At night, when I switch off the lights, I always seem to go blind for a while. The room becomes pitch black and I am unable to see anything. After a while, however, my vision slowly recovers and I start to see things around me again. I always have to wait a while before my vision returns to that functional state.

I am interested in knowing the mechanism behind this phenomenon. What do we call it?


1 Answer 1


Short answer
The eyes need to adapt to the low lighting condition after you switch off the lights, a process called dark adaptation.

The process behind the reduced visual function when going from bright ambient light to low-lighting conditions is caused by a process called dark adaptation. The visual system works on a huge intensity scale. The only way to do that is by adapting to ambient lighting intensity.

The sensitivity of our eye can be measured by determining the absolute intensity threshold, i.e., the minimum luminance of a stimulus to produce a visual sensation. This can be measured by placing a subject in a dark room, and increasing the luminance of the test spot until the subject reports its presence.

Dark adaptation refers to how the eye recovers its sensitivity in the dark following exposure to bright light. The sensitivity of the visual system increases approximately 35 times after dark adaptation.

Dark adaptation forms the basis of the Duplicity Theory which states that above a certain luminance level (about 0.03 cd/m2), the cone mechanism is involved in mediating vision, called photopic vision. Below this level, the rod mechanism comes into play providing scotopic (night) vision. The range where two mechanisms are working together is called the mesopic range, as there is not an abrupt transition between the two mechanism.

The dark adaptation curve shown below (Fig. 1) depicts this duplex nature of our visual system. The sensitivity of the rod pathway improves considerably after 5-10 minutes in the dark. Because after you switch off the light the rod system is still inactive, you are unable to perceive much. The reason why rods are inactive is because they are said to be photo bleached. Photo bleaching refers to the visual pigments in the rods and cones to become used up because of the high light intensities when the light was still on. The pigment needs to be regenerated and that takes time.

Fig. 1. Dark adaptation curves of rods and cones. Source: Webvision

- Kolb et al (eds). Webvision. The organization of the retina and the visual system (2012)

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    $\begingroup$ Also this is the reason pirates wore eyepatches (to be able to quick switch between sunlit deck and dark rooms inside ships), and why you should keep your eyes shut or stay in a dark room for several minutes before a telescope session. $\endgroup$ Mar 24, 2016 at 13:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Mindwin There isn't any historical evidence for that theory, beyond the eyepatch wearing pirate being a common trope. $\endgroup$
    – MJeffryes
    Mar 24, 2016 at 17:08
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    $\begingroup$ @MJeffryes I stand corrected.message.snopes.com/showthread.php?t=86177 $\endgroup$ Mar 24, 2016 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ Try this, 1- Turn off all the lights in your room for 5 minutes or until you start to make out objects in the room while being in the dark, Now your pupils have adjusted and are in night vision mode. 2- Cover one eye with your palm and turn on the lights. 3- Wait about a minute while keeping the eye closed and covered during the minute. 4- Turn off the lights again and you will be in pitch black darkness, open the covered eye now and "instant night vision" $\endgroup$ Mar 24, 2016 at 21:50
  • $\begingroup$ @TheVoid an easier test, instead of sitting in the dark for 5min, would be to try this in the morning after waking up & before turning on the lights (if the room's dark) $\endgroup$
    – Xen2050
    Mar 25, 2016 at 1:16

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