Dynamic Entoptic Matrices

A thought-based theory of unusual entoptic phenomena found in highly productive computer programmers

by Andrew G. Watters, Esq.

Nutshell version: after 14-16 hours straight of programming, I start seeing code in my eyeballs. I believe this is due to exceeding built-in limits of the human body, which seems to have a self-preservation mechanism in the form of creating visual hallucinations. Protip: do not aggressively program/code anything for more than 8 hours a day.


In Masters of DOOM, author David Kushner describes an anecdote from programmer John Carmack, in which John experienced a visual phenomenon after a particularly involved programming session. The description was that John saw code flowing down his arm. I believe this is a manifestation of the same phenomenon I experienced, although John is an extreme outlier and a titan in programming and I am a mere mortal.

This happened in early January 2021 when I was working on the Slash project, in particular the Lattice user interface, which was an intense programming challenge. I had been working on it for at least 14 hours in one sitting in an effort to get something releasable and cool, which it turned out to be. But as I hit the 14-16 hour mark, I noticed something strange. I was seeing animated computer code and data structures literally in my eyeballs, not just in my imagination. The experience was terrifying because I could not control the visual phenomena, as if I was seeing The Matrix and could not turn it off. My best effort at an animation capturing the experience follows:

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Yeah, I took this as a sign that I needed more breaks while coding. A couple days later, after another 10-hour coding session or so, I started napping and I saw what looked like cryptographic substitution matrices animating inside my eyes. This was not as scary as the first time, and it went away after a few minutes anyway. The experience left me wondering why these phenomena happen, which led to the theory I describe here.


What I am calling "dynamic entoptic matrices" stem from overloading the same neurons in the brain as are involved in perception. This means that persons with perceptual disorders such as schizophrenia have a disordered connection in these same neurons, because the phenomena I experienced are also described in patients with schizophrenia (but I do not have schizophrenia).


I am in the process of collecting data on an informal basis from my programmer friends, and I will post the results here. I suspect this is a rare thing, but people may have experienced it without realizing it, or otherwise.


© 2023 Andrew G. Watters

Last updated: May 28, 2022 08:37:33