(Investigator 46, 1996 January)

One of the first sensations we experience when we come into the world is that of light; thereafter, our lives are patterned on the alternation of light and darkness.

Throughout history light has been connected with good and with creative powers, thus in the daytime we are active and the light of the sun brings the world to life. Consistent with the concept of the "goodness" associated with illumination and radiation, the terms are frequently used to connote revelation – seeing the light, the light at the end of the tunnel, a visionary experience or, in the case of the apostles who received the gift of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, "tongues of fire."

The idea of a "divine spark" or a "captive light" within man, appears early in religious systems and has had a profound influence both in religious and occult teachings. This inner etheric light has been represented pictorially by most ancient religions when glorifying important figures – in the form of a flame in the case of Moslems and in early Christian art by a gloria, a luminosity surrounding the head or whole body. More frequently the practice has been confined to a halo around the head only, known as a nimbus.

The idea of an inner light radiating from and surrounding the human body, gave rise to the speculation that besides having an objective visible existence, each human being radiates subjective experiences including thoughts, urges and sensations. These otherwise invisible parts of man are regarded in all religions as being more important than his body,  and some individuals who claim to be able to see the human "aura", maintain that as its colours exhibit the state of a person’s mental, spiritual and physical being, it can be used as a diagnostic tool. This is also a belief of Theosophists, and is taught by organizations such as the Inner Peace Movement, who claim that the aura is also an indication of the level of purity attained by an individual.

In 1858, Baron Karl von Reichenbach, a well-known industrial chemist, demonstrated that radiations coming from magnets, crystals, plants and animals could be seen and felt by certain sensitive subjects, these radiations were given the name Odic Force. Although often claimed to have been seen by clairvoyants, it was not until 1911, that W.R. Kilner devised ways of showing the aura experimentally, by first looking through a dilute solution of dye called dicyanin, or by looking at a very bright light through a strong alcoholic solution,  then viewing the subject against a dark background to observe the aura. Kilner believed that illnesses caused changes in the colours of the aura and hoped to use this information to aid in the diagnosis of disease.

Clairvoyants who have been trained to interpret the colours of the aura associate red and orange with energy, yellow with the intellect, green with the healing arts and so on. In the 1970s, an interesting development caused a resurgence of interest in auras, when a Russian engineer, Scmyon Kirlian, developed high frequency photography which, it was claimed, showed the aura as a fuzzy glow around the boundary of the image.

With the advent of the New Age,  this discovery and its suggested relevance to the state or condition of the object being photographed, became a topic of great interest and claims were again made that the auras of human parts – fingers, toes etc: and those of plants, leaves and insects contained information about the physiological, psychological and psychic states of those objects. If this is so, the "life-force", "life-energy" or "bio-plasma" of the object could become an important probe for obtaining information otherwise inaccessible by other techniques.

Skeptics argue that it is not possible to see certain wavelengths with the human eye and therefore dispute the claims made by aura readers. The method devised by W.R. Kilner for perceiving an aura was probably the result of a phenomenon known as image retention. Stare at bright light or a vividly illuminated object, then look at a blank wall and the image will still be seen. Under these conditions if you are expecting to see an aura you will probably imagine that you have, although it won’t be a natural emanation from the person or object under observation. Brindley (1970) explains these "after-images" this way:

"The effect is caused by the light/dark adaption of the light sensitive cells in the retina. The brightness...causes a high rate of breakdown of pigments in the cells in the outer area of the retina, while the pigment in the cells of the central area (focused on the object) were increasing their pigment and hence the sensitivity. Movement of the eye to look elsewhere exposes all the cells of the retina to a lighter background. The cells which were focused on the object were more sensitive and fired at a greater rate, causing a glare effect which is seen as an image of the object."
The momentary retention of a picture on a TV screen after the set has been switched off is a good example. Kirlian photography, while supposedly proving the existence of an aura in the metaphysical sense of a "life-force" radiating from a human body, does exactly the opposite – inanimate objects one would assume not to possess a "life-force" such as plastic, stones and metal objects, also reveal auras.

Kirlian photography has nothing to do with proving the existence of a supposed life force but rather evidences an electromagnetic anomaly produced by a reaction between the photographic paper and an object placed upon it, a phenomenon well known to physicists as a corona discharge in air.

Like so many claims made by psychics, their theories are rarely subjected to controlled tests, when they are, a totally different picture emerges. One such practical test of aura reading was demonstrated on a TV special 'Exploring Psychic Powers Live' (ATN Channel 9, 1989) An aura reader was faced with a wall of six feet high door-like panels numbered "1" through "10". Behind them an unknown number of people were randomly placed. The aura reader had previously seen clear auras around all these people. In the test she saw auras emanating above all ten panels; but in reality, people stood behind only three.

Finally, the claim is made that auras can be cleansed simply by performing a stroking motion above the body from head to toe at the end of which the fingers are given a vigorous flick. This presupposes that the aura extends well beyond the body and that clothing is no barrier, when in fact a two to three millimeter radiation is the maximum. One only has to consider the implications of an extended aura in everyday situations to see just how ludicrous the concept is.

[From: Skeptoon an illustrated look at some New Age Beliefs, 1994, Harry Edwards.]

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