From Abracadabra to Zombies
27 April 2009
I am 61 years old and in recent years often see distinct rainbow-coloured auras or haloes around everyday light sources both indoors and outdoors, most commonly towards evening. My optician tells me (I simplify, no doubt at some loss of accuracy) that the effect is caused by refraction due to water in the eye, and by implication that it is an effect of age. I find this mundane explanation, which is wholly intelligible in accordance with science as we know it, completely acceptable. It is an instance of the adage that when you hear hoofbeats, you should think of horses not centaurs.
Many thanks for your website, which I read daily and recommend with the same frequency.
17 April 2009
I know you probably get a lot of e-mails like this, but I have a friend (named Steven) who has seen auras his entire life. Being scientifically minded, he is quite skeptical of the existence of "life force", and doubts that aura colors have any specific meaning (And, if it matters, so am I.) The "energy" which psychics speak of is spoken of as defying the laws of physics which govern energy [e.g., the law of inertia], disqualifying it as energy; one should rather term it "power". And if such power existed, the resulting paradox in the way the universe functions would, I believe, cause the very existence of the universe to cease. [But we're still breathing, aren't we?])
reply: According to some psychics, the universe has already ceased to exist....many times, in fact. More important, we know that vision is a function of the brain, which magically creates a 3-dimensional, colored world for consciousness, a world that doesn't exist outside of consciousness. We have good reason for believing that something exists outside of consciousness that is providing the brain with data, and science is able to discover a few things about the nature of this data. The bottom line, though, is that seeing an aura does not imply that there is a real thing existing outside of the mind that is surrounding objects of perception, much less that this object is colored.
Steven sees auras around the most sterile and lifeless objects, and hypothesizes that he may simply be seeing in near-ultraviolet.
reply: At least one study has shown that near ultraviolet stimuli are visible to the young human eye. Whether this could be related to seeing auras is something I can't comment on due to profound ignorance regarding vision and neurology. I like to speculate, however, since it is so much fun, especially when I have no idea what I'm talking about. I think it's a disease that I caught from contact over many years with some very interesting, though odd, people.
Later in your letter, you speculate about synaesthesia being related to your friend's seeing auras. I think that could explain what's going on. While Googling this topic I came upon a website run by a reiki practitioner who sees auras. One line of his stuck out:
What I had seen visually was the same as the general physical vitality that I had felt kinesthetically during the scanning process prior to starting the client’s Reiki session.
I suspect this fellow is a synaesthete. Your friend may be one, too. Certainly, something neurological is going on.
He does, however, state that organisms, especially organisms which are large and complex (e.g., dogs, human beings) have stronger auras. He notes that different psychological states tend to correspond to changes in the size and color of a creature's aura. He notes that solid obstructions render invisible the auras of concealed objects. He is rather amused by the pop culture fascination with auras, just I am amused by the pop culture fascination with lucid dreams (most of my dreams are lucid, and never really gave me a paradigm shift or peak experience or the like.)
I am a layman, but I think I might have an answer to my friend's condition: Steven is unusually sensitive to pheromones, and has a sort of olfactory-visual synaesthesia. When the atmospheric pheromone level is low, he sees purple (as he describes the auras of inanimate objects). All other aura colors may correspond to certain pheromones.
Thank you for your time.
reply: You may be right about the synaesthesia, but the fact that the size of the object and his own emotional state affect his perception makes me wonder if something else isn't going on. Anyway, I don't know what evidence you might have for claiming he's sensitive to pheromones. The scientific evidence, so far however, has not found good evidence for human pheromone production or olfactory detection. In a recent article, Simon LeVay wrote:
Sex pheromones were first identified in insects, where they function as powerful come-hither signals, luring prospective mates from blocks away. Many non-human mammals also release sex-specific odorants, and these are detected by a special sense organ in the nose called the vomeronasal organ or VNO. The cells in the VNO of rodents possess a special suite of receptor molecules not found in the regular olfactory mucosa, and nerves run from this organ to parts of the brain that deal with sexual behavior. When a rodent's VNO is blocked, its sex life is seriously disrupted, a bit like the effect that graduate school has on humans.
