, misfiring nerves in the brain by way of the optic nerve can render these strange little light shows.

Interestingly, they don’t happen only at night, but at any time when dysfunctional optic nerve behavior occurs. You’re just more likely to notice at night.

About a third of those with MS who experience optic neuritis also experience phosphenes.

Movement phosphenes

Phosphenes in those with MS may be sparked by sudden noises or movement of the gelatinous coating in the eyes, as well.

So-called “movement phosphenes” are known to follow any side-to-side movement of the eye. The imagery will fade eventually, but may still repeat itself after a brief period of rest.

Phosphenes are thought to be related to another MS-related symptom: L’Hermitte’s sign, in which a buzzing electrical sensation takes place briefly in the spine when the head is tilted forward. In either case, these strange sensations are considered characteristic only to those who have MS.

Not necessarily a sign of relapse or progression

It’s important to note that phosphenes are not necessarily a sign of relapse or disease progression. They can be caused by other conditions or may just be a random and harmless occurrence with no known cause.

In my case, they have no relationship to MS, as far as my doctors and I can tell. My optic nerves are healthy, and I don’t have any of the other conditions that might bring on a sudden and unexpected display of dancing lights.

Don’t panic

So don’t panic if you suddenly find yourself witnessing an aurora with your eyes closed; unless you have other active symptoms suggesting an exacerbation, chances are good it’s just a pretty light show and nothing worse.

The way I see it (pun intended), I may still have witness the aurora borealis to check off my bucket list, but at least I can also claim to “make my own Northern lights!”

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • kiki33
    2 years ago

    I have experienced this also. Glad to know that I am not alone!

  • Julie
    2 years ago

    I’m just the opposite. I think of anything else it could be other than MS. I’ve grown tired of MS being the reason for all the new twitches and pains in my life even though it usually is.

    In the past year, I’ve been experiencing a strange thing with my eyes (I also got my DX because of my ON). It only happens in the morning after I wake up. I get up and there is like a strobe light effect on the outer perimeter of my vision. It doesn’t hurt and it goes away during the course of the morning. I’m going to discuss it with my eye dr at my next visit. MS is a strange bear. You never know what’s going to pop up with any part of our bodies.
    Best of health to all.

  • TK Sellman moderator author
    2 years ago

    It’s good to always check in to make sure what you experience isn’t actually something besides MS. I have tremendous pain and stiffness in my wrists that is not MS at all, but a combination of RA and carpal tunnel, for instance. And I recently learned my fatigue is mostly the result of obstructive sleep apnea (which I’ve now treated, so the fatigue is gone-gone-gone…)

    For me, the bigger question (at age 52) is now, is it MS? or is this just aging? It can be so hard to know the difference! LOL

    I have experienced peripheral strobe lights too, but they usually happen at night while I’m in bed after a really exhausting day.

  • itasara
    2 years ago

    Very interesting article!! A couple times in my life long before any MS dx, I had two incidents of geometric color patterns flashing on the periphery. Since dx that hasn’t happened but when I close my eyes to go to sleep I do see patterns. Some in colors ( not brilliant) and some in shapes of things, animals, people faces. I’m awake. If the room in dark ( which rarely is) I can open my eyes and the patterns are still there. They actually help me Fall asleep.
    I have not had optic neuritis that I know of. I do have 15% lower reaction of my optic nerve which has remained about the same. My opthomologist does this test when I see her that shows this optic nerve function. I think it is called OCT.
    It is good to know I am not the only one who sees patterns at night. I asked my husband if he sees anything when he shuts his eyes and he sees only blackness.

  • TK Sellman moderator author
    2 years ago

    Thanks for reading! Glad this helped you. And no, you are not alone in this. I have really healthy optic nerves and I still get these strange visual patterns, it’s tied into damage inside the brain where light signals are processed after being sent from the optic nerve. I see colors too, but no kaleidoscopes, which I imagine can be quite pretty.

  • gmc
    2 years ago

    I was diagnosed in 2005 and my initial diagnosis was optic neuritis. When I close my eyes, I sometimes see what looks like the universe. It’s tiny pinpricks of light scattered against a black background when my eyes are closed. My opthomologist (when checking for macular edema due to gilenya) recently told me it was not uncommon and told me the name was phosphenes. Like 624cmich, it is one of the less offense symptoms for me.

  • TK Sellman moderator author
    2 years ago

    Mine is somewhat like that too, except with meteor showers! LOL

  • omgck
    2 years ago

    I started experiencing flashing lights across my eyes while my eyes were open years before my diagnosis. I do not have optic neuritis and they still occur at times although the flahing lights are still there when I close my eyes as well!

    Does this sound like what you are describing TK?

    By the way- after more than 10 years, my diagnosis was changed from MS to “vasculitis of the brain.” It’s a very loong story……….

  • TK Sellman moderator author
    2 years ago

    Yes, it totally sounds like it. I also don’t have ON, but these flashers (for me) happen mostly when I’m in a dimly lit or dark room.

    Vasculitis of the brain can definitely mimic MS, glad they were able to clarify, and hope you have had success with treatment!


  • DianeG
    2 years ago

    After my first exacerbation, I had this happen. I was at a banquet. There was a program after the dinner so the lights were off. At the end of the program, there was a prayer so I closed my eyes. That’s when I saw it. When the prayer ended and I opened my eyes, the lights were still off. I asked my husband if someone had been messing with the lights! My exacerbation (4 weeks earlier) started with optic neuritis. That’s when I was diagnosed. Thankfully, it hasn’t happened since.

  • TK Sellman moderator author
    2 years ago

    It’s so disconcerting when it happens in these kinds of scenarios, for sure!

  • michclaud
    2 years ago

    This happens to me once in a while! I actually was not upset because it’s actually quite beautiful and not at all painful like most of MS symptoms!

  • TK Sellman moderator author
    2 years ago

    Yes, it’s just weird! I have mostly all of the weird, painless symptoms (thank goodness), and this one, once I figured it out, doesn’t worry me one bit. Who doesn’t like a good light show? LOL


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