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An aura, according to New Age metaphysics, is a colored outline, or set of contiguous outlines, allegedly emanating from the surface of an object. Auras are not to be confused with the aureoles or halos of saints, which are devices of Christian iconography used to depict the radiance of light associated with divine infusion. In the New Age, even the lowly amoeba has an aura, as does the mosquito and every lump of goat dung. The aura supposedly reflects a supernatural energy field or life force that permeates all things. Human auras allegedly emerge from the chakras. Under ordinary circumstances, auras are only visible to certain people with special psychic power. However, with a little bit of training, or with a special set of Aura Goggles with "pinacyanole bromide" filters (available at your local New Age Head Shop), anyone can see auras. You may also use Kirlian photography to capture auras on film. At least that is what New Age spiritualists believe.
On the other hand, you may also see auras if you have a migraine, a certain form of epilepsy, a visual system disorder or a brain disorder. These auras, however, are somewhat different from the kind encouraged by most aura training exercises. These involve staring at an object placed against a white background in a dimly lit room. What one sees is due to retinal fatigue and other natural perceptual processes, not the unleashing of hidden psychic powers. Something similar happens when you stare at certain colored or black and white patterns. Vision is not the verbatim recording of the outside world. When looking at a colored object, for example, the eye does not transmit to the brain a continuous series of duplicate impressions. The brain itself supplies much of the visual perception. In short, even if auras are perceived, that is not good evidence that there is an energy field in the physical or supernatural world corresponding to the perceptions.
Some psychics claim that the specific colors in auras have specific meanings. Edgar Cayce, for example, not only gave a meaning to each of seven colors, he also connected each color with a note on the musical scale, a planet in the solar system, and possible health disorders. Robert Bruce, an aura expert in his own mind, objects to the notion that specific colors have specific meanings. In his view, even colors have auras, so what color clothing you have on will affect the color of your aura. According to Bruce,
The human aura is both an energy field and a reflection of the subtle life energies within the body. These energies make us what we are and in turn, are affected by our surroundings and life style. The aura reflects our health, character, mental activity and emotional state. It also shows disease - often long before the onset of symptoms.
The notion that auras reflect health is a common one among true believers. The problem is, what color reflects what condition? There is no consensus on what the colors mean, which makes it difficult if not impossible to devise an empirical test to determine whether there is any correlation between specific colors and specific diseases. In other words, reading auras is something like reading Rorschach tests with the added difficulty of each psychic potentially seeing a different pattern.
For every other object of color we have scientific devices which can measure any energy emitted from the object, as well as the wavelengths of light reflected from the object. Even though equipment exists capable of measuring extremely minute energy levels, no one has ever detected an aura or the alleged energy that gives rise to an aura using scientific equipment. Human tissue is about a million times less sensitive than something like a PET scanner, yet we are supposed to believe that some special people can "see" what cannot otherwise be detected. Or, we are supposed to believe that we all have the power to see auras but somehow we have repressed or never trained our psychic selves to unleash the power within.
Furthermore, the best aura reader in the West was tested before a live television audience and failed miserably. The Berkeley Psychic Institute (BPI) sent their top aura reader for a chance to win $10,000 if she could prove her powers. She agreed that the devised test was a fair and accurate. The test was televised on a program hosted by Bill Bixby. James Randi put up the $10,000. The psychic was presented with about twenty people on stage and was asked if she could see their auras. She said that she could see the auras, they all had one and they emanated at least a foot or two above each person's head. The twenty aura-wearing people then went offstage. A curtain was lifted, revealing a number of partitions behind which only some of the twenty people were standing. Thus, Bixby and the psychic were looking at twenty partitions but only several of them had a person behind it. The psychic was asked if she could see any auras creeping up above the partitions. She said she could. To get her ten grand all she had to do was correctly identify each partition that had a person behind it. She was to do this by seeing each person's aura above the partition. The audience was given an aerial camera view of the proceeding. Well, the psychic claimed that she saw an aura above all the partitions and that there was a person behind each partition. The partitions were removed, revealing about 6 people behind the partitions. The psychic didn't even seem surprised. She might console herself that 6 out of 20 is not bad in a hostile arena.