The main proponents of the idea that humans have a comparable system have been entrepreneur David Berliner (founder of the Erox Corporation) and neurophysiologist Luis Monti-Bloch of the University of Utah. In a series of well-publicized studies in the early 1990s, Monti-Bloch claimed to find a VNO in the human nose, and identified two chemicals in human sweat that triggered specific electrical activity in the VNO: one that worked on men, the other on women. Monti-Bloch and Berliner reported that these chemicals, metabolic derivates of sex hormones, induced a sense of well being in those who smelled them. These chemicals became the active ingredients in Berliner's Realm perfumes.
Over the last twelve months, however, a slew of studies have cast doubt on the very existence of the VNO system in humans. Three groups of researchers (at the University of Texas, at the Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, and at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris) searched for a VNO in the noses of a large number of living persons. The two U.S. groups found evidence for a VNO in only a minority of people. The French group did estimate that as many as seventy-three percent of the population might have some trace of a VNO, but when they examined histological specimens of the structure under the microscope, they found no receptor cells and no nerve fibers connecting them to the brain. This finding is consistent with earlier anatomical studies suggesting that the VNO is a vestigial structure in humans — a relic of our evolutionary past that forms during embryonic life but then usually atrophies, even in the French.
The article reports on other criticisms of human pheromone studies, including the one that claims that women who live together menstruate together because of a pheromone mechanism. In short, it's possible your friend has an active VNO, unlike other modern humans. My guess, however, is that pheromones aren't part of the mechanism that leads him to see auras. It is more likely something in his visual system, perhaps something to do with synaesthesia, but not necessarily.
Your friend sounds like someone that V. S. Ramachandran might like to study. He's certainly not suffering from a disabling disorder, but he is unusual and could contribute to our understanding of visual perception.________________
9 Dec 2004
I took the trouble to follow the link to the Thiaoouba Prophecy page on reading auras [See following letter.]. It gives clear instructions on how to read auras - unusually clear, in my experience. But as far as I could see the business of aura reading comes down to physiology of ordinary vision.
When you stare at a fixed point for 30 seconds, the light receptors in your retina get tired - they are not evolved for that sort of behaviour. The receptors that _are_ responding to the colour get saturated and eventually stop reporting the colour, while those that respond to the opposite colour become sensitised. So when you look away, they respond by "seeing" the opposite colour for a while. This effect doesn't just happen with vision. You can get the same effect with your ears - just spin around a few times, and when you stop you will have the sensation of motion. You can get the same effect with heat sensation: put one hand in warm water and one in cool for a minute, then swap hands. You can get the same effect with muscles. When I have difficulty deciding which of two packages is heavier, I hold them at arm's length for a while, then swap, and the difference in weights is exaggerated. So there's nothing very unusual in this aspect of vision.
It's also hard to fixate on a spot: your eyes jitter around it. Again, presumably we have not evolved to stare at things for long periods, because there's not much value in it.
The combination of these two effects is sufficient to explain the aura effect that is reported in the Thiaoouba Prophecy pages. Fixating renders your eye hypersensitive to complementary colour, and jitter means that your eye moves slightly, away from the fixated view. When this happens, you see the complementary colour (according to your eyes' definitions of complementary) around the edge of the object. It helps to have a white background, just as the Thiaoouba Prophecy page says. And yes, anyone can do it, just as anyone can make themselves dizzy.
I've not looked at any other aura pages, but if this is all there is to
it, how on earth did the whole aura industry come about? It's no more
significant than pressing your finger in your eye and thereby seeing the
"true reality" that underlies the world we know.
reply: I think the phenomenon you're talking about is retinal fatigue. Some of my students tell me about a psychology professor at my college who teaches students to see auras by having them stare at an object placed against a white background. I think this could be a good lesson to teach people about perception, illusion, misinterpretation of sense data, and the like. But I find it reprehensible to use this kind of demo to show people how to see "auras."
22 Nov 2004
I think you might have made an error in your remarks about migraines.
I think you failed to pick up an interesting point from your correspondent Stephen Mosher who said he could see auras and maybe you could too. From his very modest substantive claim (he doesn't see colours, what he he sees is not very wide) it sounds to me like he might be describing an instance of the optical illusion known as "Mach Bands". Outside of specially designed illusions it's quite a subtle effect and you'd need a fairly plain background to be able to see it on a person.
