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If the viewer stares at this image for 20–60 seconds and then looks at a white object, a negative afterimage will appear (in this case cyan on magenta). This can also be achieved by the viewer closing their eyes and tilting their head up.

An afterimage or ghost image or image burn-in is an optical illusion that refers to an image continuing to appear in one's vision after the exposure to the original image has ceased. A common form of afterimages is the bright glow that seems to float before one's eyes after looking into a light source for a few seconds.

Negative afterimages

Negative afterimages are caused when the eye's photoreceptors, primarily those known as cone cells, adapt from the overstimulation and lose sensitivity.[1] Normally, the eye deals with this problem by rapidly moving small amounts (see: microsaccade), the motion later being "filtered out" so it is not noticeable. However if the color image is large enough that the small movements are not enough to change the color under one area of the retina, those cones will eventually tire or adapt and stop responding. The rod cells can also be affected by this.[citation needed]

When the eyes are then diverted to a blank space, the adapted photoreceptors send out a weak signal and those colors remain muted. However, the surrounding cones that were not being excited by that color are still "fresh", and send out a strong signal. The signal is exactly the same as if looking at the opposite color, which is how the brain interprets it.[citation needed]

"When all wavelengths stimulate the retinal region adapted to green light, the M and L cones contribute less to the resulting percept because their photopigments absorb less light than the S cones. Thus, trichromatic theory can not explain all afterimage phenomena, indicating the need for an opponent-process theory such as that articulated by Ewald Hering (1878) and further developed by Hurvich and Jameson (1957). Afterimages are the complementary hue of the adapting stimulus and trichromatic theory fails to account for this fact." (David T. Horner, Demonstrations of Color Perception and the Importance of Contours, Handbook for Teaching Introductory Psychology, Volume 2, page 217. Psychology Press, Texas, 2000)[2]

Ewald Hering explained how the brain sees afterimages, in terms of three pairs of primary colors. This opponent process theory states that the human visual system interprets color information by processing signals from cones and rods in an antagonistic manner. The opponent color theory suggests that there are three opponent channels: red versus green, blue versus yellow, and black versus white. Responses to one color of an opponent channel are antagonistic to those to the other color. Therefore, a green image will produce a magenta afterimage. The green color tires out the green photoreceptors, so they produce a weaker signal. Anything resulting in less green, is interpreted as its paired primary color, which is magenta.[citation needed]

240px Example movie which produces distortion illusion after one watches it and looks away. See Motion aftereffect.[citation needed]

Positive afterimages

Positive afterimages, by contrast, appear the same color as the original image. They are often very brief, lasting less than half a second, and may not occur unless the stimulus is very bright. The cause of positive afterimages is not well known, but possibly reflects persisting activity in the visual system where the retinal photoreceptor cells continue to send neural impulses to the occipital lobe,[3] suggesting that the experience of a stimulus can vary with the intensity of the stimulus. As in most circumstances only very bright stimuli such as the sun produce positive afterimages, and a stimulus which elicits a positive image will usually trigger a negative afterimage quickly via the adaptation process. To experience this phenomenon, one can look at a bright source of light and then look away to a dark area, such as by closing the eyes. At first one should see a fading positive afterimage, likely followed by a negative afterimage that may last for much longer.

Afterimage on empty shape


A snapshot of the "color dove" illusion

An afterimage in general is an optical illusion that refers to an image continuing to appear after exposure to the original image has ceased. Prolonged viewing of the colored patch induces an afterimage of the complementary color (for example, yellow color induces a bluish afterimage). "After image on empty shape" effect is related also to a class of effects related to contrast effect.[citation needed]

In this effect, an empty (white) shape is presented on a colored background for several seconds. When the background color disappears (becomes white) an illusionary color, similar to the original background is perceived within the shape.[citation needed] The mechanism of the effect is still unclear, and may be produced by one or two of the following mechanisms:[citation needed]

  • During the presentation of the empty shape on a colored background, the colored background induces an illusionary complementary color ("induced color") inside the empty shape (i.e. bird). After the disappearance of the colored background an afterimage of the "induced color" might appear inside the "empty shape". Thus, the expected color of the shape will be complementary to the "induced color", and therefore similar to the color of the original background.[citation needed]
  • After the disappearance of the colored background, an afterimage of the background is induced. This induced color has a complementary color to that of the original background. It is possible that this background afterimage induces simultaneous contrast on the "empty shape". Simultaneous contrast is a psychophysical phenomenon of the change in the appearance of a color (or an achromatic stimulus) caused by the presence of a surrounding average color (or luminance).[citation needed]

The perceived empty shape effect could also be derived due to both mechanisms.[citation needed]

Medical conditions

In a visual disturbance called palinopsia, patients have an increased propensity for seeing afterimages, both as a reduced amount of time required to form an afterimage, and an increased duration of the afterimage. Positive afterimages are particularly noticeable, such that even routine eye movement is often accompanied by flickers of what the eye has scanned over the hill (called "tracers"). However, increased negative afterimages are also experienced by palinopsia sufferers. It is unknown if the negative afterimages encountered in palinopsia are formed by the same process described above, although what little research that exists regarding the phenomena suggests that it is brain-related, and not eye-related. Palinopsia can be a persistent condition, but it is also experienced periodically by migraine sufferers.[citation needed]


See also


  1. (2001). Afterimage of perceptually filled-in surface. Science 293 (5535): 1677–80.
  2. Handbook for Teaching Introductory Psychology - Google Boeken, URL accessed 2013-09-28.
  3. Positive afterimages description

References & Bibliography

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