On Studies of the Human Aura
The below is another article by Bryan, this time telling about the research of the human aura. Do you have any thoughts on the human aura? Discuss in forums
On Studies of the Human Aura
The alleged human aura has long been associated with the spiritual, mystical, and occult traditions, and opinions have been mixed as to whether or not it can be classified as a psi phenomenon by any means. Taken at face value, it often seems that, in some respects, the aura is not a purely mental phenomenon, but is more based on emanations from the body. This would be an argument for it not being classified as a psi phenomenon. On the other hand, given that some psychics have supposedly been able to perceive the auras of people, the possibility that ESP may be involved offers a supportive argument on the boundaries of what may constitute a psi phenomenon. A related and interesting example comes from the memoirs of psychic and medium Eileen J. Garrett (1949), who reported seeing bands of colored light enveloping both animate and inanimate objects that she called “the surround.” Mrs. Garrett’s descriptions of the surround sound very similar to the concept of the aura.
It also seems that there have been various types of the aura that have surfaced over the years, and Dr. Charles Tart (1972), then of the University of California, Davis, noted that it is important to make a distinction between them if we are to go in search of an answer to the question of whether or not the aura exists. He notes that there appears to be four main types of aura: physical, psychological, psychical, and projected. The physical aura is that which is claimed to be associated with known physical energies such as electromagnetism and ionizing radiation. The psychological aura does not have any physical basis, but is solely a product of a person’s mind; in other words, it is a mental assumption that “something” (whatever its composition) occupies the space around individuals. Tart illustrates the psychological aura through the concept of personal space and our reactions when someone invades it. The psychical aura, as the name suggests, is that ostensibly perceived by psychics, and is somewhere between the physical and the psychological in that it is assumed not to have a physical basis, but is more objective than a purely mental product. The projected aura may also exist solely in a person’s mind, but is an illusory projection to the external world that is perceived as part of it.
Before we can even really begin to make any detailed distinctions, we of course have to first determine whether or not an individual can perceive an aura of any kind. In addition, certain assumptions about the aura would have to be empirically tested to see which, if any, may have some basis. Many of the mystical traditions talk of one such assumption: that one is capable “reading” a person’s aura. It is claimed that on the basis of the supposed color, shape, opaqueness, and/or permeability of a person’s aura, it is possible to tell something about that person’s health, state of mind, and/or personality. However, the latter characteristics are also discernible from various sensory cues such as body language, posture, attire, etc., which the observer may instead be picking up on instead of the supposed aura he or she claims to be perceiving (this is akin to the issue of “cold reading” in supposed cases of mental mediumship). To address both issues, Tart (1972) devised an ingenious experimental design, which he calls “the doorway test.”
In the doorway test, an experimenter and a subject stand in front of a doorway. At random times, a second experimenter who is standing behind the doorway comes up just to the edge of the doorway where he or she still cannot be physically seen, but where it is assumed that his or her aura will protrude out several inches beyond the edge of the doorway. At other times, the second experimenter would move away from the edge so that their aura cannot be seen. The subject must then make a guess as to whether or not the second experimenter is standing at the edge of the doorway based on whether or not he or she sees the experimenter’s aura protruding out from the side of the doorway. To eliminate sensory cues, the place at which the second experimenter stands near the doorway would have to carefully marked, any reflections or shadows along the walls would have to be excluded by removing any mirrors and other reflective surfaces beyond the doorway and controlling the lighting conditions, and efforts would have to made to reduce any noise made by the second experimenter as he or she steps up to and away from the edge of the doorway during the test. Tart actually put the doorway test to practice in an experiment he conducted with Dr. John Palmer (then of the University of Virginia), where they tested the aura perception abilities of the psychic Matthew Manning in 10 test trials. The results indicated that Manning was only able to correctly guess the second experimenter’s place at the edge of the door only half of the time, which was a result expected by chance alone.
Icelandic researchers Loftur Gissurarson and Asgeir Gunnarsson (1997) later ran a variation of Tart’s doorway test with 10 local psychics who claimed to see auras, whose performance would be compared to that of 9 control subjects. In a room, they set up four numbered wooden screens facing the closed door leading to a hallway. Behind the door were the first experimenter and the subject. Using a process involving dice and a table of random numbers, the second experimenter randomly selected one of the four screens to stand behind during each test trial. Once the screen was selected, the second experimenter called out that he was ready for the trial to begin, and started a tape recorder that played Mozart, which acted both as a marker timing down to the moment that the trial actually began (30 seconds, measured by the first experimenter using a stopwatch that he started upon hearing the music behind the door) and as noise source to mask any extraneous sounds made from moment by the second experimenter. When the first experimenter saw that 30 seconds were up on the stopwatch (the time allowed for the second experimenter to get into position behind the selected screen), he knocked three times on the door and then opened it, letting the subject stand in the doorway to view the four screens. Similar to the doorway test, the subject attempted to tell which screen the second experimenter was standing behind by attempting to see the experimenter’s aura protruding out from the edges of one of the screens. Once the subject made a choice of screen, the room door was closed and the process was repeated for the next trial. To help avoid sensory cues, the walls of the room were covered with opaque paper, the lighting was controlled to exclude shadows, the second experimenter wore a T-shirt and fine trousers and was barefoot to reduce movement sounds, and the subject wore sound protection earmuffs (like those worn by construction workers using jackhammers) in addition to the music. And, despite how unlikely it was to give him away given the distance of the screens from the door, the second experimenter took a shower beforehand to exclude body odor cues and incense was burned in the room to mask any other scents.
