The reflexes of the eye are automatic adjustments and movements that protect your eyes and maintain your vision. They’re unconscious movements, which means you don’t think about them or control them. Visit an eye care specialist if you notice any changes in your eyes or vision.
The reflexes of the eye are a series of automatic changes in your eyes that help you see and protect your eyeballs from damage. They’re involuntary movements — which means you can’t control them and don’t have to think about them.
Your eyes are organs that allow you to see. Many parts of your eye work together to bring objects into focus and send visual information to your brain.
Eye reflexes protect your eyeballs and adjust your eyes to different lighting conditions. They ensure there are no gaps in your vision, even if you move your eyes quickly or light changes suddenly.
Some reflexes of the eye make your eyes move or change as reactions to things going on around you.
Your eye has reflexes that involve most of the parts of your eye, including your:
Other eye reflexes happen in response to changes in other parts of your body, including your:
An eye care specialist will test the reflexes of your eyes during an eye exam. They’ll check specific reflexes if you’re experiencing symptoms or have issues with a specific part of your eyes or vision.
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The reflexes of the eye respond to electrical signals traveling through a loop of special nerve cells to your brain and back. These paths are made of:
How these paths work is similar to typing on a keyboard. You press a key, then an electrical signal travels from that key though a wire to your computer which turns that signal into a letter on your screen. But instead of typing one letter at a time, your eye reflexes constantly adjust and protect your eyes without you even needing to think about them.
The reflexes of the eye include your:
The pupil is the black center of your eye. Your pupils change in size to control how much light enters your eye. Muscles in your iris (the colored part of your eye) control the size of your pupil. Pupillary reflexes make your pupil change size automatically in different amounts of light. You might see this called pupillary accommodation. They maintain your vision in different conditions by changing how much light enters your eyes and hits your retinas. Pupillary reflexes include:
The cornea is the clear window on the front of your eye. It’s made of tough, transparent tissue. Together with the sclera (white of your eye), the cornea helps protect your eye. There are two corneal reflexes:
You experience the two corneal reflexes every time a loose eyelash falls into your eye. You blink without thinking about it, then your eye is suddenly watery with new tears to wash it clear. Other situations can trigger your blink or tear reflexes, including:
Six muscles control your eyes’ movements. They let you intentionally look left, right, up and down. They also move your eyes during the vestibulo-ocular reflex. Your brain and oculomotor nerve automatically make tiny adjustments to your eye muscles when your head moves. Even when you’re not thinking about it, your head moves all the time, especially when you’re walking, running or doing any other physical activity. The vestibulo-ocular reflex keeps your eyes level when your head moves. If you didn’t have a vestibulo-ocular reflex, your vision would constantly be blurry or feel like you were on a boat in choppy waves.
The oculocephalic reflex is one way for an eye care specialist to test how well your cranial nerves are working. You might see it referred to as the doll’s eye reflex. It’s a form of accommodation eye test — motions or movements that help eye care specialists see how your eyes adjust to changes. If your eye care specialist is checking your doll’s eye reflex, they’ll hold your eyelids open and quickly move your head back and forth from left to right. Your eyes should reflexively adjust to stay looking straight ahead, even if your head is moving. If your vision gets significantly worse during the test — or if your eyes move too much — something might be interfering with either the nerves or muscles that keep your eyes stable. Your eye care specialist will probably need other tests to diagnose what’s affecting your eyes.
The palpebral oculogyric reflex makes you unconsciously move your eyes up if someone tries to touch or force them closed. It’s also known as the Bell’s reflex. You’ve experienced it if your eyes move up when you put contact lenses or eye drops in your eye. Some people’s eyes perform a Bell’s reflex when they’re putting makeup on. Unlike other reflexes of the eye, the Bell’s reflex doesn’t actively help your vision or protect your eyes. Experts think it’s a built-in defense mechanism. People with Bell’s palsy and other forms of facial paralysis won’t have a Bell’s reflex. Not having a Bell’s reflex isn’t a sign that something’s wrong with your eyes. In fact, around 10% of people naturally don’t have Bell’s reflex.
Anything that damages your eyes, muscles, nerves or brain can affect the reflexes of your eyes. Some issues that can interfere with your eye reflexes include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Your eyes are an important part of how you interact with the world around you. Even if you’re not thinking about them, your eye is protected and controlled by reflexes. They automatically keep your vision stable and protect the tissues in your eyes from damage and foreign objects.
Even if you don’t intentionally control them, if something’s wrong with one of the reflexes of your eye, it can make your eyes feel “off” or not quite right. Visit an eye care specialist if you notice any changes in your eyes or vision.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/26/2023.
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