Anime Eyes Existed Centuries Ago

Early civilizations used the leaves and berries of Atropa belladonna to create poison arrows, while the several prominent women in the Roman Empire used it to slyly poison rivals. Many women, however, used the properties of Atropa belladonna to change the appearance of their eyes,  giving women an classic “look of love” and resulting in the wide-eyed look entrenched in anime culture.

Atropa belladonna is the scientific name for belladonna, an herb dotting the fields of the Western Hemisphere. The plant appears often in Shakespeare’s works – it is the dreaded root that sent Juliet off to sleep, while Macbeth added the herb to mead served to his Danish enemies.

Through an unknown sequence of events, women began to place a mixture made from belladonna into their eyes, leading to a widening of the pupils and a desirable look. Fashionistas of the day viewed the large, dilated pupils as a glamorous style of the day, with a transliteration of the phrase Italian phrase “beautiful lady” becoming the common name for the herb.

Women gained this appearance using a tincture of the herb, soaking belladonna in an alcohol based solution to extract the chemicals within, and dropping the solution directly into their eyes. Several paintings from the Renaissance era, including Titian’s 16th Century Woman in the Mirror, depict female forms with extremely wide eyes, pupils likely expanded due to the influence of belladonna.

How does belladonna give you a wide eyed look?

Atropa belladonna contains a number of tropine alkaloids.  Two of the molecules, scopolamine and hyoscyamine,  can lead to some very bizarre side effects which we will cover later. Atropine is the molecule behind the pupil dilating effects of a tincture of belladonna.  Your optometrist uses a slightly altered version of the molecule, atropine sulphate, to dilate yours eyes during a routine eye examination.

Atropine works by blocking the transmission of nerve signals to the muscarinic acetylcholine receptors in your eye. With the chemical signals blocked, the pupils relax, creating the wide eyed look. If you have ever had your eyes dilated, however, you are well aware that the process impairs your ability to see for a short period after use, no doubt making for some odd Renaissance era dinner dates.

Long term use of atropine to dilate the eyes leads to a lack of focus on close objects,  visual inconsistencies, and an increased heart rate. The increased heart rate often leads to complications and death in those subjected to poisoning.

For witches and feminine arousal

In addition to giving the user anime eyes, belladonna increases their heart rate significantly, leading to the attribution of enhanced sexual aggressiveness.  Women looking for a lustful encounter slathered their bodies in ointments derived from the herb, with the observation of changes in eye appearance likely leading to the direct introduction of an extract of the herb into the eye. Extended exposure to belladonna, however, leads to bizarre, uncomfortable hallucinations, with scopolamine and hyoscyamine, the two other active chemicals found in belladonna leading to this unusual side effects.

The mixture found its way into the occult vernacular, with villagers in 16th and 17thCentury Europe attributing the application of belladonna to the midsection and legs as the secret that allowed allowing witches to command a broom and fly through the skies.

Recreational consumption of belladonna still occurs, but the incredibly difficult and stressful hallucinations often outweigh the dissociated feeling attained.  The berries of the belladonna plant are quite pretty deadly – a couple dozen of the sweet treats are enough to kill an adult by way of respiratory failure. The combined poisonous possibilities and discomfort to dilation leading to an end to use of tincture of belladonna for cosmetic reasons around the early 20th Century.

Atropine continued to be used well into the 20th Century in a mix with morphine to generate “twilight sleep” -  a sense of less than wakefulness during childbirth extremely popular in Germany and parts of Europe during the early 1900s. This mixture of atropine and morphine is no longer used for a variety of reasons, however, it is quite a bit more humane than its immediate predecessor – rendering the woman in labor unconscious using a solution of chloroform.

If you are looking for a safer way to widen your pupils and get the look of anime eyes, phenylephrine eye drops, commonly sold to fight the affects of allergies, render a similar effect without hallucinations or vision problems.

Sailor Moon image courtesy of Kodansha. Titian’s Woman with a Mirror is currently on display at the Lourve. Animated image of pupil dilation is by Greyson Orlando and released into the public domain.

Keith Veronese has a Ph.D. in chemistry and regularly writes for Gawker Media's science site, io9. His worked has appeared on the Gawker Media sites Lifehacker, Deadspin, Kotaku, and Jezebel in addition to Paste Magazine, AMOG, So Jones, Hip Hop Press, and FormatMag. Keith also has a non-fiction book in the works, Plugged In: Comic Book Professionals Working in the Video Game Industry, which will be released by TwoMorrows Publishing later this year.

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