In March 2019 Twitter user Unusual Facts shared a pair of photos that had people asking whether they had an undiagnosed eye condition. And the pictures went viral, spreading across the internet until it seemed like the whole world was asking whether it had a problem with its vision.
We’ll talk about the vision issue – and Unusual Facts’ photos – later, but first of all, let’s look at the eye. This vital organ resembles a globe shape, and it’s not much more than an inch across. Although some believe that it’s the same size in adults as it is in babies, this isn’t right. In fact, it actually grows about 50 percent from birth to adulthood.
Eyes work by having the lens, at the front of the eye, project beams of light onto the back of the eye. This process is called “focus,” and focused light falls on cells that can sense it, which together form the retina. These change the light into bursts of electricity, which the optic nerve then conveys to the brain, where they are interpreted.
Of course, not all eyes work perfectly, with problems with how the light is focused very common. Indeed, over 34 million people in the U.S. who are aged 40 or over have short, or near, sight. This occurs when the lens focuses light in front of the retina, instead of right on it, making distant objects a blur.
Meanwhile, another 14 million people in the United States have far, or long, sight. This can be caused by an eye that isn’t lengthy enough or that has a cornea without sufficient curve, and it causes blur when looking at objects both near and far away. And on top of these conditions, a further problem with focusing light is even more prevalent.
About a third of the U.S. population has astigmatism, a condition which can happen together with near or far sight. Astigmatic eyes have corneas or lenses which have an imperfect curve, making them the shape of an egg instead of a ball. And the outcome of that can be that vision is blurry at every distance.
But why does astigmatism cause vision to be blurred? Well, usually the eye’s round shape helps focus the light precisely, controlling how much falls on a point on the retina. But with astigmatism, the light is focused unevenly, which leads to different focal points, both in front of and in the back of the retina.
So we can pinpoint the cause of astigmatism – the not quite round shape of the cornea – but curiously, we do not have any certainty about why some people have corneas like this. Mostly, people are born with eyes the shape of footballs, although they can be damaged if hit or wounded.
However, if you remember your parents’ warnings about not sitting too near to the TV, you can take heart. Indeed, this is known not to cause astigmatism at all. But your parents may take some of the blame though: that’s because the shape of your corneas is controlled by your genes.
Nevertheless, even though astigmatism does cause blurred vision, having this problem alone may not be reliable in detecting it. Indeed, sometimes, your vision can be blurred because of use of screens or reading text. And if you do have astigmatism, the issue can be mild enough that you barely even notice it.
But it’s important to recognize the condition when you do have it, particularly if you are a child. That’s because untreated astigmatism can develop into worse problems, including amblyopia, a disorder commonly known as “lazy eye.” And kids might not realize their sight is blurred, since they are used to it that way.
However, it’s easy enough for a specialist to spot astigmatism in both children and grownups. A full eye test will reveal its presence, and the eye doctor can then examine the eyeball with retinoscopy or even a test of corneal topography. And having been diagnosed, you can then consider the various means of treatment.
Just as we noted with kids, astigmatism can worsen over time, and the blurred vision that didn’t seem so bad will in time really start to affect your sight. However, the good news is that it doesn’t threaten your eye’s wellbeing: it’s just a problem of focus, not a disease. The normal way to fix it is to wear eyeglasses, although sometimes lasers are used to reshape the cornea.
Given that it’s sometimes hard to tell if you have astigmatism, the response to a tweet in March 2019 might not be a total surprise. It came from a Twitter user called Unusual Facts, who was quite new to the medium. They claim their purpose is to share, “The most weird and horrific facts on the internet.”
Be that as it may, Unusual Facts’ tweet in March 2019 certainly caught the imagination of the internet. It featured two pictures and a piece of commentary. Meanwhile, both photos showed the rear of cars at night, as though seen through a windscreen. However, one had distinctive smears and shafts of light.
In the text, first of all, Unusual Facts gave their explanation of the condition as they understand it. They posted, “Astigmatism is when the cornea is slightly curved rather than completely round. With [the condition], light focuses on several points of the retina rather just one point.” And having said that, they then explained what they believed the photos showed.
Unusual Facts next drew the distinction between the pictures. They wrote, “This is what people with astigmatism [see] vs [those] without.” And with that the tweet went viral, with thousands of comments flooding in. Those observations were mostly from people who had, to coin a phrase, had their eyes opened to astigmatism.
The first commenter was somewhat skeptical about what the pictures showed. They wrote, “Could the first picture be capturing the curvature in the front windshield rather than a biological defect? I’ve seen this light streaking effect whenever my wipers are running, and the aligned trail of water alters the headlights in front of me.”
However, Unusual Facts quickly clarified. They explained, “As someone with astigmatisms, negative. In or out of a car that’s what it looks like.” And other users were astonished to learn that their way of seeing was caused by an eye condition. One commented, “Wait people can see lights normally? I thought everyone saw those lines.”
Another Twitter users made their surprise clear, saying, “Holy s— I thought everyone saw the lines, when I was little I would squint to make em longer to entertain myself, [I] thought that was normal.” Meanwhile, another user replied to say, “I did that squinting thing too,” while another explained that they did their squinting in time with music.
Other users were quick to share their amazement. One wrote, “… My life and seeing is a lie, I thought everyone saw the lines.” And another pointed out a downside of the condition, referring to the cars in the photos. They said, “Same… honestly this is why I can’t drive at night.”
