phos·​phene ˈfäs-ˌfēn How to pronounce phosphene (audio)
: an impression of light that occurs without light entering the eye and is usually caused by stimulation of the retina (as by pressure on the eyeball when the lid is closed) or by excitation of neurons in the visual system (as by transcranial magnetic stimulation)
Early studies have demonstrated that direct electrical stimulation to neurons of the visual system will cause a subject to perceive points of light (phosphenes).George Scarlatis

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Phosphenes Is the Word You're Looking for

Phosphenes are the luminous floating stars, zigzags, swirls, spirals, squiggles, and other shapes that you see when closing your eyes tight and pressing them with your fingers. Basically, these phenomena occur when the cells of the retina are stimulated by rubbing or after a forceful sneeze, cough, or blow to the head. The word phosphene comes from the Greek words phōs (light) and phainein (to show). Phainein is also a contributing element in such words as diaphanous, emphasis, epiphany, and phenomenon, among others.

Examples of phosphene in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Inspired by an experiment that Isaac Newton had conducted on himself in the sixteen-sixties, Brindley was running an electric current through the rod to his retina in order to study phosphenes—the visual sensations produced by pressure on the eyes. Nick Romeo, The New Yorker, 15 Mar. 2023 Humphrey tried the setup for himself, seeing the phosphenes when the current stimulated his retina. Nick Romeo, The New Yorker, 15 Mar. 2023 In one participant, simultaneous stimulation of five electrodes, each one associated with one discrete phosphene, triggered the illumination of two large phosphenes that did not coalesce into a letter or any other coherent form. Christof Koch, Scientific American, 10 May 2021 Scientists picked up signs of phosphene on Venus by using a technique called rotational spectroscopy. Rhett Allain, Wired, 26 Sep. 2020 But if multiple electrodes came online simultaneously, the individual phosphenes still appeared but did not come together as coherent shapes, Live Science wrote. Fox News, 15 May 2020 Argus II offers a relatively crude form of artificial vision; users see diffuse spots of light called phosphenes. Kelly Servick, Science | AAAS, 31 Oct. 2019 But at the meeting, Second Sight’s collaborators at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, presented evidence that the 60 electrodes could create phosphenes at more than 60 locations. Kelly Servick, Science | AAAS, 31 Oct. 2019 That magnetic pulse caused a flash of light (a phosphene) in the receiver’s visual field of the receiver as a cue to turn the block. Robert Martone, Scientific American, 29 Oct. 2019 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'phosphene.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


International Scientific Vocabulary phos- + Greek phainein to show — more at fancy

First Known Use

1852, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of phosphene was in 1852


Dictionary Entries Near phosphene

Cite this Entry

“Phosphene.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 6 Dec. 2023.

Medical Definition


phos·​phene ˈfäs-ˌfēn How to pronounce phosphene (audio)
: a luminous impression that occurs when the retina undergoes nonluminous stimulation (as by pressure on the eyeball when the lid is closed)

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