The effect is explained by 'lateral inhibition' in the visual system - a contrast enhancement effect. Here are some references, skimmed off the top of a Google search - it's one of those "known to all psychology students" effects (I was once a psychology undergraduate myself, a very long time ago - so I have no claims of great expertise).
Your remarks about migraine auras surprised me. I get migraine equivalents (all the symptoms except the headaches - more common than most people realise) and despite being denoted by the same word, a migraine aura is nothing like the descriptions of a 'psychic' aura because it does not follow the contours of objects and people: it seems more like some shimmering zigzag thing 'stuck' to your visual field, like something stuck to a pair of glasses.
Other types of effect I've occasionally experienced are 'shooting stars' and blind spots and these also do not fit the bill. Again there's plenty of stuff on the web about this, and I'm simply not convinced that migraines are a good explanation for a belief in 'psychic' auras. (Apparently Hildegard of Bingen in the 13th century mistook her migraine auras for mystical visions sent by god and actually the colours are very pretty if you're lucky enough not to get the headache afterwards!)
reply: According to Timothy Hain, M.D.,
About 20% of migraine's are preceded by an "aura", meaning visual symptoms, dizziness, numbness, or weakness. In fact, about 1% of the time, the aura may dominate the migraine, and there may be minimal or no headache ! Migraine auras should last 5 to 60 min. Visual auras begin in central field of vision and move to the periphery. Another common visual aura is a scotoma (black spot). There is a genre of art called "migraine art", based on migraine aura. There are also sensory auras -- they often move from hand to arm to face and ipsilateral tongue. Presumably, any part of the brain might have an aura. The possibilities are endless !
According to Dr. Hain, "migraine auras, which are often very colorful, structured, and have strong emotional connotations, have long been interesting to artists." He has even posted some paintings done by one of his patients to illustrate the migraine aura. Mr. Parkinson is quite right. These visual auras only vaguely resemble the kinds of auras allegedly generated by chakras or astral bodies.
Another M.D., Klaus Podoll, has a website devoted to migraine art.
11 Nov 2004
I found your page on auras to be disgustingly vague and filled with ideas that lead people away from the idea that auras may be real, without divulging scientific information that supports the theory that they are in fact real.
Auras are based on the principle that all things (living or not) emit vibrations due to the atoms that are constantly clashing together. These vibrations are very near the same frequency as the vibrations in light (or color). This allows us to be able to see the vibrations through the training of our eyesight and concentration.
I refer you to: http://www.thiaoouba.com/seeau.htm.
I do not expect a reply to this but merely hope that you will read it and realize that if there is to be a skeptics dictionary it should contain only fact and not yours or anybody's opinion.
reply: The Thiaoouba Prophecy? That's your source for fact. Interesting. Here you learn as fact that with training you can see atoms vibrating with the naked eye . Right. You also learn as fact that atoms at the surface of all things are vibrating at the same frequencies as visible light. This is alternative physics at its finest: opinion, especially false opinion, means fact in your world.
For those who are interested, The Thiaoouba Prophecy page also informs us that
Very young children (up to 5 years of age) see auras naturally. Infants frequently look ABOVE a person in front of them. When they don't like the color of the aura above the head, or if this color is much different from their parent's aura, they cry, no matter how much smiling the person does.
Thiaoouba also claims that "Every atom in our body vibrates with the speed of Light." Nonsense. Atoms vibrate, but vibrations have frequencies and amplitudes, not speeds. Different atoms and things made of atoms (that is, everything that is a thing!) vibrate at different frequencies, depending upon how much energy is affecting them.
06 Jan 2000
It always amazes me, having taught physics for many years, how the critics of the paranormal, including yourself, never use real science when critiquing it. In addition, very judgmental statements concerning those who engage in paranormal activities are also included, as do you in your web article.
Certainly good science and objectivity of descriptions are the minimum that one should expect from the self proclaimed savants of science. If the major proof that auras can not be seen is the inappropriate flawed test instituted by the Amazing Randi, then you had better reject the belief that atoms exist as well.
reply: The major proof that auras can't be seen is that ordinarily people don't see them. The difference between believing in atoms and believing in auras is that nobody claims to be able to see atoms with the naked eye. As a physicist you know how atoms are detected, but there is no similar detection of auras by scientific equipment that I am aware of.
