By looking at the eyes of other animals, scientists have determined that the structure of the human eye has gradually evolved from a simple light-to-dark sensor to one of the most complex structures on the planet.
It functions in a similar manner to a camera – light enters through an opening, and then travels to a lens. A light-sensitive membrane in the back of the eye converts light to vision.
The amount of light which enters the eye is controlled by the circular and radial muscles in the iris, which contract and relax to alter the size of the pupil.
The light first passes through a tough protective sheet called the cornea, and then moves into the lens. This adjustable structure bends the light, focusing it down to a point on the retina, at the back of the eye.
The retina is covered in millions of light-sensitive receptors which are known as rods and cones. Each receptor houses pigmented molecules, which change shape when hit by light. This triggers an electrical message which travels up to the brain via the optic nerve.
The back of the eye is covered in a layer of light-sensitive cells measuring just fractions of a millimetre in thickness. When photons of light hit the pigments inside the cells, it triggers an array of signals, which, in turn, pass through a series of different connections before they are transmitted to the brain. First, they move through interneurones and then to neurones known as ganglion cells. The neurones travel across the back surface toward the optic nerve, which relays the information into the brain.
Open your eyes, and you are met with an array of different colours, but amazingly you can only detect three different wavelengths of light, corresponding to green, blue, and red. Combining these three signals in the brain creates millions of different shades.
Each eye has between 6 and 7 million cone cells, containing one of three colour-sensitive proteins known as opsins. When photons of light hit the opsins, they change shape, triggering a cascade that produces electrical signals, which in turn transmit the messages to the brain. Well over half of our cone cells respond to red light, around a third to green light, and just two per cent to blue light, giving us vision focused around the yellow-green region of the spectrum.
The vast majority of the cone cells in the human eye are located in the centre of the retina, on a spot known as the fovea, measuring just fractions of a millimetre across. Light is focused on this point, providing a crisp, full-colour image at the centre of our vision. The remainder of the retina is dominated by 120 million rod cells, which detect light, but not colour.
We are so used to seeing the world in red, green and blue that it might seem strange to think that most other animals cannot, but three-coloured vision like our own is relatively unusual. Some species of fish, reptiles and birds have four-colour vision, able to see red, green, blue and ultraviolet or infrared light, but during mammalian evolution, two of the four cone types were lost, leaving most modern mammals with dichromatic vision – seeing in shades of just yellow and blue.
This was not a problem for many early mammals, because they were largely nocturnal, and lived underground, where there was little need for good colour vision. However, when primates started moving into the trees, a gene duplication gave some species the ability to see red, providing a significant evolutionary advantage in picking out ripe red fruit against the green leaves.
Even today, not all primates can see in three colours; some have dichromatic vision, and many nocturnal monkeys only see in black and white. It is all down to environment; if you don’t need to see all of the colours in order to survive, then why waste energy making the pigments?
Our eyes are only able to produce two-dimensional images, but with some clever processing, the brain is able to build these flat pictures into a three-dimensional view. Our eyes are positioned about five centimetres (two inches) apart, so each sees the world from a slightly different angle. The brain compares the two pictures, using the differences to create the illusion of depth.