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Ever heard the expression ‘Your eyes are playing tricks on you?’ Well, in some cases they might be! In this lesson, we’ll talk about the perceptual illusion known as the phi phenomenon. Then, you’ll be able to test your new knowledge with a quiz.

What Is the Phi Phenomenon?

Remember those books of still images, known as flip books that you had as a child? When you rapidly flipped the pages, it appeared as if the still images were actually moving.

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This is a kind of optical illusion of sorts, and it’s a good example of the phi phenomenon, a psychological term that describes the optical illusion of seeing a series of still images as moving.Here’s the most common example of this: When you go to a movie theater, you see a rapid succession of still frames that make up the whole movie. But it doesn’t look to your eyes like the film reel is flipping through a bunch of frames. It looks like one complete image.The discovery of the phi phenomenon is attributed to Max Wertheimer, a German psychologist who studied sensation and perception. To demonstrate how the phi phenomenon works, researchers projected a line on the left side of a projector, and then a line on the right side of the projector.

They did this in rapid succession. When asked what they saw, people observing indicated that they saw one line moving back and forth.Basically, Wertheimer argued our brain filled in the space between the two lines, making it seem like the line on the left was moving to the right, instead of the two stationary lines that were shown. The faster these two lines are shown in succession, the more our brain tricks our eyes into thinking it’s one line moving back and forth.

Beta Movement

The phi phenomenon is quite similar to another perceptual illusion described by Wertheimer, called beta movement, an allusion in which your brain combines two images or more, which you then you perceive them as moving.

So, for example, say you’re looking at a computer screen and see several dots arranged in a circle. Then, each dot in the circle blinks in a clockwise fashion. What is really happening is that each circle is lighting up, but what it looks like to your eyes is that one circle is jumping around in a clockwise motion.

The difference between phi movement and beta movement is this: in phi movement, your brain is filling a gap where there isn’t really an image, and in beta movement, your brain sees a series of images as one image changing location.

How Does the Phi Phenomenon Occur?

The phi phenomenon is an important contribution to a field of psychology known as Gestalt psychology. Gestalt psychologists try to understand how humans perceive things in our world.Put another way, Gestalt psychologists want to understand the parts of a whole. The nature of optical illusions is not yet fully understood by psychologists and other scientists, but it’s likely related to the ways that your brain and your optic nerve, which transmits signals from your brain to your eye, communicate with one another.

The persistence of vision is a term that describes the blending of multiple images into one image in the mind. Basically, this theory, which is most often used in film theory, argues that the disappearance of a stimuli happens more slowly in our brain than in reality. In other words, an image remains in our eye for a bit longer, even after it’s disappeared in reality. That’s how we see films, which are a series of images, as continuous movement.

Lesson Summary

The phi phenomenon is a type of perceptual illusion that tricks your eyes into thinking that still images are actually moving. Perceptual illusions are part of a field of psychology known as Gestalt psychology.

The underlying causes and mechanisms for optical illusions are not yet completely understood, but it is generally thought that it happens due to communication between the brain and the optic nerve.

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