Science Questions

Why do rainbows dissappear if you stare at them?

Sun, 22nd Jul 2007

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Question

Mitch, Australia asked:

If you stare, without blinking at a rainbow for 5-10 seconds, it will disappear, even if itís a photo of a rainbow. This continues until you blink, or shift your gaze. Why does this happen?

Answer

This is an example of adaptation.  Everything in the nervous system is adaptable, which means that when you smell something or feel something, get into a hot bath for example, you stop noticing the sensation after a while.  Your eyes are exactly the same.  If you stare at something for a while without moving your eyes around to refresh the image, the retina degrades the image and it becomes blurry.  Thatís true of anything you look at, and as rainbows are slightly less distinct, itís more difficult for the eye to get a fix on it, and so they probably degrade more easily.

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