Blog Post

Auras and Kirlian Photography

New Age practitioners swear by them and claim you can tell just about anything about a person by reading it. Others believe you can use it to diagnose illness and change the way a person thinks. What is this remarkable tool? An aura. It's the glow that surrounds all living things that show up on in photographs taken with an infrared camera. New Agers believe them to be energy fields that radiate from the body and manifest in different colors depending on the person's feelings and/or state of health at any given time. Clairvoyants claim to be able to read or scan auras in order to diagnose illness, effect healing, predict the future, determine a person's temperament, etc. They either do this with their natural eyes (a feat no one has ever successfully demonstrated) or with their "inner vision" (whatever that means). As nonsensical as this all sounds, there's actually some truth to it. Auras are indeed energy fields but it's not the kind of energy that New Agers are so in love with - the chi, ki, qi, prana, vital force, kind of putative energy that does not exist according to the most advance science of our day. According to Victor Stenger, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Hawaii, there is nothing mysterious about the human aura. It's called "black body" electromagnetic radiation (a form of veritable energy and completely substantiated by science) which produces an invisible infrared light that is the result of the random movements of all the charged particles in the body that are caused by heat. "The type of light that is emitted from a living body has a characteristic shape that is completely specified by the body's absolute temperature," he writes. "As that temperature rises, you can begin to see the aura." But this "energy" has nothing to do with a person's "life force." "The aura from black body radiation lacks any of the complexity we associate with life," Dr. Stenger says. "It is as featureless as it can be and still be consistent with the laws of physics. Any fanciful shapes seen in photographed auras can be completely attributed to optical and photographic effects. The auras are unrelated to any property of the body that one might identify as 'live' rather than 'dead' and the tendency for people to see patterns where none exist." Dr. Stenger goes on to explain Kirlian photography, the popular method used by ghost busters to capture images of the dead. Apparently, Semyon Kirlian was an Armenian electrician who discovered in 1937 that photographs of a live object such as a leaf placed on a piece of film that is electrically isolated from a flat aluminum electrode and then subject to high electrical voltage will produce images that are filled with "multicolored sparks, twinkles and flares," Dr. Stenger writes. Kirlian believed he was seeing the leaf "die" on the film. "We appeared to be seeing the very life activity of the leaf itself," Kirlian reported. Not so, says the scientific community. "In spite of its emotional appeal, it's been amply demonstrated the Kirlian aura is nothing but what's known as a corona discharge," Dr. Stenger writes. "This sort of thing was reported as far back as 1777 and it's completely understood in terms of well-known science. Controlled experiments have demonstrated that the claim effects, such as the cries of agony of a dying leaf, are dependent on the amount of moisture present. As the leaf dies, it dries out, which lowers its ability to conduct electricity. The same effect can be seen with a long dead but initially wet piece of wood." He goes on to lament the way purveyors of Kirlian aura reading parade well-known electro-magnetic phenomenon "in front of innocent lay people, unfamiliar with basic physics, as 'evidence' for a living force. It is nothing of the sort." He adds: "Proponents of alternative medicine would make far fewer critics among conventional scientists if they did not resort to this kind of dishonesty and foolishness." In other words, the next time someone offers to read your aura, save your money. What they're offering is nothing more than another version of the same old snake oil. Send your New Age questions to