What's Happening? What Causes the Colors?

The retina of the eye is composed of two types of receptors sensitive to light: cones and rods. Cones are important for color vision and for seeing in bright light. There are three types of cones, each of which is most sensitive to a particular wavelength of light. Rods are important for seeing in low light.

It is possible that the colors seen in spinning Benham disks are the result of changes that occur in the retina and other parts of the visual system. For example, the spinning disks may activate neighboring areas of the retina differently. In other words, the black and white areas of the disk stimulate different parts of the retina. This alternating response may cause some type of interaction within the nervous system that generates colors.

Another theory is that different types of cones take different times to respond and that they stay activated for different amounts of time. Therefore, when you spin the disk, the white color activates all three types of cones, but then the black deactivates them. The activation/deactivation sequence causes an imbalance because the different types of cones take different times to respond and stay on for different times. This imbalance in information going to the brain results in colors.

Neither of these theories explains the colors of Benham's disk completely and the reason behind the illusion remains unsolved.