Of course, the test only demonstrates the lack of aura reading power of one person, not that there is no such thing as an aura or that auras are not indicative of mental, emotional and physical health or sickness. However, Randi's offer is still open to any psychic who wants to try it, except that now the prize is over $1,000,000. Hurry, though, the offer ends March 6, 2010.* Why is there not a line of psychics outside Randi's house? If what the psychics say is true about auras and reading them, taking this money would be easier than taking candy from a baby. Even if there are no poor psychics who need the money, they might still demonstrate their powers and give the prize to their favorite charity.
The Berkeley Psychic Institute has a special place in my heart. One day a few years ago, I noticed a poster from BPI on a bulletin board near my office at Sacramento City College. In addition to information about BPI, the poster exclaimed: You may not be psychotic, you may be psychic! I wrote a note to our school psychologist who handled the "psychologically challenged" at the time. I told her I was concerned about the poster. She wrote me back and asked me how in the world did I know that she had attended BPI. (If I occasionally express a bit of disdain for psychologists and therapists, please keep in mind that I have had a traumatic adulthood, dotted with experiences such as this one. I know. I should have told her I was psychic.)
I was familiar with BPI from their work at an annual local affair. Every year in May at the University of California at Davis there is a Whole Earth Festival reminiscent of the sixties. For three days the campus is filled with tie-dyed shirts, psychedelic music, incense burning, children with flowers in their hair, marijuana smoking, gurus, massages with scented oils, handcrafts, the latest in New Age healing and religion, karma patrol (for those who overdose on drugs), etc. The Aura Reading Booth is run by BPI. For a few dollars, one sits in a chair in the great outdoors with the music playing, the incense wafting, and people swaying while someone from BPI reads your aura. Actually, the BPI psychic uses colored crayons to fill in a piece of paper pre-printed with a series of outlines in the vague shape of a person. Then the psychic tells you what your aura reveals. They only charge a few dollars and for the longest time I considered their activity a harmless parlor game. But now I feel I should put up posters near their booth saying, If you see auras, you may not be psychic; you may have a brain or vision disorder. See your physician ASAP.
In the October 2004 issue of Cognitive Neuropsychology (vol. 21 no. 7), Dr. Jamie Ward of University College London’s Psychology Department "documented a woman known as GW who could see colors like purple and blue in response to people she knew or their names when read to her," a condition known as emotion-color synesthesia.
Synaesthesia is a condition found in 1 in 2000 people in which stimulation of one sense produces a response in one or more of the other senses. For example, people with synaesthesia may experience shapes with tastes or smells with sounds. It is thought to originate in the brain and some scientists believe it might be caused by a cross-wiring in the brain, for example between centres involved in emotional processing and smell perception. Synaesthesia is known to run in families.*
Dr. Ward writes:
The ability of some people to see the coloured auras of others has held an important place in folklore and mysticism throughout the ages. Although many people claiming to have such powers could be charlatans, it is also conceivable that others are born with a gift of synaesthesia.
GW does not believe she has mystical powers and has no interest in the occult, but it is not hard to imagine how, in a different age or culture, such an interpretation could arise.
Rather than assuming that people give off auras or energy fields that can only be detected by rigged cameras or trained seers, we need only assume that the phenomenon of synaesthesia is taking place.
Some synesthetes perceive numbers or letters as having colors or days of the week as possessing personalities.* A rare form of synaesthesia was discovered by Dr Melissa Saenz of the California Institute of Technology: people who hear sounds, such as tapping, beeping, or whirring, when they see things move or flash.*
Thus, perhaps some cases of seeing auras can be explained by synesthesia rather than assuming that auras are energies given off by chakras or signs of delusion or fraud.
this article is also available in Polish: http://www.pkwteile.de/wissen/aura
and German: http://www.gutscheindrache.com/wissen/auren/
books and articles
Robertson, Lynn C. and Noam Sagiv, editors. 2004. Synesthesia:
Perspectives from Cognitive Neuroscience. Oxford University Press.
Sacks, Oliver W. An anthropologist on Mars : seven paradoxical tales (New York : Knopf, 1995).
Ward, Jamie (2004). Emotionally mediated synaesthesia. Cognitive Neuropsychology. Vol. 21 no. 7. 761-772.
Energy Healing: Looking in All the Wrong Places by Robert Todd Carroll
Aura Photography: A Candid Shot by Joe Nickell, Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2000
Perception (Evan Pritchard, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, University of Winnipeg)
Illusions (Dave Landrigan, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, University of Massachusetts Lowell)
Rainbow Coalition of the Brain by Rowan Hooper, Wired, March 4, 2005