The statistical results of the test did not achieve significance, with the control group actually scoring more correct guesses than the psychics (controls: 196, psychics: 185). Some of the subjects claimed that the null result may have been due to certain distracting conditions of the test. These included “traces” or “lingering effects” of the second experimenter’s aura supposedly being left behind one screen when he switched to another between trials, supposed colors being produced by the music, and constant opening and closing of the room door. Some of these conditions might be controlled to see how they affect performance, but so far no one (as far as I’m aware) has done a follow-up study on Gissurarson and Gunnarsson’s (1997) work.
Many mystics have claimed that images of the human aura have been captured by way of Kirlian photography (named after the Soviet scientist who invented the process, Semyon Kirlian), although the results of empirical studies of the Kirlian photo process seem to suggest that rather than revealing the human aura, many Kirlian photos may instead be capturing snapshots of a ordinary physical process. Dr. Thelma Moss (1974, Ch. 2), formerly of the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute, was one psychologist actively pursuing studies of Kirlian photography, obtaining many nice-looking photos in the process, and although she was indecisive about what was involved, she seemed to suspect some kind of unknown radiation. Physicist William Tiller (1974; Boyers & Tiller, 1973), then at Stanford University, proposed that Kirlian photos may be exhibiting an electrical phenomenon known as corona discharge, which often seen during thunderstorms and is the proposed process behind the phenomenon of “St. Elmo’s Fire.” When a Kirlian photo is taken, the object which we want to see the supposed aura of (e.g., a person’s finger) is placed either on a metal electrode or between two parallel metal plate capacitors that are separated by a small distance from a photographic film plate. An electrical current passed through the electrode or the capacitors produces a separation of charge, freeing valence electrons from the object and creating a small electric field that ionizes the molecules in the air around the object. Once this electric field is large enough, electrical breakdown of the air occurs and conducting paths in the visible light range can appear as the electrons recombine with the ionized molecules, emitting photons in the process (a lightning bolt is an example of electrical breakdown on a massive scale). Multiple conducting paths can have a kind of glowing, colorful display, and this is corona discharge. I myself have witnessed it in physics lab demonstrations on electricity and magnetism, and, if one ever got close enough, it could be witnessed on the tips and along the edges of metal weather vanes and lightning rods on the tops of tall buildings during a thunderstorm (one reason that they are there is to reduce the collection of charge by releasing electrons collected by the building back into the air, and thus helping to reduce the likelihood of massive breakdown, i.e., a lightning strike, on the building). Very faint and brief displays can also occur on conductive objects (such as our skin) if the conditions were right (in Kirlian set-ups, those conditions, which are not likely to occur naturally, are artificially induced). It is possible that different colors may be generated based on the elemental composition of the object (each element in the periodic table gives off it own unique color spectra) and, as Pehek, Kyler, and Faust (1976) argue, the amount of moisture present on the object. In the case of human skin, this is likely to come from perspiration along the surface of our hands, as Montandon (1977) argues. The images of the supposed aura in Kirlian photographs I’ve looked at appear very similar to corona discharge, and given the methods by which they were produced, I’m more inclined to agree that we are seeing this rather than the emanations of the supposed human aura.
Thus, not a lot of empirical evidence seems to support the existence of the supposed human aura, but then again, this is only based on very few studies that have not been followed up on. Given the uncertain status of the aura as a possible psi phenomenon, many parapsychologists are probably reluctant to pursue further studies of the aura, and whether or not this will change is uncertain.
Garrett, E. J. (1949). Adventures in the Supernormal: A Personal Memoir. New York: Helix Press.
Tart, C. T. (1972). Concerning the scientific study of the human aura. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research 46(751), March. pp. 1 – 21.
Gissurarson, L. R., & Gunnarsson, A. (1997). An experiment with the alleged human aura. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 91(1), January. pp. 33 – 49.
Moss, T. (1974). The Probability of the Impossible: Scientific Discoveries and Explorations in the Psychic World. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, Inc.
Tiller, W. A. (1974). Are psychoenergetic pictures possible? New Scientist 62(895), April 25. pp. 160 – 163.
Boyers, D. G., & Tiller, W. A. (1973). Corona discharge photography. Journal of Applied Physics 44(7), July. pp. 3102 – 3112.
Pehek, J. O., Kyler, H. J., & Faust, D. L. (1976). Image modulation in corona discharge photography. Science 194(4262), October 15. pp. 263 – 270.
Montandon, H. E. (1977). Psychophysiological aspects of the Kirlian phenomenon: A confirmatory study. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research 71(1), January. pp. 45 – 49.