Anatomy, Physiology and
Pathology of the Human Eye

Ted M. Montgomery,
Optometric Physician
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The human eye is the organ which gives us the sense of sight, allowing us to observe and learn more about the surrounding world than we do with any of the other four senses.  We use our eyes in almost every activity we perform, whether reading, working, watching television, writing a letter, driving a car, and in countless other ways.  Most people probably would agree that sight is the sense they value more than all the rest.

The eye allows us to see and interpret the shapes, colors, and dimensions of objects in the world by processing the light they reflect or emit.  The eye is able to detect bright light or dim light, but it cannot sense objects when light is absent.

process of vision

Light waves from an object (such as a tree) enter the eye first through the cornea, which is the clear dome at the front of the eye.  It is like a window that allows light to enter the eye.  The light then progresses through the pupil, the circular opening in the center of the colored iris.

Fluctuations in the intensity of incoming light change the size of the eye’s pupil.  As the light entering the eye becomes brighter, the pupil will constrict (get smaller), due to the pupillary light response.  As the entering light becomes dimmer, the pupil will dilate (get larger).

Initially, the light waves are bent or converged first by the cornea, and then further by the crystalline lens (located immediately behind the iris and the pupil), to a nodal point (N) located immediately behind the back surface of the lens.  At that point, the image becomes reversed (turned backwards) and inverted (turned upside-down).  The light impulses of the image are reoriented before reaching the visual center at the back of the brain.

The light continues through the vitreous humor, the clear gel that makes up about 80% of the eye’s volume, and then, ideally, back to a clear focus on the retina, behind the vitreous.  The small central area of the retina is the macula, which provides the best vision of any location in the retina.  If the eye is considered to be a type of camera (albeit, an extremely complex one), the retina is equivalent to the film inside of the camera, registering the tiny photons of light interacting with it.

Within the layers of the retina, light impulses are changed into electrical signals.  Then they are sent through the optic nerve, along the visual pathway, to the occipital cortex at the posterior (back) of the brain.  Here, the electrical signals are interpreted or “seen” by the brain as a visual image.

Actually, then, we do not “see” with our eyes but, rather, with our brains.  Our eyes merely are the beginning of the visual process.  Watch an 11½-minute film, created in 1941, about the anatomy and physiology of the eye: How the Eye Functions.

myopia, hyperopia, astigmatism

If the incoming light from a far away object focuses before it gets to the back of the eye, that eye’s refractive error is called “myopia” (nearsightedness).  If incoming light from something far away has not focused by the time it reaches the back of the eye, that eye’s refractive error is “hyperopia” (farsightedness).

In the case of “astigmatism,” one or more surfaces of the cornea or lens (the eye structures which focus incoming light) are not spherical (shaped like the side of a basketball) but, instead, are cylindrical or toric (shaped a bit like the side of a football).  As a result, there is no distinct point of focus inside the eye but, rather, a smeared or spread-out focus.  Astigmatism is the most common refractive error.

presbyopia (“after 40” vision)

After age 40, and most noticeably after age 45, the human eye is affected by presbyopia.  This natural condition results in greater difficulty maintaining a clear focus at a near distance with an eye which sees clearly far away.

Presbyopia is caused by a lessening of flexibility of the crystalline lens, as well as to a weakening of the ciliary muscles which control lens focusing.  Both are attributable to the aging process.

An eye can see clearly at a far distance naturally, or it can be made to see clearly artificially, such as with the aid of eyeglasses or contact lenses, or else following a photorefractive procedure such as LASIK (laser-assisted in situ keratomileusis).  Nevertheless, presbyopia eventually will affect the near focusing of every human eye.

eye growth

The average newborn’s eyeball is about 18 millimeters in diameter, from front to back (axial length).  In an infant, the eye grows slightly to a length of approximately 19½ millimeters.

The eye continues to grow, gradually, to a length of about 24-25 millimeters, or about 1 inch, in adulthood.  A ping-pong ball is about 1½ inch in diameter, which makes the average adult eyeball about 2/3 the size of a ping-pong ball.

The eyeball is set in a protective cone-shaped cavity in the skull called the “orbit” or “socket.”  This bony orbit also enlarges as the eye grows.

extraocular muscles

The orbit is surrounded by layers of soft, fatty tissue.  These layers protect the eye and enable it to turn easily.

Traversing the fatty tissue are three pairs of extraocular muscles, which regulate the motion of each eye: the medial & lateral rectus muscles, the superior & inferior rectus muscles, and the superior & inferior oblique muscles.

eye structures

Several structures compose the human eye.  Among the most important anatomical components are the conjunctiva, cornea, crystalline lens, extraocular muscles, iris, macula, optic nerve, retina, and vitreous humor.

You can click on the names of each of these 9 ocular structures on the left (either in the upper picture or in the lower frame of links) to learn more about them.  Then take three short quizzes, if you wish.


If you are considering asking my opinion about an eye problem or condition, or about any other type of advice or information relating to the eye, please read Eye Advice and Information first.  Thank you.

Email me ONLY as a last resort, as I no longer practice eye care!
About Me

Email me ONLY as a last resort, as I no longer practice eye care!

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