Why Do Spinning Fan Blades Seem to Change Direction and Speed?

Explore why spinning fan blades appear to change direction and speed due to the persistence of vision and stroboscopic effect.

Why Do Spinning Fan Blades Seem to Change Direction and Speed?
Photo by National Cancer Institute / Unsplash

If you've ever looked at a spinning metal fan and noticed that the reflection of light on its blades seems to change direction and spin at different speeds at random, you're not alone.

This curious optical illusion can be quite perplexing, but there's a scientific explanation behind this phenomenon.

Persistence of Vision

The human eye has a natural limitation in its ability to perceive fast-moving objects, called the persistence of vision.

The blades on a spinning fan rotate at such high speeds that the human eye cannot keep up, causing the brain to fill in the gaps and create an illusion of motion.

This is similar to the effect observed with the rims on moving cars, where the eyes struggle to keep pace with the spinning rims.

Frame Rate and RPM

The perception of the fan blades moving in reverse is due to a mismatch between the frame rate of the human eye and the revolutions per minute (RPM) of the fan blades.

Simply put, the human eye's frame rate is slower than the RPM of the fan, leading to missed visual information and creating the illusion of the blades changing direction and spinning at different speeds.

Stroboscopic Effect

Another factor at play is the stroboscopic effect, where fast-moving objects appear to move in a series of short jumps rather than in a continuous motion.

This effect occurs when the rotating blades change direction at a rate comparable to the eye's sampling rate, resulting in the perception of erratic and unpredictable motion.


The mesmerizing display of changing reflections and varying speed of spinning fan blades is a result of the intricate interplay between human vision, the RPM of the fan, and the stroboscopic effect.

Next time you find yourself gazing at a spinning fan, take a moment to appreciate the fascinating science behind the mesmerizing visual illusion it creates.