Thursday, August 19, 2021


I first noticed microfireflies on June 10, 2016, in Washington Square Park. I ended up writing about them in Leave Society, and they're depicted on the cover, though in real life they seem to be colorless or white. Below are all the mentions of them in my book. These passages are in third-person, about a character named Li, but they were written as nonfiction, based on my experiences.

cover by Linda Huang

From page 144:

Supine in Washington Square Park one day, Li saw flitting, ephemeral, glowing dots that seemed not in the air, the sky, his mind, or his eyes. They weren’t the wormy question-mark shapes he suspected were microbes, or the tadpole-like shadows, drifting past in tugs of movement belying their inter-eyeball nearness; the semi-translucent dots seemed to be in every area of empty space but were only visible against sky. They appeared, squiggled rapidly, and vanished, like densely packed fireflies in fast-forward.

Li could see two to four microfireflies, as he termed them, into their world, as if looking into murky water. He saw them focusing five feet above himself, on a cloud, and on nothing. Blowing air at them and waving his hand through them didn’t seem to affect them. He searched “glowing dots in air” and other phrases online but found nothing. He observed them daily in the park. 

Maybe microfireflies were the other-dimensional flickerings of a personal, specieal, or global emergent property. Had humans achieved a sufficient density of interconnection for an overmind to emerge? Individual minds couldn’t exist in the imagination except vaguely and fleetingly, as visitors or observers, but maybe eight billion minds on one planet couldn’t not be volitional and participatory there. 

Maybe an infant overmind, made of minds as animals were made of cells, was self-preservationally downloading partnership ideas into society, in part by sprinkling them over urban parks. 

Page 150:

He fell asleep [supine in Washington Square Park], became a moxic red energy, rising and fast. When he woke, he kept his lids down and saw dark microfireflies, pinpricks of shadow that seemed slower and sparser than when backdropped by sky.

Page 161:

As he walked to a bodega for mineral water, falling snow reminded him of microfireflies. 

Supine in the park the next day, he couldn’t see them at first. After he blurred his vision a little and stopped thinking, translucent, vibrating, meshed hexagons appeared and changed into a teeming layer of curlicuing, light-trailing specks. 

Maybe microfireflies would coalesce into a holographic overlay cognizable into 3D meaning. Already immersed in layered visuals, people would integrate visual language quickly. It could be a transitional ability, something to practice on Earth and take into the imagination.

Page 179:

He walked away and stood in place [on Carp Mountain in Taiwan], flapping for five minutes. He couldn’t see microfireflies, or they weren’t there. The sky seemed empty, lucid, uncharged. 

Maybe the swarming dots of light were an urban phenomenon. One cubic centimeter of urban air contained probably hundreds to millions of molecules of glyphosate, Earth’s most used pesticide, because gasoline, as per the 1990 Clean Air Act, was partly made from glyphosate-filled corn or sugarcane, Li had read. Maybe microfireflies were pesticides, flashing as they got buffeted and interpenetrated by municipal intensities of synthetic electromagnetic radiation—electrosmog—or maybe the overmind was helpfully disassembling toxins into atoms and light.

Page 185:

He lay staring out the window [in his parents' apartment in Taipei], past an elevated train track, at the placid sky, seeing no microfireflies. The clouds seemed feeling-shaped, amorphously morphing.

Page 238:

In late April [2017], after finishing the third, 4.5 percent pruned draft of his book, Li remembered microfireflies. In Washington Square Park, he saw the tiny, lumine orbs, which hadn’t been in Taiwan. Maybe the new property would start in the States, where consciousness had been moiled by decades of larger witting and unwitting doses and mixtures of pesticides, psychedelics, and pharmaceuticals than in any other country. 

Page 295:

Lying on his back [in a park in Taipei], he read a printed draft of Rainbow’s poetry book, which she’d retitled But Did U Die? He underlined “Would u rather be crucified or waterboarded.” He underlined “When I die I will become everything,” put down the paper, and saw microfireflies in Taiwan for the first time. They seemed denser, quicker, and more transient than in New York. 

Maybe the abrupt relocation of metal from the crust to the sky as cities, electronics, militaries, and satellites was visiblizing cosmic rays. Maybe one day the new electromagnetic configuration would chain-reactively destroy everything from the ground to the ionosphere—an instantaneous reset to microbes, plants, insects, subterranean animals, and fish.

Page 342:

[Lying on a beach with Kay in Oahu,] Li saw microfireflies, which he hadn’t thought of yet in Hawaii, and which he hadn’t told anyone about. He described them to Kay, calling them “like tiny tadpoles.” She saw black threads, gray spots, and squiggly shapes that seemed to be in her eyes. Li said he saw those too—question-mark worms and other things—but the dots, which he’d first seen in Washington Square Park in the second half of the Year of Pain, when wonder had flowed as pain ebbed, didn’t seem to be in his eyes. 

