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Seeing Your Retina

Science Snack
Seeing Your Retina
Keep an eye on your retinal blood supply network.
Seeing Your Retina
Keep an eye on your retinal blood supply network.

A dim point of light will cast a shadow of the retina's network of blood vessels onto the retina itself. Try this activity and you'll be able see the blood supply of your retina—and your blind spot.

CAUTION: Do not try this activity with an LED Maglite. The LED is too bright to hold this close to your eye.

Tools and Materials
  • Mini Maglite or a penlight with an incandescent bulb (CAUTION: do not try this with an LED Mini Maglite; the bulb is too bright to hold so close to your eye)
  • 3/8-inch dowel, cut to the length of an AA battery
  • Aluminum foil
  • Room that you can darken
  • Sheet of black construction paper
  1. Wrap the dowel completely in aluminum foil (click to enlarge image).
  2. Unscrew the back of the Mini Maglite and remove one AA battery. Replace the battery with the aluminum foil–wrapped dowel (click to enlarge diagram).
    Flashlight assembly for seeing your retina activity
  3. Unscrew and remove the front cover of the Mini Maglite. The light will come on as a dim point source.
  4. Darken the room by turning off the lights and closing the shades.
To Do and Notice

Hold the Mini Maglite about 1 cm in front of, and slightly below, the center of one of your pupils. (Don't poke yourself in the eye! It's best to wear eye protection and hold the light just in front of it.)

Look at the sheet of black construction paper (click to enlarge the diagram below). The black paper should fill your field of view.

Set-up for Seeing Your Retina activity, showing position of flashlight, eye and dark screen.

While looking straight ahead, move the light slowly from side to side a short distance, about 0.5 cm in each direction. Do not follow the motion of the light with your eye—keep looking straight ahead as you move the light back and forth for 20 seconds.

Notice what appears in your field of vision. It will look like the branches of a tree, or the branching of a river viewed from high above.

What’s Going On?

What you see is the pattern of arteries and veins that supply blood to your retina. The network of blood vessels spreads out from the disk shape of your blind spot.

In human eyes, the blood supply of the retina is located in front of the retina, which means that light passes through the blood supply on its way to the photodetectors on the retina. We don't see the retinal blood supply because it doesn't change, and our eyes ignore unchanging images.

The point source of light casts a shadow of the retinal blood supply on your retina. When you move the point of light from side to side, the shadow moves. You can then see the changing shadow.

Going Further

Glaucoma is a disease of the eye in which pressure builds up inside the eyeball. The pressure squeezes on the retinal blood supply network, reducing blood flow to the periphery of the eye and resulting in the death of the retina, starting at the periphery and working in toward the center. One of the symptoms of glaucoma is tunnel vision.

This Science Snack is part of a collection that highlights Black artists, scientists, inventors, and thinkers whose work aids or expands our understanding of the phenomena explored in the Snack. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Patricia Bath (1942-2019), pictured above, was an ophthalmologist and laser scientist, and was the first woman chair of ophthalmology at a US university. She studied the causes of and cures for blindness, and invented a widely used method of using laser surgery to treat blindness caused by cataracts. Dr. Bath also co-founded the American Institute for the Prevention of Blindness. This Science Snack can help you investigate the structures in the eye that help you see, so you can understand the eye like Dr. Bath did.