Many different formalisms exist for computing the phase of a matter-wave interferometer. However, it can be challenging to develop physical intuition about what a particular interferometer is actually measuring or about whether a given classical measurement provides equivalent information. Here, we investigate the physical content of the interferometer phase through a series of thought experiments. In low-order potentials, a matter-wave interferometer with a single internal state provides the same information as a sum of position measurements of a classical test object. In high-order potentials, the interferometer phase becomes decoupled from the motion of the interferometer arms, and the phase contains information that cannot be obtained by any set of position measurements on the interferometer trajectory. This phase shift in a high-order potential fundamentally distinguishes matter-wave interferometers from classical measuring devices.

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