Although many people think this is a myth or urban legend, staring at the sun or solar eclipses can damage the retina. The retina is located in the back eye of the eye, and it processes light and images that are then transmitted to the brain. When a person stares at the sun or a solar eclipse, high levels of ultraviolet light are concentrated onto the retina by the lens of the eye, and prolonged viewing may cause the retina to be ‘burned.’
This damage, called ‘solar retinopathy,’ can occur whenever a person stares at the sun, but typically the bright sun is so irritating that our reflexes cause us to blink and close our eyes. Unfortunately, this reflex may be reduced when a person is performing a religious ritual or under the influence of mind-altering drugs, so solar retinopathy can occur even without a solar eclipse.
During a solar eclipse most of the sunlight is blocked by the moon, so your eyes aren’t as irritated by staring at the sun. Despite a partial view of the sun, dangerous ultraviolet rays are still being transmitted around the edge of the eclipse, and these are the ultraviolet rays that most commonly cause solar retinopathy.
The level of solar retinopathy damage depends on how long a person stares at the sun and how strong the ultraviolet rays are. Normal vision may return after a few weeks for mild damage, but severe solar retinopathy will permanently damage a patient’s central vision.