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Visual afterimages are an everyday occurrence for many. Although not directly harmful,

they can be a source of annoyance particularly because their manifestation cannot be controlled.

As a result of some external stimulus, the frequency and intensity of visual afterimages can be

determined by a variety of factors. Sources of definite influence include exposure to a light

source, duration of susceptibility, and brightness of said light source. Another possible

determiner takes into account the variable of age. An elderly subject may experience a more

prolonged afterimage compared to a younger subject.

The optical network of human anatomy is both delicate and complex. The extensive

visual system is responsible for detecting, regulating, and concentrating light in order to convert

and transmit an impression of the perceivable world. The eye is the primary organ through which

these processes are carried out. The eye consists of three concentric elements – the outermost is

the sclera, the middle is the uvea, and the innermost is the retina. The retina is the most important

layer of the eye because “visual perception begins in the retina, a component of the brain”

(Schwartz, 1994, p. 24).

The retina receives light the outer optical elements have focused and an image is

transmitted through the optic nerve to the brain. The retina is thus “an elaborate neural structure

that actively analyzes the image that is focused on it. The signal that is sent to the brain is not

merely a point-by-point representation of the retinal image – certain information is highlighted,

while other information is disregarded” (Schwartz, 1994, p. 6). Due to this differentiation, visual

afterimages can occur. They “reflect the persistence of a visual representation despite evidence

that the world has changed” (Holcombe, MacLeod, & Mitten, 2004, p. 1).
Visual afterimages are “certain curious illusory phenomena experienced after prolonged

or intense constant stimulation of photoreceptors” (Frisby & Stone, 2010, p. 76). Photoreceptors

respond to light, “transforming radiant energy into electrical activity” (Schwartz, 1994, p. 6).

Located within the retina, photoreceptors fall into two groups: rods and cones. Rods are the

foundation for night-time vision while cones provide the structure for daytime vision. “The

existence of two classes of photoreceptors, each operating under different lighting conditions,

leads to what has been referred to as a duplex retina….Both rods and cones contribute to vision”

(Schwartz, 1994, p. 26).

The human retina contains approximately 120 million rods, each of which contains the

photopigment rhodopsin. Each molecule of rhodopsin is capable of absorbing one photon of

light. When it does, the rhodopsin becomes bleached and cannot capture another quantum until

the molecule reverts back to its unbleached state. “The probability that a molecule of bleached

rhodopsin will revert to the unbleached state within a 5-minute period is 0.50” (Schwartz, 1994,

p. 30-1).

However, “less than 20% of the quanta incident on the retina are absorbed by rhodopsin”

(Schwartz, 1994, p. 33). The majority of photons are absorbed by the cones of the retina,

numbering 6 million. There are three types of cones, short, middle, and long wavelength-

sensitive cones, each containing one photopigment. The cone photopigments adapt much more

rapidly to changing light levels and recover from bleaching at a faster rate than rhodopsin. “It

takes approximately 1.5 minutes for a cone photopigment to recover following bleaching”

(Schwartz, 1994, p. 35).

To encapsulate, visual afterimages occur “due to bleaching of photo-sensitive pigments in

the receptors in the retina caused by prolonged exposure to the unvarying stimulation” (Frisby &
Stone, 2010, p. 76). Visual afterimages can further be classified as either positive or negative.

“Those seen in darkness are called ‘positive’ and are often similar in color to the inducing light.

Those seen in moderate illumination are called ‘negative’ and are often of approximately the

complementary color” (Brindley, 1959, p. 194).

Nonetheless, bleaching of the photopigments occurs irrespective of the class of the

afterimage. Visual sensitivity is recovered after bleaching due to the regeneration of the

photoreceptor photopigments. However, age does play a role in the speed of the rod and cone’s

regeneration. For instance, “during human aging there is a dramatic slowing in rod-mediated

dark adaptation that can be attributed to delayed rhodopsin regeneration” (Jackson, Owsley, &

McGwin, 1999, p. 23).

In a study done by Dr. Baker and Dr. Coile of Florida State University, photopigment

regeneration in sixty subjects from ten through seventy-eight years of age exhibited parallel

slowing of recovery rate with increasing age. “The data is suggestive of an initial slight decline

in rate before age 50, followed by a greater decline” (Baker & Coile, 1992, p. 27). Essentially,

the “biochemical pathway responsible for photopigment regeneration is perturbed with age”

(Owsley, 2011, p. 7).

Visual afterimages are experienced by numerous individuals on any given day. However,

not all afterimages are displayed equally due to the variety of individual physical elements and

outside circumstances that contribute to an afterimage. If two individuals are exposed to the

same external stimuli, then the duration of the older subject’s afterimage will span a longer

period of time than the younger subject, because an increase in age will result in a decreased rate

of photopigment regeneration.

There will be thirty-two test subjects, all of varying age. Individuals with preexisting eye

conditions will not be included, while those with correctable vision (i.e. glasses or contacts) can

participate. The subject will be given a stopwatch before the trial begins. The subject will be

instructed to stare at a large red circle in the middle of an otherwise blank white page. The

subject will further be instructed to resist blinking for a duration of thirty seconds. After thirty

seconds have passed, the subject will transfer his/her focus to a completely white sheet of paper.

At this time, the subject will begin the stopwatch and time his/her own negative afterimage.

After all traces of color have disappeared from the individual’s field of view, the subject will

stop the stopwatch. This time will be recorded (in seconds) along with the age of the individual

(in years). This data will be analyzed to determine if there is a possible correlation between age

and the duration of a negative afterimage.


