There is a persistent belief among the supernaturally inclined that humans, along with other living beings and even some inanimate objects, give off colorful energy fields called auras. According to psychics and other esoteric advocates, these subtle emanations communicate all sorts of information about a person’s personality, emotional state (and sometimes history), as well as their physical health, and so on. To some, auras are only visible to gifted individuals while others believe anyone can learn to see them with proper training.
The internet is awash with websites explaining what they are, how to see them, and, in some cases, even offering to photograph them for you. But is there any truth to this supposed phenomenon?
The short answer is no. There is no evidence that auras exist, despite numerous attempts to study them with empirical methods.
What is an aura?
The term “aura” comes from a Greek word for “breeze”. To modern believers, the aura represents a kind of vital force that overflows beyond the perimeters of the skin in a cloud of colors and tones. According to one website, “One way to think of auras is as the ‘energy’ someone around you omits” – presumably they mean “emits”. This energy can make you feel uncomfortable, while others may make you feel relaxed, depending on the aura’s owner.
Explanations of what causes auras to exist in the first place vary and often draw on disparate traditions that feature some sort of vague or difficult-to-describe vital bodily forces, such as the ancient Chinese belief in chi/qi or prāṇa, which appears in yogic practices and Hindu literature. In many cases, these mystical forces are mixed with modern scientific terms relating to “energy”, “vibrations”, and “electromagnetic fields” to form a kind of explanatory soup in an effort to sound credible or to put a modern twist on an old belief.
One common defense cited in support of this phenomenon is so-called aura photography. This controversial idea relates to the work of Semyon Kirlian, a Soviet inventor, and his wife Valentina, who apparently discovered a technique for displaying a person’s aura after witnessing a patient receiving high-frequency electrical generator treatment at Krasnodar Hospital in 1939. In Kirlian’s experiments, he was able to take images complete with colorful clouds surrounding the subject, which he interpreted as the person’s aura.
Kirlian photography, as it is called, was actually a well-known phenomenon to physicists and electric engineers prior to Kirlian’s work, but it was not well-known to the public. Essentially, it is the ability of an electric spark to “take its own picture” as it passes through a photographic emulsion, without a lens or camera. This is actually a form of contact print and can be produced without any of the special cameras that are sold online under dubious claims.
Research into auras and potential explanations
As mentioned above, the idea of auras is not new and neither are the efforts to prove them through objective and empirical research.
Kirlian photography has received numerous investigations to test its supposed ability to capture a person’s life force in image form, but these have not been successful. Scientists have photographed everything from humans to mushrooms, apples, coins, fingerprints, hands, and so on. In each case, the object transferred to the photographic plate was accompanied by radiant colors surrounding it, but these patterns are caused by moisture contained in the subject which is transferred to the plate under the influence of the current. Despite this thorough debunking, Kirlian photography continues to receive strong support today.
Equally, there have been multiple attempts to test the credibility of psychics who claim to be able to read an aura.
In 1990, Robert W. Loftin performed an experiment where a psychic was brought into a windowless television studio with a barrier in the center and an entrance at each end. The psychic and an experimenter were positioned on one side of the barrier and then a number of different subjects were brought in on the other side. The psychic’s job was simple – they had three minutes to judge how many people were on the other side of the barrier, but they could not see them, and white noise was used to conceal potential sound cues. As you may expect, the psychic failed to score above chance.
In another study (with a more advanced methodology), an experimenter hid behind one of four screens while a group of psychics and a control group of non-seers tried to locate him. The underlying assumption, and one that the psychics apparently agreed with, was the idea that the supposed aura extends at least a few inches away from the body and should be detectable to a sensitive viewer. A total of 36 sessions were run with around 1,440 trials in total. Again, the results are what you would expect – the psychics performed slightly worse than the controls.
And, if you remain unconvinced, you can see a version of this type of experiment performed by the famous (and late) James Randi.
Scientific explanations for some people’s claims to see auras have also varied. In the past, researchers suggested that it may be a rare form of synesthesia, a neurological condition in which sensory experiences that tend to be separate are experienced together. In this instance, a person with this condition would see colors alone with a person, just as others may see colors when hearing music or hearing specific words. However, subsequent research has ruled this out as there does not seem to be any connection between synesthesia and the supposed aura phenomenon.
Ultimately, there may be various reasons why someone may “see” an aura, but it likely has little to do with mystical abilities or special emanations. Other factors may include perception distortions, illusions, and hallucinations, as well as other psychological factors, such as fantasy proneness, vividness of imagination, and also after-images.
Humans may indeed be surrounded by thermal, electromagnetic, and electrostatic fields, but there really is nothing supporting the idea that we have an aura.