The photographic evidence for the existence of atoms is no more or less valid than Kirilian photography of the human energy field. In both instances the interaction of light with another field of energy at a different frequency is recorded on a photographic plate. What one sees in the developed print is the resultant interaction.
reply: The difference is that Kirlian photography can be better explained in terms of known electromagnetic forces than in terms of "human energy fields," an expression that is without scientific meaning.
In order to see an aura at the present level of human capability it is necessary for light to be passing through the vital and subtle energy field that surrounds the human body. Randi's staged drama did not meet this requirement. The same that is required for photographing atoms.
The fact that the aura reader agreed to an inappropriate experiment does not make it valid science. Rather it demonstrates once again the human egos desire for attention and publicity.
reply: I suggest that at "the present level of human capability" the "vital and subtle energy field that surrounds the human body" is a figment of your imagination. Randi got the aura reader to agree to a fair test of the ability to read auras. If you can read auras with a light passing through them, then contact Randi, set up an appointment, demonstrate your powers and collect your million dollars.
For publicity purposes it is in the self interest of James Randi not to pay out his $10,000. The mere fact that his criteria for so doing are based on: 1) His structuring the test; 2) His judging the result; based on 3) His criteria automatically excludes him as an objective observer. Were he to put up his money in escrow to be controlled by a board of real scientists both skeptical and from within the discipline being examined then his offer would begin to have some validity.
reply: He's already done most of what you ask and the prize has been upped to $1 million for a couple of years now.
Having developed many electron micro photographs of atomic structure as well as black and white Kirilian photography both utilising the same process of registering the interaction of two fields of vibrational energy, for me auras are just as real as atoms.
reply: Maybe you should clarify what you mean by an "aura", since I don't think most other physicists would agree that auras are just as real as atoms.
I've practiced psychometry and the like for quite a while but I don't believe that I have any special 'power'. More or less, I just have what we all do, a psyche. One I've learned to manipulate.
Anyhow, I've seen auras, not in full color and only about two inches or so, I asked a friend if he could see it too, and he could.
What I'm trying to say is that anyone could probably
see auras if they tried just not as well as the more talented
ones. Thank you.
reply: I'm still trying, without success.
22 Aug 1996
I find the skeptic a curious bird indeed. In many cases it appears we are merely playing a word game. We do not have "auras", ahh but we do have "electromagnetic fields." Now the difference just seems to be simply a matter of words. A person's health is very likely to be reflected either way.
reply: The difference between 'aura' and 'electromagnetic field' is just a matter of words but the difference between auras and electromagnetic fields is as great as the difference between lightning and lightning bugs.
What makes it likely that electromagnetic fields are an indication of a person's health? Do you know this a priori? If so, you are quite special; for this is clearly an empirical matter.
And speaking of electromagnetism anyway. Just what is it? In truth we really don't have a clue do we? It appears that the more physicists play with the subject, the more confused they become. So what is an electron anyway? Matter? Energy? And just where are they? Why they go around the nucleus of an atom -- well they don't really go around it -- they only have a tendency to be in one particular place at a particular time. Of course they are really never there, especially at any particular time because time doesn't really exist as we imagine it to.
reply: However confused scientists may be regarding electromagnetism, matter, energy, etc., has no bearing on auras. In any case, I don't think physicist are as confused or as clueless as you think they are.
I find this all ironic and amusing. Science is doing a better and better job understanding "How" things work. We are better and better able to use this knowledge and technology (for better or worse). But we haven't moved a bit closer to understanding what a "force" or "energy" really is -- tis still an utter "Mystery." Oh my gosh! So auras or electromagnetic field -- call it whatever you choose. The way I look at it every new discovery science does make only confirms that this universe is spectacular and magical.
reply: I agree.
