Could Humans Ever See in the Dark?


Could humans ever see in the dark? Scientists are working on it…with mice!

Mice with infrared vision? Why would anyone want that? Scientists would, and have achieved infrared vision with mice. Will humans be next? 

Our world is full of beautiful colors, so it’s easy to forget that the spectrum of light visible to humans is a teeny sliver of what’s out there in the universe. But wouldn’t it be fantastic to see in the dark? That’s what infrared vision is. Let’s make sense of this science. To do that, we’ll take a look at light.


Why can’t humans see in the dark?  

Most of us are born with the capability to see what scientists define as visible light. It’s a matter of how our eyes function. ‘seeing in the dark, means seeing light in the infrared portion of the spectrum.

Other animals see far more.

Spectrum of Light
You can see (pun intended) what a small slice the visible spectrum is for humans!


Snakes which hunt for warm blooded prey can detect infrared light (given off by body heat) with special sensors.

Infrared dog
All animals give off heat. This is actually infrared light!

Pit organs enable snakes to see in infrared, or heat vision. A python top right) and rattlesnake bottom right) Arrows pointing to the pit organs are red; black arrow points to the nostril.


Blind snakes can still hunt and successfully find prey because of their pit organs.

Other animals are adapted to the opposite end of the light spectrum.


Bees find flowers with the ultraviolet capabilities they have in two of their five eyes.

That’s right! Bees have five eyes.

This lupine looks blue to the bee! Why?

Bees have a trichromatic vision with ultraviolet, blue, and green photoreceptors in their compound eyes.

Bees see UV, blue and green!


Bumblebee on flower
Bees can see in UV light spectrum

Each of the two huge compound eyes is made up 150 tiny structures called ommatidia.

The number of ommatidia in the bee’s eyes allows it to find different types of flowers and home in on the nectar location by their ultraviolet patterns.

The three simple eyes are called ocelli.  Ocelli only have one lens. They aid in the detection of light intensity in general. Thus, the ocelli help bees navigate during flight.

Bees have five eyes
Imagine what the world would be like with five eyes!

So it makes sense that many flowers have ultraviolet patterns on their petals.
And that bees can see the patterns!

Bees see ultraviolet patterns on flowers
Monarch butterfly on allium
Butterflies and many other insects see ultraviolet patterns to locate flowers, too.


Flower photographed in visible light (left) and ultraviolet light (right). The flower on the right is what a bee sees.

Imagine that! A yellow flower to us looks blue-purple to a bee!

Remember, bees can’t see yellow! They see green or blue instead.

Flower seen with visible light and UV light
image ©

Human vision of a Black-Eyed Susan (top right). What a bee sees in UV (bottom right).

Blue and green again!

Visible versus ultraviolet lights spectrum of flowers
image © Dr Schmitt, Weinheim, Germany,

Studies have proven that wild bees favor 430–480 nm. Blue flowers.


My favorite flowers color is blue! What's yours?
Click Here

Humans can’t perceive UV light directly because the lens of the eye blocks most light in wavelength range of 300nm~400nm.

If a lens is removed, such as with cataract surgery, then the human eye can detect UV light.

Humans with no lenses may have a more colorful world, but bee vision has limitations!

Bees can’t see red – closer to the longer wavelength end of the spectrum – while humans can.

Click Here

Will humans be able to see in infrared?

Let’s get back to those longer wavelengths, or red side of the spectrum. Seeing in infrared would enable us to see in the dark!

We’ve already mastered the ability to capture images of our world in infrared. Notice the red coloration closer to the equator, where it’s hotter.

Why not our eyes?

will humans be able to see in infrared?
MATLAB Handle Graphics


Nanoparticles are small! It would take eight hundred 100 nanometer particles side by side to match the width of a human hair. This tech is used in many fields of research. 

Researchers at the University of Science and Technology of China developed ocular injectable photoreceptor-binding nanoparticles.
That's a mouthful!
With the nanoparticles, mice were clearly able to perceive near-infrared light.
They tested the mice using patterns projected in IR, indicating a reward.
The patterns were repeatedly sought by the mice, indicating this was not just a general awareness but detailed perception in the wavelength.
The mice suffered no ill effects!

The type of vision the researchers are trying to achieve wouldn’t be like the cool images infrared goggles produce. It would be more like seeing an object that was giving off heat with a brighter and greener intensity.

IR vision. Will humans be next?
mice with infrared vision...will humans be next?
Can we throw away our heat vision goggles?


Don’t get too excited just yet. The FDA hasn’t approved this to date. And don’t forget, you need to have a needle put into your eyes…

Newton stuck a needle in his eye


But injected nanoparticles that glue themselves to photoreceptors could possibly be used to treat people with vision problems or to deliver drugs inside our eyes.

Vision augmented with near-infrared capabilities wouldn’t let us stalk prey through the woods, but it could potentially open up our world in other ways. 


 Seeing new wavelengths of light might add nuance to common vistas, for example, or it might reveal things that previously cloaked themselves in invisible wavelengths.

This photo on the right was taken in infrared!

Helix Nebula in Infrared
NASA Spitzer Space Telescope

Stargazing would never be the same! Infrared photons from stars constantly stream into our atmosphere. 

Make Sense of Science Total solar eclipse in IR
I'd love to see a total solar eclipse in infrared. Heck, I'd love to see a total solar eclipse!

While I’m thinking about celestial events, here’s a post that outlines the top 12 astronomy events for 2021!

What do you think about this developing tech? Would you want to do this, to see in infrared?




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Susan Berk Koch author

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