Out-of-Body Experiences: The Psychology of Seeing Auras
Part 6: Kirlian photography, synesthesia, and why some people see auras.
Posted July 25, 2019 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
In my previous post, I explored claims that psychics can see a human aura, with experiments showing that the aura is not physically present around people’s bodies.
One final claim worth testing is that auras can be captured with something called Kirlian photography. This method, invented in 1939 by the Russian engineer Semyon Kirlian, involves placing photographic paper or film over a metal plate connected to a high-voltage, high-frequency power supply. With a brief exposure, this method does indeed produce auras surrounding, for example, a finger, a hand or even a coin or a leaf. Superficially the effect does look something like the claimed human aura.
In 1975, before I knew anything about the physics involved, I bought a Kirlian machine and took dozens of pictures, developing them myself in our bathroom "darkroom." I photographed hands, feet and fingers, insects, leaves and even our cat’s paw but I was gradually disillusioned by what I found. I also learned something about the physics involved. It turns out that the Kirlian effect is produced by the well-understood phenomenon of corona discharge brought on by the ionization of an electrically charged conductor.
The final straw came when I thought to photograph two fingers pointing towards each other. I remembered that when I saw auras after my OBE, I could reach out toward Kevin or Vicki’s hands and their auras would stretch out toward mine. It was a rather nice and friendly feeling and I subsequently discovered that mediums and aura-seers describe a similar effect. But Kirlian photography does not. Place two fingers pointing at each other on the plate and the "aura" of each repels the other — just as would be expected from two negatively charged objects coming together. The corona discharge is not the etheric or astral aura.
So what did I see and touch? I am happy to believe that, like all the psychics and mediums tested, I would fail the doorway test. Yet this experience of seeing my own and others’ auras was vivid, as was the sense of feeling it with my hands around Kevin’s body. And I am not alone. In Iceland, 5 percent of the public said they had seen the aura (Haraldsson 1985), and in an American survey, 5 percent of the public and 6 percent of students had (Palmer 1979). In a small study of OBErs, half saw objects as transparent or glowing or with auras around them. So there does seem to be a connection between the OBE and aura-seeing. Again I find I am not alone, but if the aura is not a physically existing emanation around the human body, what is it?
Could it be imagined, even though it appears so realistic? The failure of doorway tests led some researchers to think so (Gissurarson & Gunnarsson ( 1997) and others tried to find out.
Alvarado and Zingrone (1994) at the University of Edinburgh compared 19 aura-seers with a control group who had never seen auras and found they scored higher on both the Vividness of Visual Imagery Questionnaire and the Inventory of Childhood Memories and Imaginings. They more often saw apparitions, had mystical experiences and "seeing with eyes closed" — a strangely interesting experience I shall return to in future posts.
They also had more OBEs. So this confirms a link between OBEs and auras, and gives a clue that imagination is involved but why are auras typically seen as right there in physical space? Tart concluded that an imagined aura with no objective existence was projected beyond the seen body, but how?
One promising idea involves synaesthesia, and some people with synaesthesia do report aura-like experiences (Cytowic 2008). Synaesthesia is a mixing of the senses, in which sounds can become colors or tastes have shapes. Many children experience the world this way but lose the ability with age, leaving some adults with weak synaesthesia and just a few (about 4%) as true synaesthetes. In the most common type of synaesthesia, color-grapheme synaesthesia, one person might see the number 2 as green and 3 as orange, while another sees 2 as blue and 3 as lurid pink. These colors leap out from written text and have been shown to last for decades if not a lifetime (Ramachandran and Hubbard 2001). Could the colors of the aura come about in a similar way? Might the aura-seer look at a person and then intuitively convert their impressions into color?
Some synaesthetes associate colors with human faces and forms but a study of four such people did not find their experiences were like seeing auras (Milán et al 2012). Even so, there are links between auras and synaesthesia.
In their classic study of LSD, a psychedelic drug with a reputation for inducing synaesthesia (Luke & Terhune 2013), Masters and Houston found "a fairly common experience where the subject seems to himself to project his consciousness away from his body and then is able to see his body as if he were standing off to one side of it or looking down on it from above." Some said they could "move about in something like the 'astral body' familiar to occultists" and some identify this astral body with an “'aura' they earlier had perceived as radiating from them, an 'energy force field' surrounding the body. The perception of the aura by psychedelic subjects is very common." (Masters & Houston 1967 p 86).
Another idea that I have begun exploring is that the bodily shape of the aura is created by a misplaced body schema. In other words, the continuous representation we have of our own body shape is projected onto another person. I shall delve into the nature of the body schema and the ways in which it can be distorted and exteriorized when I come back to the science of OBEs. For now, we have at least learned that there really is a link between OBEs and seeing auras, even if we don’t yet understand why.
In my new book, Seeing Myself (Blackmore 2017), I describe auras in more detail, and in the next few posts, I will delve further into the potential of the human brain.
Alvarado, C. S., & Zingrone, N. L. 1994. Individual differences in aura vision: Relationships to visual imagery and imaginative-fantasy experiences. European Journal of Parapsychology, 10, 1-30
Blackmore, S 2017 Seeing Myself: The new science of out-of-body experiences, London, Robinson ISBN-10:1472137361 and 2019, New York
Cytowic, R. E. (2008). The man who tasted shapes. MIT press.
Gissurarson, L.R. and Gunnarsson, A. 1997 An experiment with the alleged human aura. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 91, 33-49
Haraldsson, E. 1985. Representative national surveys of psychic phenomena: Iceland, Great Britain, Sweden, USA and Gallup's multinational survey. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 53, 145-158
Luke, D. P., & Terhune, D. B. 2013. The induction of synaesthesia with chemical agents: a systematic review. Frontiers in psychology, 4: 753
Masters, R. E. and Houston, J. 1967 The Varieties of Psychedelic Experience. London, Anthony Blond
Milán, E. G., Iborra, O., Hochel, M., Artacho, M. R., Delgado-Pastor, L. C., Salazar, E., & González-Hernández, A. 2012. Auras in mysticism and synaesthesia: A comparison. Consciousness and cognition, 21(1), 258-268.
Palmer,J. 1979 A community mail survey of psychic experiences Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 73 221-252
Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. 2001. Synaesthesia--a window into perception, thought and language. Journal of consciousness studies, 8(12), 3-34.