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The phi (φ) phenomenon is an optical illusion that our brain generates by making us believe that a fixed figure is in motion.  The Gestalt school, in fact, defined and coined this term in 1912, in turn serving to prove something important: perception is beyond our senses, beyond what we see or hear.  In reality, it is a mere interpretation of our brain.

The subject is undoubtedly much more interesting than it may seem to us.  We are all struck by these kinds of images where astonishing figures in the most diverse shapes and colours seem to tremble, move, sway shyly before us … Knowing that this movement is not real supposes a small impact that forces us to question several things .

It was Max Wertheimer (1880-1943), one of the founders of the Gestalt School, who first described the so-called phi phenomenon in the field of science.  He did this through a study entitled Experimental Studies on the Perception of Motion (1912) with which he laid the foundation for the psychology of perception.

Max Werheimer

So, as is the case with most discoveries, by chance Dr. Wertheimer found a stroboscope in a railway station.  After that curious discovery, he wondered what had created this fascinating phenomenon.  He knew that this play of geometric figures was not in motion.  Yet his eyes told him it was.  He called this a ‘φ(phi) phenomenon’, to distinguish it from β (beta), where a stimulus has a real and logical ability to move.

Something was happening in this type of figure and Dr Wertheimer wanted to understand what caused it.

The phi phenomenon differs from classical optical illusions in several ways.  To begin with, what is generally there is a succession of similar figures.  These are still images; however, if these images are played back in front of our eyes one by one and at a certain speed, we get the feeling that they are moving, when in fact they are not.

Max Wertheimer showed that if we show a succession of static images at a specific speed, our brain interprets it as something that is in motion.

This phenomenon is in turn related to retinal persistence.  This concept is based on the idea that images remain ‘imprinted’ on our retina for a small fragment of a second.  If we quickly pass many images in front of the human eye, the brain will not be able to differentiate one figure from another in isolation.

This means that it ends up interpreting (wrongly) that it is the same moving object.

Eadweard Muybridge

It is important to emphasise that the Phi phenomenon was not Max Wertheimer’s innovation for the world of scientific psychology.  In fact, this type of perceptual experience was already known in the field of photography.  In fact, one of the best known exponents was the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904).

His work was revolutionary for its time.  It was 1878 and Muybridge had already invented what he called chronophotography.  One of his best known works was to photograph the movements of a horse (The Horse In Motion) and its rider during a race using 24 cameras lined up on the track.  After obtaining and developing the images, he knew that exposing them at a certain speed generated real movement and if the images were shown at a sufficient speed and repeated once the last frame was reached, it gave the illusion of movement.  Here, then, is what is known as one of the world’s first films, with the impressive duration of 3 seconds.

It should be noted that this research by Max Wertheimer and his theory of the phi-phenomenon contributed to the development of cinema, with the classic frames following one after the other.

Animation and cinema are possible thanks to this limitation of our visual perception.  Because of this peculiarity of our vision we experience a spectacle falsified by our senses.

So why did I call my page Phi Phenomenon?

I wanted to combine my passion for photography with recent studies on film editing.

And my logo (thanks to Gionata`s great work) is actually a frame of Muybridge`s famous Horse in Motion.

“Photography is truth and cinema is truth 24 times a second” (Jean Luc Godard)

Thank you very much for your time, a new article soon.


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