This study resolves a long-standing question about the ability of humans to perceive near infrared radiation (IR) and identifies a mechanism driving human IR vision. A few previous reports and our expanded psychophysical studies here reveal that humans can detect IR at wavelengths longer than 1,000 nm and perceive it as visible light, a finding that has not received a satisfactory physical explanation. We show that IR light activates photoreceptors through a nonlinear optical process.
Vision relies on photoactivation of visual pigments in rod and cone photoreceptor cells of the retina. The human eye structure and the absorption spectra of pigments limit our visual perception of light. Our visual perception is most responsive to stimulating light in the 400- to 720-nm (visible) range. First, we demonstrate by psychophysical experiments that humans can perceive infrared laser emission as visible light. Moreover, we show that mammalian photoreceptors can be directly activated by near infrared light with a sensitivity that paradoxically increases at wavelengths above 900 nm, and display quadratic dependence on laser power, indicating a nonlinear optical process. Biochemical experiments with rhodopsin, cone visual pigments, and a chromophore model compound 11-cis-retinyl-propylamine Schiff base demonstrate the direct isomerization of visual chromophore by a two-photon chromophore isomerization. Indeed, quantum mechanics modeling indicates the feasibility of this mechanism. Together, these findings clearly show that human visual perception of near infrared light occurs by two-photon isomerization of visual pigments.