Color phi phenomenon

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The color phi phenomenon is the fact that, when apparent motion is induced between objects with different colors, the color of the apparently moving object abruptly changes midway along the path. It is a perceptual illusion described by psychologists Paul Kolers and Michael von Grünau[1] in which a disembodied perception of motion is produced by a succession of still images. The color phi phenomenon is a more complex variation of the phi phenomenon. Kolers and von Grünau originally investigated the phenomenon in response to a question posed by the philosopher Nelson Goodman, who asked what the effect of the color change would have on the phi phenomenon.

The classic color phi phenomenon experiment involves a viewer or audience watching a screen, upon which the experimenter projects two images in succession. The first image depicts a blue dot at the top of the frame. The second image depicts a red dot on the bottom of the frame. The images may be shown quickly, in rapid succession, or each frame may be given several seconds of viewing time. Once both images have been projected, the experimenter asks the viewer or audience to describe what they saw.

At certain combinations of spacing and timing of the two images, a viewer will report a sensation of motion in the space between the two dots. The first spot will begin to appear to be moving, and will then "change color abruptly in the middle of its illusory path".

What is actually shown: First a blue dot is shown at the top of the screen, followed by a period of blank screen. Finally a red dot is shown at the bottom of the screen.
Subjects report seeing a dot that moves from the top to the bottom. The dot changes color midway through its path.

Philosophical significance[edit]

The existence of the color phi phenomenon poses an interesting philosophical problem. When asked to describe their experience, subjects report seeing the abrupt color change before the second dot is presented. However, it is impossible for a subject to actually experience the color change before the second dot has been presented.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett utilizes the color phi phenomenon in his argument against a philosophy known as Cartesian materialism.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kolers, Paul A.; von Grünau, Michael (1976). "Shape and color in apparent motion". Vision Research. 16 (4): 329–335. doi:10.1016/0042-6989(76)90192-9. ISSN 0042-6989. PMID 941407. S2CID 19376707.
  2. ^ Dennett, Daniel Clement (1991). Consciousness Explained. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 978-0-316-18065-8.

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