How to Look at Flashing Lights

When a light flashes or flickers it is usually a symbol of caution. It means slow down, stay away, or even, “I am broken.” We often see them on emergency vehicles rushing past and construction sites. There is good reason for their use in these contexts. Flashing lights easily get our attention, compel us to stop looking, and change our behaviour. When we see a light flicker inside our homes, it is a reason to move and replace the bulb, not to sit and stare.

In fact, when a light quickly flashes it can be physically dangerous for those with photosensitive epilepsy. For these individuals, seizures can typically be triggered at rates of between 3 and 30 flashes per second. By comparison, police cars typically have lights that flash at a rate of around 90 flashes per minute. These are the most commonly seen flashing lights. They make people uncomfortable enough to get out of the way, without being incapacitated by the warning. This discomfort is what is important about the experience of seeing lights flash.

The physical process of image being perceived and understood is usually negligible to us. Our brain is extremely proficient at converting what our eyes see into useable information. Although sight is always a physical experience, the process is automatic and unfelt. This changes in the case of looking at quickly flashing lights. Strobe lights are likely the most obvious example, but these lights are not made to be looked directly at. They instead create a flickering effect in the spaces in which they are used.

However, there exists a tradition in avant-garde cinema that intentionally depict flickering light to be viewed directly. Watching these films can often result in headaches, nausea and eye strain, even if one is not epileptic. This pain makes us aware of the experience of sight. Tony Conrad’s The Flicker from 1967 is a key example. The film consists of white and black frames that alternate in increasing and decreasing speeds throughout.

The result is a film experience that is not just visual. It becomes corporal, as it is felt in the body even more than it is perceived by the brain. Very quickly, viewers become disoriented and can see shapes in the light and darkness that are not really there. In order to understand what one is seeing during The Flicker, one should pay attention to how the body receives the experience. The eyes are overwhelmed, no longer to be trusted.

(Epilepsy warning on video below)

As mentioned, this corporal experience is one of pain and should not be withstood for very long. The consciousness of sight that can be accessed through flashing lights is strictly temporary. Likewise, broken lights in kitchens still need to be replaced, and blinking ambulances should still be pulled over for. However, on days where one is feeling particularly pain resistant, it may be valuable to try out “feeling” sight, and viewing some flickering film is an easy way to do this.


Conrad, Tony. “The Flicker, Excerpt” Youtube, 20 Jul 2012. Originally released 1966.

Elkins, James. How to Use Your Eyes. Routledge, 2000.

Rubin, Arthur I. & Gerald L. Howett. Emergency Vehicle Warning Systems. Washington D.C. National Bureau of Standards. 1981. pp. 17.

“Why do seizures happen?” Epilepsy Society. 1 Sept 2018.