Close your eyes. What colour do you see? Black? Look again.


Eigengrau (“intrinsic grey”), also called “dark light” or “brain grey” is the dark grey colour “seen” in the absence of light. Eigengrau appears lighter than a black object viewed in normal light because the brain prioritises contrast over true colour representation. For example, in the diagram below the two circular dots are the same colour, but appear to be different because of the way that they contrast with their backgrounds.


Eigengrau is produced when rhodopsin molecules undergoing a process of spontaneous isomerisation, indistinguishable from the process that would occur if the rhodopsin molecule had been struck by an incoming photon of light. In individual rod cells these events occur only about once every 100 seconds, but as there are about 125 million rod cells in each human eye this level of background signal is enough to produce eigengrau.

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