COLUMBUS, Ohio -- At least one-third of college students -- and maybe more -- wrongly believe that something such as rays or waves go out of the eyes during the act of seeing, according to a new series of studies.

But this "extramission theory" of vision was definitively rejected by scientists and philosophers by the early 17th century.

"Frankly, we were shocked by the results," said Gerald Winer, co-author of the studies and a professor of psychology at Ohio State University. "We have conducted more than 20 studies, using a variety of techniques, because we thought our results had to be wrong. But we continue to find a strong belief in extramission among children and adults," Winer said.

He conducted the studies with Jane Cottrell, a Ph.D. graduate from Ohio State and currently a lecturer at the university. Their results have been published in a variety of journals, most recently Current Directions in PsychologicalScience and the Journal of Educational Psychology.

The researchers have tested children in the first, third and fifth grades and college students. They find that belief in extramission generally does decline with age. Still, significant numbers of college students continue to believe that rays or waves leave their eyes during the act of seeing.

In a study where the researchers asked a simple question about whether anything goes out of the eyes during vision, wrong answers came from 49 percent of the first graders, 70 percent of the third graders, 51 percent of fifth graders and 33 percent of the college students.

In other studies, the researchers gave subjects a wider range of answers to choose from, or presented questions graphically using a computer program.

"We tried to give the students more of an opportunity to think about what they were saying, and come up with the correct answers," Cottrell said. "But, if anything, the subjects did worse."

In one study, subjects were given five choices of what happens during vision, including: something just goes in the eyes; something just goes out; something goes into the eyes first and then something goes out; and something goes in and out of the eyes simultaneously.

In this study, 70 percent of the college students showed belief in some form of extramission in their answers to one or more of eight questions. These questions presented different combinations of wrong answers, along with the correct answer.

To further test the subjects' beliefs, Winer and Cottrell asked those who believed in extramission whether the output from the eyes is essential to vision. Even here, 77 percent of the college students who affirmed extramission also believed that the output aids vision.

"Once they believe that something comes out of their eyes, they grab onto that belief and think that it is necessary for vision," Winer said.

"We are trying to figure out where they got the idea that something comes out of their eyes during vision," Cottrell added. "Nobody has ever been taught that -- in fact, we understand that most children start learning in third grade about how the eye functions and how vision occurs."

One theory the researchers tested was that a belief in extramission was related to other superstitions about emanations from they eyes. For example, many people believe they can "feel" someone staring at them from behind. This belief may imply that something leaves the eyes of a person who is staring and can then be "felt" by another person.

In one study, the researchers found that a belief in feeling stares actually increased between childhood and young adulthood. About 90 percent of college students tested said they believed in the ability to feel stares from others. But a belief in feeling stares increased with age, while a belief in extramission decreased, Winer said, and the two beliefs don't seem to be related.

Winer said a belief in extramission may be related to how people generally think about the process of seeing. People think about orienting themselves towards an object to see it, he noted. "If you were to draw a picture of someone looking at something, you would draw a line from that person to the object. That notion of aiming toward an object to see it lends itself to a belief that something comes out of your eyes during sight," he said.

Even our language and the metaphors we use reinforce the idea of extramission. "We talk about 'cutting glances,' 'searching glances' and 'hard looks,' all of which imply the idea of something coming from our eyes," Cottrell said.

Cottrell and Winer said they will continue this research on extramission beliefs, including studies to see how education affects these views.

Contact: Gerald Winer, (614) 292-3041;

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457;

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