For another user, the tweet had brought a revelation. She wrote, “Now I finally get it, I know i have astigmatism but i thought it was normal to see the lights.” And many others would reflect that new understanding, with one posting, “I had no clue this was a thing! Honestly just thought that’s how light worked!”
Not everyone was convinced, though. One user suggested that Unusual Facts had allowed a flaw in their camera to confuse them. He wrote, “This one on the left is totally wrong, this is… from a phone with [a] dirty lens. With astigmatism you have blurry vision or in some cases more distorted vision, but no such stripes.”
However, Unusual Facts remained adamant that the effect was real. They wrote, “Sir, as someone with astigmatism, and [as] many others have said on this very thread, this is accurate to how we see the world. Light streaks across our vision making it very difficult at night. Believe me when I say [that] I can look out my window and see just that.”
However, it turns out that the skeptical view might be right after all. Expert Dr Samuel D. Pierce, who is president of the American Optometric Association, told Buzzfeed News in April 2019 that the photos don’t really reflect what happens with astigmatism. He said, “To be perfectly honest, I don’t think it’s the best representation of the way astigmatism looks through the eyes of someone with astigmatism.”
And Pierce is more than an expert voice – he also has astigmatism, so he has some insight. His view found an echo in other experts consulted after the tweet had gone viral. One of them was Dr. Zeba E. Syed, a Philadelphia cornea surgeon. She told USA Today in an April 2019 interview that there could be several explanations for seeing streaked lights.
Indeed, Syed explained that a cataract or nearsightedness might be responsible. She told USA Today, “While it is true that things can look like the left photo in patients with astigmatism, that’s also how things look even in patients with dry eye.” And Dr. Stephanie Marioneaux of the American Academy of Ophthalmology reflected the same view.
Meanwhile, Marioneaux pointed out to IFLScience in April 2019 that internet diagnosis could be fallible in medical matters. She said, “There are many things that it could be, astigmatism is just one of our long list of differential diagnoses that ophthalmologists could draw as a conclusion.” For example, the bars of light could be caused by a contact lens that won’t sit right.
Marioneaux added that astigmatism itself varies from person to person, saying, “I would not say that, if you have astigmatism, categorically this is what your life is like, no. It depends on the amount of astigmatism, but there are so many other types of factors that could make this type of distortion in your vision.”
Still, Marioneaux was clear that you shouldn’t ignore visual disturbances. And she urged people to contact an eye doctor if they saw things that seemed to be flares or bursts of light, for instance. This was so that they could properly investigate what was behind it and how it could be treated.
Meanwhile, among the commenters on Unusual Facts’ tweet, one had an interesting idea. They wrote, “Wow, artists with astigmatism who draw the world as they see it vs artists without astigmatism drawing the world as they see it, warring over which depiction is accurate when all along it’s been like this.”
Indeed, it has been suggested that the Spanish Renaissance painter El Greco had astigmatism, because he deployed lengthened figures in his work. The eye condition is said to cause this elongation, and the kind of lens used to correct it will also make El Greco’s figures appear normal.
However, although the hypothesis has had plenty of notice since ophthalmologist Germán Beritens proposed it in 1913, it probably isn’t valid. In astigmatism, the stretching should happen only in one direction. But in El Greco’s work, horizontal and vertical elongation can be seen. And not every figure is stretched out – some are normally proportioned.
Still, even if El Greco’s figures grew out of his sense of style and not from a problem with his eyesight, it’s perfectly possible that he did have astigmatism. Lots of artists probably did – after all, we’ve already seen that it’s very common. Indeed, among those suggested to have had the condition are Modigliani, Botticelli and Titian.
And whatever the truth is about El Greco, other painters seem to have been greatly influenced by the condition of their eyes. Claude Monet, for example, had a diagnosis of cataracts, which can make vision cloudy and cause issues with color and detail – and these be seen in Monet’s work.
Meanwhile, other Impressionists seem to have been influenced by problems with eyesight. For instance, French painter Paul Cézanne may have incorporated his nearsightedness into his work. Indeed, when someone once gave him eyeglasses, he apparently yelled, “Take away those vulgar things.” And some suggest that keen focus would have worked against his style.
Indeed, Cézanne was not alone in wanting to do his work with the world a little out of focus. Another French painter, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, liked to stand far enough away from his paintings that they wouldn’t be sharp. And both he and Cézanne are well known for the blurry effect they used in their paintings.
Meanwhile, the effect of sight disorders on painting can clearly be seen in the work of U.S. painter Mary Cassatt. Once a precise, detailed artist, as she fell prey to diabetic retinopathy and cataracts, she moved to pastels from oils. Consequently, she became less exacting, with the sharp lines of her youth giving way to colorful strokes.
Meanwhile, whether Unusual Facts offered a good illustration of astigmatism or not, their tweet certainly caught the web’s attention. Indeed, to date, more than 24,000 users have retweeted it, and it has garnered over 58,000 likes. And perhaps some of those have learned something about a problem with their own eyesight that they may not have known about.
Nevertheless, if you have difficulty driving at night or squint to bring things into focus, you may have astigmatism. And these symptoms, which also includes headaches or eyestrain, can be evident even in those who wear eyeglasses. Indeed, a trip to an eye doctor will reveal the truth, much more accurately than gazing at photos on the internet.