How to See Your Aura

Is aura photography actually possible, and does it tell us anything useful about the person?

Filed under Alternative Medicine, Paranormal

Skeptoid #75
November 20, 2007
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Aura Photography
Artwork: Nathan Bebb

Today we're going set up a special camera and view a mystical energy field surrounding your body that's normally visible only to certain sensitive people. Our subject today is aura photography. A listener from Chile wrote in with the following account of a late-night infomercial aired on Chilean television:

"There was a guy, by the name of Harold Moskovitz, giving a show entitled “Desarrollo Luz Dorada”, or “Golden Light Development”. He was claiming to provide all sorts of healing through esoteric ways such as reading ones aura and then providing techniques for resolving problems found within it. Basically the show was claiming to provide relief for pretty much any aliment, and all one has to do is attend a seminar or two, paid of course, in order to learn the mystic ways. He had numerous people swearing to have been cured of various serious ailments, and one woman even held up an x-ray of tumors she had that were now magically cured! Chile is a fine country but it does have a significant number of people that do not have access to a decent education or health care and this con man is basically telling them he can cure cancer."

Well, there's nothing new about psychics claiming to see your aura. What's missing is any kind of a half-decent explanation for what this aura supposedly consists of. It's really easy to throw around scientific sounding terms like "bioelectromagnetic fields" or "life energy", but such terms do not have any legitimate meaning. We have to ask some basic questions. Does this thing called an aura really exist? Does it convey any useful information about the person? How might it be possible that some people can see it or sense it, while others cannot?

To answer the first question, do auras actually exist, we have to abandon untestable verbal claims from psychics who say they can see them but offer no evidence, and look instead to testable evidence. Namely, aura photography.

There are three types of aura photographs. The first, which is sometimes seen in video and is usually in color, is simple infrared photography. To take an infrared photograph with a conventional film camera, simply use infrared sensitive film. An infrared photograph shows heat. A shot of a dead object at room temperature appears black or at the same color as the general background, but a living person or other warm object appears white, or in a color video, at a warmer temperature. Charged particles near the skin surface, or near the surface of any warmed object, are excited by the radiated heat and will appear as a glowing band around the person or object. Simple heat does not have any of the mystic qualities attributed to auras, and can be produced equally dramatically with any dead object if you just warm it up.

The second type of aura photograph is called Kirlian imaging. It's named for Semyon Davidovich Kirlian, the Armenian electrician who discovered it in 1937, though it didn't really become popular in the world of aura enthusiasts until the 1970's. Kirlian images of auras are all black except for the aura itself, which is manifested as a thin band of jagged white surrounding an object. To take a Kirlian image, the subject to be photographed is placed on a photographic plate which is electrically isolated above an aluminum electrode. Another electrode is connected to the subject, and the resulting image is thus burned onto the photographic plate. Kirlian described this as "bio-plasma", an image of what he called the "life energy" of the object. Scientists call this effect a corona discharge, and you get the same result using any conductive object. It does not have to be alive; a coin will work just as well. Corona discharges have been well understood since the 1700's, and they have nothing to do with "life energy" or the psychic state of an object.

Finally, we have the latest, greatest, and stupidest of aura photography techniques, which was developed in 1992 by an electrical engineer named Guy Coggins, and is called the AuraCam 6000. This produces brightly colored pictures showing the person with superimposed brightly colored clouds of light around them. To take an AuraCam picture, the subject sits and rests his hands on the leads of a galvanometer, the same device that Scientologists call an E-meter. The AuraCam takes a conventional photograph of the person which is loaded into a computer. The computer software then synthesizes an image of colorful clouds said to be based on the galvanometer measurement. This colorful halo is then superimposed onto the image of the person, then it's printed out, and presto, you have your mysterious aura photograph. According to Coggins' web site:

"Our technologies produce an electronic interpretation of what we believe the Aura would looks like. It does not photograph the actual Aura. There's nothing that exists which can do this."

And how about those colors? How are they determined? Coggins actually gives several different answers on his web site: that the colors are determined by corresponding electrical frequencies; that the colors were chosen in consultation with psychics to produce the same colors seen by psychics; and that they are based on the writings of Dr. Max Luscher, correlating personality with color preferences. I guess you can take your pick of how you prefer to believe the colors in your picture were determined.

To Coggins' credit, his web site is very clear that these images are not suitable in any way for making medical diagnoses, and that they only represent the software's interpretations of the galvanometer reading. He is also very clear that these devices are primarily for making money taking pictures at fairs, and he provides pricing guidelines and lists of events where you might choose to take your AuraCam. I wish that all peddlers of pseudoscience were that honest. Joe Nickell wrote an entertaining account of having his own picture taken at a psychic fair with an AuraCam in Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

So an examination of aura photography reveals no useful, testable evidence that auras even exist at all. If we can't establish any reasonable foundation of evidence that they might exist, it's premature to address our second question, whether any useful information can be derived from studying auras. So let's look at our third question: How might it be possible that some people can see auras?