The younger bracket of test subjects (17 participants in total) ranged in age from 10 years

old to 19 years old. There was one 10 year old, six 17 year olds, nine 18 year olds, and one 19

year old who were a part of the study. The 10 year old experienced an afterimage of 17 seconds.

The afterimage times of the 17 year olds are as follows: 5 seconds, 10 seconds, 10 seconds, 11

seconds, 12 seconds, and 20 seconds. The 18 year olds experienced afterimages of 8 seconds, 12

seconds, 13 seconds, 13 seconds, 14 seconds, 15 seconds, 16 seconds, and 17 seconds. One 18

year old experienced no afterimage after being tested. The 19 year old had an afterimage of 15


The older bracket of test subjects (15 participants in total) ranged in age from 30 years

old to 64 years old. The precise ages of the test subjects in the study are as follows: 30, 33, 37,

46, 48, 51, 52, 54, 55, 56, 57, 57, 58, 62, and 64. The 30 year old had an afterimage of 30

seconds. The 33 year old had an afterimage of 8 seconds. The 37 year old had an afterimage of

10 seconds. The 46 year old had an afterimage of 28 seconds. The 48 year old experienced no

afterimage after being tested. The 51 year old had an afterimage of 8 seconds. The 52 year old

had an afterimage of 10 seconds. The 54 year old had an afterimage of 18 seconds. The 55 year

old had an afterimage of 15 seconds. The 56 year old had an afterimage of 14 seconds. The two

57 year olds had afterimages of 11 and 15 seconds, respectively. The 58 year old had an

afterimage of 7 seconds. The 62 year old had an afterimage of 7 seconds. The 64 year old had an

afterimage of 5 seconds.

Between the younger and older age brackets, there were 32 test subjects in total who

participated in the study.


The hypothesis for this study was that if two individuals were exposed to the same

external stimuli, then the duration of the older subject’s afterimage would span a longer period of

time than the younger subject, because an increase in age would result in a decreased rate of

photopigment regeneration. However, the data from this study suggests that there is little to no

correlation between age and duration of negative afterimage.

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√[𝑛Σ 2 − Σ 2] ∙ [𝑛Σ 2 − Σ 2]

∙ − ∙
√[ ∙ − 2] ∙ [ ∙ − 2]

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Figure 1

The correlation coefficient, calculated in the figure above, is approximately -0.1192. This

indicates that the two variables had a non-linear association, suggesting that age had little to no

effect on the regeneration of the photopigments and resultant afterimage. Both young and old age

brackets expressed a full range of values in regards to the length of the afterimage. The younger

age group (10 to 19 years old) exhibited negative afterimages that spanned from 5 seconds to 20

seconds. Similarly, the older age set experienced negative afterimages from 5 seconds to 30

seconds. However, the distribution of the times varied. While 82% of the young group had

afterimages greater than or equal to 10 seconds, only 60% of the older age group did. Both

young and old categories had one person who reported no development of a negative afterimage

after the test. These factors reinforce the null hypothesis. The lack of a linear relationship can

further be seen in the scatterplot below.

Duration of Afterimage in Relation to Age
Length of Afterimage (seconds)

0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70

Age of Subject (years)

Figure 2

In continued study, the correlation between the age of an individual and the duration of a

positive afterimage (stimulated by shining a light on the photoreceptors) could be tested. Other

independent variables that could be tested in relation to the length of the afterimage might

include caffeine intake, average amount of sleep per night, stress level, gender, and whether or

not the test subject wears corrective lenses.

The existence of both negative and positive afterimages effect people from all walks of

life. As a hindrance to one of the most vital senses of life – sight – their presence can be

obnoxious in the most daily, and least thought-of, situations. For instance, negative afterimages

influence the interior of the surgical room. Surgeons operate in a blue-green room, wearing blue-

green scrubs, in order to minimize the effects of the negative afterimage that occurs from

viewing blood (red) for long periods of time. The precision and consequent success of their work

depends on mitigating the effects of photopigment fatigue. Afterimages also occur due to bright
lights shining on the photoreceptor, commonly experienced by the average commuter on a night-

time drive. For these reasons, the continued study of afterimages are crucial to better each

person’s quality of life.


Visual afterimages occur as a result of some external stimulus; their frequency and

intensity can thus be determined by a variety of factors. In considering the variable of age, I

hypothesized that an elderly subject would experience a more prolonged afterimage compared to

a younger subject due to a decreased rate of photopigment regeneration. I tested a pool of thirty-

two subjects of varying ages to determine if there was suggested correlation between age and

duration of afterimage. My results indicated that there was little to no correlation between the

two variables – both age brackets (young being from 10 to 19 and old being from 30 to 64)

exhibited a full range of values. This reinforces the null hypothesis of my study.

Brindley, G. S. (1959, February 4). The Discrimination of After-Images. 194-203. Retrieved

September 7, 2016.

Coile, D. C., & Baker, H. D. (1992, January 8). Foveal dark adaptation, photopigment

regeneration, and aging. [Abstract]. Visual Neuroscience. Retrieved from

Frisby, J. P., & Stone, J. V. (2010). Seeing: The Computational Approach to Biological Vision

(2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Holcombe, A. O., MacLeod, D. I., & Mitten, S. T. (2004, August). Positive Afterimages caused

by a Filled-in Representation [Abstract]. Journal of Vision, 4(485). Retrieved September

7, 2016.

Jackson, G. R., Owsley, C., & McGwin, G. (1999, November). Aging and dark adaptation.

[Abstract]. Vision Research. Retrieved September 7, 2016, from

Owsley, C. (2011, July 1). Aging and Vision. Vision Research. Retrieved September 7, 2016,


Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Visual Perception: A Clinical Orientation. Norwalk, CT: Appleton &