And as for god, is not the question, by its definition beyond the realm of science. I mean we cannot exactly run a controlled experiment on this subject can we. I glanced over your section on "atheism" and noted that you limited your definition of god to the more or less traditional Judeo-Christian-Islamic concept. [Note from BC: the atheism entry has been updated and no longer concerns only the denial of the Judeo-Christian god.] That seems rather unscientific don't you think? That is, if we could prove that there is not a great grey bearded patriarch living in the sky then of course there is no god. What of other possibilities?
reply: It may be narrow, but I don't think there is anything scientific or unscientific about it. I realize there are other possibilities, but the Judeo-Christian God is the major one in this part of the world.
Personally I don't buy the old creator theory, but I can't disprove it, nor am I inclined to spend too much energy trying to. So in the beginning there was the "Big-Bang" --- so what banged?
Michael A Torre
reply: The Unbanged Banger, of course!
03 Jan 1997
Thank you for a wonderful website, it's one of my favourites. I especially enjoy reading the readers' comments, many of which are quite funny, belying an almost unbelievable ignorance. My only complaint: you often seem to let these ignoramuses off the hook far too easily. What I mean is that, while you rightly point out flaws in their logic, you often leave unchecked the farfetched, bizarre, and usually plain wrong claims they make from modern science. The reason I bring this up is that I believe ignorance and faulty understanding of scientific principles (in other words: 'science illiteracy') is one of the main forces perpetuating belief in pseudoscience. Correcting conceptual errors from your correspondents should, therefore, be one of your priorities, in my opinion. But, perhaps, that's in part what the reader comments are for?
A case in point is one Michael Torre who, while writing on auras, makes some rather strange observations regarding the state of knowledge in modern physics. Now, I am not a physicist, and don't know terribly much about these things, but neither, apparently, does Mr. Torre.
On electromagnetism, Mr. Torre has this to say: "Just what is it? In truth we really don't have a clue do we?" This is dead wrong, we have several clues. Gathering clues is what science is all about. What Mr. Torre is probably trying to say is that he doesn't understand the clues. Well, join the club. I don't understand very much about electromagnetism either, but I do understand this much: electromagnetism is not an object. Mr. Torre seems to be under the mistaken impression that in order to 'have a clue' as to the nature of natural phenomena we have to be able to describe them fully in everyday terms. A moment's thought, however, will convince Mr. Torre that this is not invariably the case. In fact, most phenomena outside our everyday world of tangible objects, including electromagnetism, can only be described in terms of models and approximations. That is by no means equivalent to saying these phenomena are not understood. In fact, electromagnetism is so well understood that we are able to put it to practical use in a number of ways, as you pointed out in your reply. Much of Mr. Torre's confusion stems, I think, from the fact that physicists, electrical engineers, and others interested in electromagnetism have at their disposal several models for explaining electromagnetism, some of which may appear contradictory at first glance. That does not imply that they disagree, to any significant extent, on 'what' electromagnetism 'really is'. They don't. What model they choose to work with is simply a matter of convenience, determined, largely, by how deep an understanding they need have of the phenomenon to carry out their project (the 'deeper' the understanding, the more complex the model, is the general rule of thumb).
Mr. Torre goes on to say about electrons: " they only have a tendency to be in one particular place at a particular time". Now, that is precisely what they don't do. I had the impression that Mr. Torre was trying to make some sort of profound statement based on Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which is very popular among the True Believers, and, quite typically of these strange creatures, has got it all backwards. One of the implications of Heisenberg's principle, if I remember my high school physics correctly, is that the electron (and other subatomic particles) doesn't have the property of position, it simply can't 'be in one particular place at a particular time'. This marvelous property (or lack thereof) of the electron is so well understood (in spite of Mr. Torre's claim that it really isn't) that it is put to practical use in such marvelous devices as the Scanning Tunneling Electron Microscope.
I wont belabor any more of Mr. Torre's numerous misconceptions,
tempting as it is, but will close this letter by saying that if Mr.
Torre and his ilk want to make useful contributions to discussions on
scientific, or, for that matter, pseudoscientific, matters, they should
bother to acquaint themselves with the subject. There are numerous
excellent 'popular science' books on the market which provide a far more
exciting read, resplendent with mystery and awe, than any
pseudoscientific or mystical claptrap.
P.S. Sorry about my broken English, but I am a foreigner.
reply: I'll make it my New Year's resolution to be more hardnosed and not so benign.
* AmeriCares *