Phantom Eye Patients See and Feel with Missing Eyeballs

By Elizabeth Preston | June 5, 2015 9:22 am


Amputees often feel eerie sensations from their missing limbs. These “phantom limb” feelings can include pain, itching, tingling, or even a sense of trying to pick something up. Patients who lose an eye may have similar symptoms—with the addition of actual phantoms.

Phantom eye syndrome (PES) had been studied in the past, but University of Liverpool psychologist Laura Hope-Stone and her colleagues recently conducted the largest study of PES specifically in patients who’d lost an eye to cancer.

The researchers sent surveys to 239 patients who’d been treated for uveal melanoma at the Liverpool Ocular Oncology Centre. All of these patients had had one eye surgically removed. Some of their surgeries were only 4 months in the past; others had taken place almost 4 and a half years earlier. Three-quarters of the patients returned the surveys, sharing details about how they were doing in their new monocular lives.

Sixty percent of respondents said they had symptoms of phantom eye syndrome. These symptoms included pain, visual sensations, or the impression of actually seeing with the missing eye.

Patients with visual symptoms most often saw simple shapes and colors. But some people reported more distinct images, “for example, resembling wallpaper, a kaleidoscope, or fireworks, or even specific scenes and people,” the authors write.

Then there were the ghosts.

Some people said they had seen strangers haunting their fields of vision, as in these survey responses:

phantom eye phantoms

PES patients describe the ghostly images they see with their missing eyes.

A survey isn’t a perfect way to measure how common PES is overall. But Hope-Stone says there were enough survey responses to produce helpful data for doctors who treat patients with eye cancer.

“We can now tell whether certain kinds of patients are more likely to have phantom symptoms,” she says. For example, “PES is more common in younger patients, and having pain in the non-existent eye is more likely in patients who are anxious and depressed, although we don’t know why.”

About a fifth of PES patients, understandably, said they were disturbed by their symptoms. A similar number found them “pleasurable,” Hope-Stone says.

Doctors aren’t sure exactly why phantom eye syndrome occurs. Since different patients have different symptoms, Hope-Stone says, “I suspect that…there may be a range of causes.”

For that matter, phantom limbs are still mysterious to doctors too. “Human perception is a complex process,” Hope-Stone explains. Even when our sensory organs are gone—the vision receptors in our eyes, the pain and touch receptors in our hands—the nerves and brain areas that used to talk to those organs keep working just fine. “Interactions between [these systems] may contribute to phantom sensations,” she says, although “the exact mechanisms are unclear.”

Even if they don’t know why it happens, doctors can warn their patients about the kinds of symptoms they’re likely to experience—and the ghosts they might see.

Image: by sarcaser (via Flickr)

Hope-Stone L, Brown SL, Heimann H, Damato B, & Salmon P (2015). Phantom Eye Syndrome: Patient Experiences after Enucleation for Uveal Melanoma. Ophthalmology PMID: 26004080

CATEGORIZED UNDER: brains, disease, magic, medicine, top posts
MORE ABOUT: Cancer, Psychology, Senses
  • Ginnie Robertson

    There are multiple scifi stories here waiting to be written.

    • robert hammers

      Ginnie. One’s already been written -read “seeing eye”.

  • Joan_Savage

    It raises a possibility about how people who still have eyeballs might be experiencing ghost images, though I fall short on experimental design.

    • urbantravels

      It’s interesting to me that several of these patients report hallucinations of a phantom human figure. I wonder if the neurological origin of these figures is similar to what causes the “third man” syndrome reported by explorers such as Ernest Shackleton and Everest climbers in extreme survival situations: the persistent feeling or active hallucination that there is an “extra” person accompanying you when no one is actually there.

      Of course, many people like to put a spiritual interpretation on this phenomenon, but I think it seems reasonable to guess that we have some kind of neurological predisposition to “recognize” certain patterns of nerve signals as a sense of the “presence” of other people, similar to the predisposition to “recognize” random visual patterns as human faces. It could be part of the wiring involved in being a social animal.

      Shackleton’s report of his experience inspired the lines from TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land”:

      Who is the third who walks always beside you?When I count, there are only you and I together
      But when I look ahead up the white road
      There is always another one walking beside you

      • Luke101

        I agree. The optic nerve is, after all, a nerve that has been cut, and many times will receive collateral electrical impulses from the body. Also, the “dark side” that remains after the eye is lost, disappears as the brain concentrates on the remaining signals from the Good eye.

  • CyberianGinseng

    Proof positive the Matrix has us!

  • The Joker

    The physical world is our training ground, to learn to use our bodies, when our bodies die we are exactly the same but without the physcial body. That’s why people who attach their entire being to physical objects are in “hell” so to speak after their body passes.

    • rumple stiltskin

      that is the case, Our ignorance is a result of a deliberate, enforced mind control regimen, and it has been since day one. However, the next step in human evolution will be self awareness of our interdimensional nature and it’s meaning for our development beyond the survivalist mode of the pecking order and groups competing for control.

  • Lethonee Allardyce

    Galactic Patrol’s Kim Kinnison had eyeless perception.

  • Luke101

    This story is hogwash. 99% of all monocular seeing individuals have none of these issues….

    • Maia

      :) Can we see your survey?

  • Stephanie

    The somatosensory cortex get inputs from all parts of the body. Once a person loses a limb or eye, the cerebral cortical will respond to a different area of the body than originally. This occurs because the axons that are created for the limb die and leave an empty synaptic site. This can explain why people have phantom feeling in their eye. If neurons in another part of the body are activated the eye will still feel like it is working in a way. Seeing ghostly shadows can just be the eye trying to work and coming up with an image even though it is not actually there.

  • Tiffany Summers

    In the case of phantom limbs, it used to be thought that the sensations were coming from the stump that was left from the amputation. However, that isn’t the case. Over time, parts of the cerebral cortex responsive to the limb can become responsive to another part of the body which causes the axons associated with the limb to degenerate. Axons from the other part of the body can sprout in the empty spaces left in the central nervous system. This reorganization of the somatosensory cortex cause the sensations. Something similar could be happening with the phantom eyes. Pain and shadows aren’t actually there, but maybe another part of the body is stimulated, causing strange sensations in the eye.



Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also the former editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she still writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.


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