Kay saw them. Li said maybe no one could see them unless someone else described them. Kay said Li had seen them. They discussed starting a religion around them. Li would write instructions on how to see them. He’d write what had happened minutes earlier. Gazing at the ocean horizon, he saw the lucent dots for the first time as a static, screen-covering “twinkling,” as Kay was describing them. 

Li said the dots might be the first noticeable evidence of a new emergent property. Maybe the whole solar system, starting with subatomic particles, was immaterializing and would soon vanish in a halved twinkle, then reappear elsewhere and casually perish, like most gametes, or survive to reach millions of dimensions. 

Leaving the beach, Li asked Kay what she’d name the dots. She said “dustwinkling” or “microstars.” Li said he’d called them microfireflies in his notes but liked her names more. “Microstars” reminded him that stars could seem and be minuscule from higher dimensions. “Dustwinkling” sounded calm and friendly.

Out of the 20-40 people I know who've read my book and said things about it to me, only three, I think, have mentioned microfireflies. Sam Pink said he'd seen them since he was a kid, and had only met one other person, in high school, who'd seen them. Tommy Orange and Deb Olin Unferth, during our events, both mentioned them, but didn't say if they'd seen them. I asked Deb if she'd seen them, and she seemed to not have tried. Later, in an email, she said, "I think I saw a microfirefly today. Just one."

Besides my girlfriend, whom the character Kay is based on, and besides Deb, I've only directly asked one other person, I think, about microfireflies. I asked my mom, and she said she'd try to see them, then said, "I have read page 145 for microfireflies many times and go look out of the window to the sky, but all I see is building, is it easier to see in the park or outside with trees and must be very concentrated?"

Three reviews have mentioned them. A Goodreads review said, "I felt happy reading about microfireflies, too, since I think I've seen them as a child, but I've never had any words to describe them, and they've always felt too weird or I've always been too forgetful (since I haven't seen them since I was a childhood) to ever try to write down what they're like." 

Christine Smallwood's review said, "He theorizes that the tiny dots he sees in his field of vision might be proof of an alien overmind settling on Earth." Dean Kissick wrote that he'd tried a "couple times" to see microfireflies, but hadn't seen them, but that one night he saw "a tingling around the leaves on the branches" outside his window. He wrote, "I suspect Lin’s probably just seeing fireflies because of his regular weed and acid consumption, or his long tail of other psychedelic experiences, or the many esoteric practices he details in the book." (An update.)

In a DM on Twitter, someone told me, “I first noticed the microfireflies about 20 years ago. I assume that what we're seeing is the blood flowing in our eyes.” Not counting myself, I see one mention of each when I searching Twitter for microfireflies and dustwinkling. Scott Burton, who interviewed me, said in an email, "I think I also see microfireflies."

A funny thing about microfireflies/dustwinkling is that people who see them can't prove to other people that they see them, and if someone lies that they see them, no one can prove that they're lying. People who don't see them might assume that people who do see them are lying. 

My girlfriend Yuka and I have discussed them for years, and we aren't sure what they are. Have you seen them? What do you think they are? I encourage people to share in the comments section. Thank you for participating in this.

Update: They seem to be "the blue field entoptic phenomenon," caused by the motion of white blood cells in capillaries in front of the retina. Red blood cells—erythrocytes—build up behind white blood cells—leukocytes—because leukocytes (which are larger and rarer than erythrocytes) stretch and slow down when they enter capillaries. The backed-up erythrocytes absorb blue light from the sky or other blue backgrounds, while more light gets through in the space ahead of the leukocytes (where there's a lack of erythrocytes) and also through the leukocytes, so that one sees bright, motioned dots. It's explained more in this paper, which calls leukocytes "water-clear blood cells," this video, and this video.

Backed-up red blood cells block blue light

Seems amazing that we can see the motion of something as tiny as a leukocyte (~1/10th the width of a human hair), and that we can easily discern our leukocyte count, as explained in the first video I linked. 

leukocyte levels (1954 study by Ursula Schmidt-Gross)

I wonder what people throughout history—from before leukocytes were known—have theorized about this phenomenon. I'm open to the possibility that the above isn't the full explanation.

Update 2: Discussed this in a podcast.

Update 3 (October 31): Noticed that when I breathe in and hold my breath, the microfireflies slow down and then mostly disappear. 

Update 4 (December 13): A flaw of the capillary theory seems to be that I see the microfireflies even in the center of my vision. There's no empty area in the center—where there are no capillaries—as would be expected.