The Retina and Vision

Part of the Interdisciplinary Applied Mathematics book series (IAM, volume 8/2)


The visual system is arguably the most important system through which our brain gathers information about our surroundings, and forms one of our most complex physiological systems. In vertebrates, light entering the eye through the lens is detected by photosensitive pigment in the photoreceptors, converted to an electrical signal, and passed back through the layers of the retina to the optic nerve, and from there, through the visual nuclei, to the visual cortex of the brain. At each stage, the signal passes through an elaborate system of biochemical and neural feedbacks, the vast majority of which are poorly, if at all, understood.

Although there is great variety in detail between the eyes of different species, a number of important features are qualitatively conserved. Perhaps the most striking of these features is the ability of the visual system to adapt to background light. As the background light level increases, the sensitivity of the visual system is decreased, which allows for operation over a huge range of light levels. From a dim starlit night to a bright sunny day, the background light level varies over 10 orders of magnitude (Hood and Finkelstein, 1986), and yet our eyes continue to operate across all these levels without becoming saturated with light. The visual system accomplishes this by ensuring that its sensitivity varies approximately inversely with the background light, a relationship known as Weber's law (Weber, 1834) and one that we discuss in detail in the next section.


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2009

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