Direct detection of a single photon by humans

modified 2018-10-11

Direct detection of a single photon by humans

In short:

Rod cells respond to individual photons, yet whether a single-photon incident on the eye can be perceived by a human subject has remained a fundamental open question. Here we report that humans can detect a single-photon incident on the cornea with a probability significantly above chance.

We further discover that the probability of reporting a single photon is modulated by the presence of an earlier photon, suggesting a priming process that temporarily enhances the effective gain of the visual system on the timescale of seconds.


Landmark experiments by Hecht and colleagues in the 1940s established that dark-adapted human subjects are capable of reporting light signals as low as a few photons (~5鈥?)1. However, whether evolutionary pressure has pushed the visual system and the post-processing performed by the retina and brain to detect a single photon has remained an open question

understanding the mechanism underpinning the detection of a single photon with only ~4 脳 10鈭?9鈥塉 of energy would demonstrate that the weakest possible, quantized optical signal is not completely swamped by neuronal noise and other inefficiencies. This may help to uncover more generally how biological signal detection at the absolute physical limits is implemented.

Averaging across subjects’ responses and ratings from a total of 30,767 trials, 2,420 single-photon events passed post-selection and we found the averaged probability of correct response to be 0.516卤0.010 (P=0.0545; Fig. 2a), suggesting that subjects could detect a single photon with a probability above chance. This conclusion was further corroborated by additional experiments based on an attenuated Poissonian light with a mean photon number of one. Given that for such a source the probability that two or more photons lead to light induced, multiple-photon events at the retina is only ~3.7% allowed us to use both data sets to test the same hypothesis and obtain a more significant P value of 0.014 using Fisher’s method

Considering only the answers with the high-confidence R3 rating, we found that the probability of providing the correct response was significantly elevated compared with all responses (0.60卤0.03, P=0.0010), which demonstrates that subjects indeed detected a single photon in the high-confidence trials

Not every single photon incident on the eye leads to an isomerization and a subsequent production of a retinal signal. Based on the efficiency of the signal arm and the visual system, we estimate that in ~6% of all post-selected events an actual light-induced signal was generated (Methods section). Therefore, it is expected that from all trials only this fraction should be able to contribute to an above chance performance as well as to some increase in the subjects’ choice of high-confidence (R3) ratings. Thus, the correlation between the statistically significant sensitivity of subjects for a single-photon stimulus with their higher confidence rating provided us with further corroborative evidence that subjects could indeed detect a single photon.