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How do we actually see things?

How do we actually see things?

The process of seeing begins when light reflected off an object enters the eye through the cornea and pupil. The cornea acts as a protective covering for the front of the eye and helps focus light. The pupil is the opening at the center of the iris that regulates how much light enters the eye by dilating and constricting. Once light passes through the cornea and pupil, it travels through the lens which focuses the light onto the retina, located at the back of the eye. The retina contains photoreceptor cells called rods and cones that detect light and convert it into electrical signals that are transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve. The brain then interprets these signals into the images we see. Overall, seeing is a complex process that involves not only the eyes and visual system, but also the brain.

Anatomy of the Eye

The main structures involved in seeing include:

Structure Function
Cornea Outermost layer; helps focus light entering the eye
Pupil Adjustable opening that controls light entering; dilates in low light and constricts in bright light
Iris Colored part of the eye; contains muscles that control pupil size
Lens Focuses light onto the retina
Retina Light-sensitive tissue lining the back of the eye; contains photoreceptor cells
Rods Photoreceptor cells sensitive to low light; detect shapes and movement
Cones Photoreceptor cells sensitive to color; concentrated in the fovea centralis
Optic nerve Carries electrical signals from photoreceptors to the brain

The cornea and lens both work to refract light and focus images on the retina. The iris controls pupil size to optimize the amount of light hitting the retina. The photoreceptor cells then convert the light into signals that are carried to the visual centers in the brain.

Phototransduction – Converting Light into Signals

Phototransduction is the process whereby the photoreceptor cells in the retina convert light into electrical signals. Here’s how it works:

Step Description
1 Light enters the eye and strikes the photoreceptor cell
2 Photopigment in the cell absorbs the light energy and changes shape
3 The shape change triggers a cascade of molecular interactions
4 These interactions cause the cell membrane to hyperpolarize and change its voltage
5 Voltage change constitutes a neural signal that is transmitted to the brain

The key event is the photopigment changing shape when struck by light of a specific wavelength. This starts a molecular chain reaction leading to membrane hyperpolarization. The neural signal gets sent via the optic nerve to the visual processing centers of the brain.

Rods and Cones for Black/White and Color Vision

There are two main types of photoreceptor cells – rods and cones.


  • 120 million rods; outnumber cones 20:1
  • Sensitive to low light conditions
  • Detect shapes, motion, and brightness differences
  • Provide black and white vision
  • Concentrated in the peripheral retina


  • 6-7 million cones; concentrated in the fovea
  • Function best in bright light
  • Detect fine detail and color
  • Contain photopigments sensitive to red, green or blue light
  • Provide high acuity color vision

Rods are saturated at moderate light levels and stop functioning. This is why color vision and detail are reduced in dim lighting. Cones take over in bright light to provide high resolution and color perception. The two systems complement each other.

Pathway to the Brain’s Visual Cortex

The neural signals produced by rods and cones travel from the retina to the brain via the optic nerve. Here is the visual pathway:

Structure Function
Optic nerve Carries signals from retina to thalamus
Optic chiasm Crossover point; nasal retina signals cross to opposite side
Optic tract Carries signals from chiasm to thalamus
Lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) Relays signals to the visual cortex
Optic radiation Carries LGN signals to visual cortex
Visual cortex Processes signals into visual perceptions

The LGN acts as a relay station, receiving input from the eyes and sending it on to the visual processing centers in the occipital lobe cortex. Different cells in the LGN respond to different attributes like color, motion, and orientation. The optic radiations finally deliver this parsed information to the visual cortex for higher processing.

Visual Cortex and Image Processing

The visual cortex located at the back of the brain contains modules that process different aspects of the visual scene:

– Receives basic visual features like edges, motion, orientation and spatial frequencies
– Organized into ocular dominance columns that receive input from left or right eye

– Processes more complex shape recognition and background textures
– Contains cells selective for angles and curves

V3, V4, V5 (MT)
– Higher processing for motion, depth, color constancy and object recognition

Inferotemporal cortex (IT)
– Integrates everything into full object representations

All these cortical areas work together to take the basic visual elements and reconstruct the complex scene we observe. Top-down feedback loops also influence lower processing based on expectations and focus. Ultimately, the nerve signals initiated in the retina culminate in the conscious perception of the visual world.


In summary, seeing relies on a progressive chain of events. Light passes through the eye and strikes photoreceptor cells, leading to transduction into neural signals. These signals get transmitted through visual pathways into the cortex where successive stages of processing extract shape, motion, depth and object information. Feedback loops also influence processing. The end result is our integrated and coherent perception of the visual environment. Understanding the anatomy and physiology behind this process provides insight into the remarkable phenomenon of vision.