I don’t think I’ve ever written about occult-type beliefs. Well, I suppose it’s about time.
The other day one of my friends — who says his religion is “eclectic paganism” — made a Facebook update with a colorful picture. I feel a little guilty picking on the guy, so instead of posting the image I will describe it. It has a black background, and the majority of the image is a rough egg shape. Most of this is a red-orange blob at the bottom, and it’s topped with a lilac blob that wraps around the top. It’s a beautiful image that conjures the aurora borealis. The caption on the image stated that he had recently attended a “psychic fair” and had his “aura photographed.” This is called Kirlian Photography. Here’s a news article from 2010 about abandoned aura research.
Last night this popped up in my newsfeed. Red is the same guy.
I’m not merely an atheist. I’m also a skeptic.
First, Yellow should know how true this is. It’s not true! Even if auras existed you wouldn’t be able to determine what color yours is based on an Internet questionnaire. But more importantly, no one who claims to be able to prove that auras exist have ever demonstrated that they do. The Amazing James Randi has offered them opportunity after opportunity (the $1,000,000 offer’s still on the table, by the way) to show under laboratory conditions that auras exist. Here’s a video from his television series where he debunks the aura myth:
I know what some people would say: “But your friend didn’t claim to be able to see auras, just that cameras can photograph them.” Well, I went to EBSCOhost and searched for “Kirlian Photography Aura” under Scholarly Peer-Reviewed Journals. First, Kirlian Photography had several hits, but most of them were from medical journals because Kirlian Photography has been used in medical research — with dubious and inconsistent results — to detect moisture in living tissue. Other hits came from the journal History of Photography, which — like you’d imagine — is an article about Kirlian Photography, not actual research.
Next, an article titled “Auras in mysticism and synaesthesia: A comparison” from Consciousness and Cognition (Volume 21, Issue 1, March 2012, Pages 258–268) by E.G. Milán (et al) has a very interesting quote about auras. I will reproduce it in its entirety here:
Claims made by people claiming to be psychic, or aura readers, can be alternatively explained by proven science. Duerden (2004b) shows how phenomena which arise as a consequence of the normal functioning of the human visual system can explain the purported direct experience of the aura. For instance, the complementary colour effect, which results from a temporary ‘‘exhaustion’’ of the colour-sensitive cells in the retina, could account for the presence of auric colours seen by a sensitive viewer when staring at a person. Staring at a darker object (a human figure) against a bright background may induce the perception of a bright ‘‘halo’’ around the object. This is due to a contrast amplification mechanism ‘‘built-in’’ to the human visual system, which allows for an efficient detection of edges. (See the original paper by Duerden, 2004b, for a detailed description of this and other optical illusions.)
In other words, we can explain via science why people see “auras.” It’s not supernatural.
Next is the article “The theosophists’ aura vision and the visual migraine aura: A phenomenological comparison” by K. Podoll (et al) from the journal Neurology Psychiatry and Brain Research (Volume 11, Issue 4, 2004, Pages 171-178), which states:
A comparison of Theosophists’ descriptions of the aura with medical reports of various visual migraine aura phenomena, especially the corona phenomenon and the pericentral spectrum, reveals striking similarities which suggest that the supposedly paranormal experience of aura vision may represent, at least in some subjects, a visual aura symptom of migraine.
In other words, aura sightings and migraines are, in many cases, indistinguishable.
In Nursing Times an article titled “Aura photography: mundane physics or diagnostic tool?” by P.A. Frédéric Vogt (et al) (Volume 92, Issue 25, June 19-25, 1996, Pages 39-41) was unfortunately unavailable. But I did have access to the abstract:
Kirlian photography is often associated with the paranormal. Many people believe it records the auras of living objects and that it can be used as a diagnostic tool. This paper argues against these beliefs and maintains that there is a simple, scientific explanation of the Kirlian effect.
What that explanation is, I’d really like to know. I’ll see if I can track down a copy of the article and amend this post later.
My review of the literature could not find much more about auras and Kirlian Photography. A few articles appeared in religious (that is, not scientific) journals. There were also a few entries in physics journals, which attempted to use the Kirlian technology for other purposes, with no discernible results. If you feel I’ve missed something important, feel free to post the title, date, and publication of the article in the comments below. I’ll check it out.
Kirlian Photography produces very remarkable and beautiful images, but they are not images of auras. The paranormal and supernatural explanations for auras and aura photography are contradicted by what the scientific community has discovered. If you go to a psychic fair to have your aura photographed, you’re basically spending your money on a pretty picture taken by a very expensive camera.