So… Phantom sight is a thing

For the first couple of days after surgery, I actively kept my eye closed. As in… it’s been sewn shut, so it couldn’t open anyway. But without even thinking, the muscles around my eye kept working as if they were holding it closed. It took a couple of days to realise i didn’t need to do that. That felt weird in itself – opening my eye but it being held closed. It hurt at first but I got used to it.

I think that was when the phantom sight started.

I kept seeing strange things in what would have been my eye. My friend Sarah’s plant was a regular visitor. I had been at her place a few days before surgery, and her huge Monstera was sitting between us as we sipped coffee – it was sitting on my right hand side, right where it kept appearing post surgery.

At one point, when I was waiting for my second drain removal to happen, I saw the shadows of two people sitting next to me, who I knew immediately were my parents. I smiled and thanked my brain for allowing them to visit. It was a nice reassurance that they were there with me in spirit.

A less fun one was that I kept seeing someone (unknown thankfully!) waving their arm as if to hit me. I had to train myself not to panic when this one happened.

Even for someone with fully functioning vision, the brain fills in gaps. You never actually see the whole of your field of vision. We all have blind blind spots, and our brain fills it in. This is referred to as ‘filling in’: It is the phenomenon in which an empty region of visual space appears to be filled with the colour, brightness or texture of its surround. The brain is capable of filling-in the blind spot, borders, surfaces and objects.

I suspect my brain, suddenly having to deal with less sight, trawled through the filing system of memories to try various things on and see if that fixed the problem. Sometimes it would be a bit less creative and just attempt to fill in the room. I couldn’t distinctly see it, but I could see it like an impression or a memory. Almost like when you look at the sun and then close your eyes… you can still see an impression of the sun.

Also I was on a lot of morphine and had been under anaesthetic for 12 hours so I can’t promise it wasn’t part hallucination-based. But either way, it was phantom sight. After maybe a week, the more exciting versions of it ended. The residual is now just that I see swirly black/white sometimes. That swirly black/white sometimes takes over part of my remaining vision too, if I’m tired or struggling to concentrate.

While I was in hospital there were a couple of occasions when medical people would stand on that side of me and I wouldn’t be able to see them until they said something. Or in one circumstance my ward buddy A had to tell me that there was someone standing there looking at me expectantly.

I read an article in New Scientist about this ‘filling in’ phenomenon that said: The brain trusts its own generated information more than what it sees outside in the world.

I certainly would have preferred to think I was back at Sarah’s drinking coffee and chatting, but I could happily leave the one that kept trying to hit me…

2 Comments Add yours

  1. John Kirby says:

    Dear Jen, thank you for this fascinating piece. It makes extraordinary reading. I imagine it may continue to provide happy images now and then. Happy 2021, and I wish you a very happy and busy year. Lol, John


  2. Rob says:

    Sounds somewhat like Charles Bonnet Syndrome – sadly many elderly people are dismissed as crazing or suffering dementia, when in reality they are having visual hallucinations due to deteriorating eyesight. It would have been nice for someone at the hospital to warn you about the potential for this phantom sight, but at least other people who lose an eye to cancer will have your blog as a resource to forwarn them 👍


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