Fechner color

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The Fechner color effect is an illusion of color seen when looking at certain rapidly changing or moving black-and-white patterns. They are also called pattern induced flicker colors (PIFCs).

The effect is most commonly demonstrated with a device known as Benham's top (also called Benham's disk). When the top is spun, arcs of pale color are visible at different places on the disk that forms its upper surface. The effect can also be seen in stroboscopic lights when flashes are set at certain critical speeds. Rotating fan blades, particularly aluminum ones, can also demonstrate the effect; as the fan accelerates or decelerates, the colors appear, drift, change and disappear. The stable running speed of the fan does not (normally) produce colors, suggesting that it is not an interference effect with the frequency of the illumination flicker.

A sample of a Benham's top (animated version)

The effect was noted by Gustav Fechner and Hermann von Helmholtz and propagated to English-speakers through Charles Benham's invention of his top. Florence Winger Bagley was one of the early investigators of this phenomenon.[1]

The perceptual mechanism of Fechner color is not entirely understood.[2] One possible reason people see colors may be that the color receptors in the human eye respond at different rates to red, green, and blue.[citation needed] Or, more specifically, that the latencies of the center and the surrounding mechanisms differ for the different types of color-specific ganglion cells.[citation needed]

The phenomenon originates from neural activity in the retina and spatial interactions in the primary visual cortex, which plays a role in encoding low-level image features, such as edges and spatiotemporal frequency components.[3] Research indicates that the blue-yellow opponent process accounts for all the different PIFCs.[4]

Research has been done into the use of Benham's top and other PIFCs as diagnostic tools for diseases of the eye and the visual track. It has shown particular promise in detecting optic neuritis.[5]

Benham's top[edit]

Benham's top is named after the English newspaper-man, amateur scientist, and toymaker Charles Benham, who in 1895 sold a top painted with the pattern shown. Benham was inspired to propagate the Fechner color effect through his top after his correspondence with Gustav Theodor Fechner, who had observed and demonstrated the said effect. Benham's top made it possible for speakers of the English language to learn of the Fechner color effect, about which Fechner's original reports were written in German.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bagley, Florence Winger (1902). "An investigation of Fechner's colors". American Journal of Psychology. 14 (4): 488–525. doi:10.2307/1412440. JSTOR 1412440.
  2. ^ Nishiyama, Yutaka (May 2023). "A Dynamic Interference Model for Benham's Top". Journal of Osaka University of Economics. 74 (1): 99. arXiv:2303.04624. Retrieved 10 January 2024.
  3. ^ von Campenhausen C, Schramme J (1995). "100 years of Benham's top in colour science". Perception. 24 (6): 695–717. doi:10.1068/p240695. PMID 7478909. S2CID 45743116.
  4. ^ Schramme J (1992). "Changes in pattern induced flicker colors are mediated by the blue/yellow opponent process". Vision Research. 32 (11): 2129–34. doi:10.1016/0042-6989(92)90074-S. PMID 1304090. S2CID 27439228.
  5. ^ Pilz J, Marre E (1993). "Pattern-induced flicker colors. An ophthalmologic examination method (Article in German)". Ophthalmologe. 90 (2): 148–54. PMID 8490297.

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