Nobody has ever suggested a plausible mechanism for how such a thing might be possible, but if it is, there's a big fat chunk of dough sitting there waiting for anyone who can do it. James Randi has a million dollars in his vault that's yours if you can see auras. Nobody has tried since 1989, when the prize was only $10,000. On the TV show Exploring Psychic Powers Live, a psychic claimed that the auras she could see stretched five inches beyond the person, and that she could see the aura extend beyond the top of a screen that a person was behind. Ten screens were presented, and by prior agreement between her and Randi, she needed to score 80% correct predicting which screens had a person behind them. Random guessing would have resulted in a score of 50%, but she scored only 40%.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Can you or someone you know do better than that? If you can, Skeptoid can qualify you to apply for the million dollar prize. Just come to the Skeptoid.com web site and click on the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge.

Since that highly publicized failure on live television, author Robert Bruce, in his book Auric Mechanics and Theory, has taken the classic step of moving the goalposts. He states that auras cannot be seen in complete darkness or if any part of the person emitting the aura is obscured. This special pleading presumes that auras have some quality that places them on a higher plane than what might be testable using basic blinded experiments. So what it all boils down to is that the only supporting evidence for the existence of auras is the logical fallacy of special pleading that claims they are beyond the threshold of detection for anyone except self-described psychics whose claims must be allowed to be untestable.

Well, that's bogus, and it's childish. If Robert Bruce had anything in his book that could withstand any kind of scrutiny, he could easily be a million dollars richer. Until aura advocates make some kind of reasonable, quantifiable description of their phenomenon, any discussion of auras — including their photography, their meaning, or their paranormal detection — should be treated with extreme skepticism.

Follow me on Twitter @BrianDunning.

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Cytowic, Richard E. Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses - Second Edition. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2001. 34, 50, 163.

Loftin, Robert W. "Auras: Searching for the Light." Skeptical Inquirer. 21 Sep. 1990, Volume 14, Number 4: 403-409.

Nickell, Joe. "Aura Photography: A Candid Shot." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 May 2000, Volume 24, Number 3: 15-17.

Novella, S. "Mood Photography." NeuroLogica Blog. Steven Novella, MD, 25 Jul. 2012. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. <http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/mood-photography/>

Randi, J., Clarke, A.C. An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1997. 21, 136, 166.

Stenger, Victor J. "The Physics of 'Alternative Medicine' Bioenergetic Fields." The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. 1 Apr. 1999, Volume 3, Number 1: 1501.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "How to See Your Aura." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 20 Nov 2007. Web. 24 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4075>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 183 comments

Max, Brians terminology is directly accessible from the woo literature with respect to auras and other woo. All of which appears to be mistaken for reality by some.

But sure, you'd have to be a bit of a dope not to think we radiated in the infra red. Apparently we have profoundly weak emissions in what may be the UV-vis. This requires confirmation.

Thanks for posting Joe Nickell's 2000 effort. It reflects what Brian posted.

Minty Dateroll, sin city, Oz
August 15, 2013 11:16pm

Minty Dateroll, Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, Mudguts, Henk v., Mud :-

Post to Skeptoid what you saw when you followed my instructions on viewing the "etheric", and what your opinion is on what it was, when you "immediately realized what it was".

You have been asked this question for well over a dozen times on Skeptoid, and you have still not responded.

It's a perfectly simple question for your opinion and experience on what you saw when you followed my perfectly simple instructions on viewing the "etheric".

I made no attempt to promote my perfectly simple exercise as a scientific experiment, or "proof".
It was something that anybody could try if they were interested, and if successful, make what they will of it, nothing more.

I am still waiting, Mud.

Macky, Auckland
August 16, 2013 4:51pm

Some fifteen years ago the firm I was working for decided to treat all staff to an afternoon of alternative wellness. One of the options was an aura photograph. I sat in a chair and put one (I think) hand on a red knob. The photographer then took a polaroid photo of the result. In my case there was no aura, just me. I kept the photo for years but lost track of it. The photographer was really puzzled, tried touching the knob himself, which produced an aura, but try as we might it wouldn't work for me.
If every living thing has an aura, then I've been dead for fifteen years, but I'm still curious why it didn't work for me when it did for everyone else.

Andy, Melbourne, Australia
August 31, 2013 1:36am

Mincy Mincing, what are you talking about? I re-read Brian's stuff, then yours, then Brian's and, once again, yours. All to no avail - you make no sense in regards to what I said.
(And, if you think I am going to go back howsomevermany posts to "learn" what causes Brian or you to say things in a "certain way" that only makes sense when checked into, you are deathly wrong. If you can't say it *now* and mean it *now*, you have no standing.)

Now.

Are you really living on Earth? Really?

Still,

Mad Mac
(Still not even a 42nd cousin, twice removed, to anyone named "Max", even.)

Mad Mac, Somewhere in Colorado, I think
September 01, 2013 8:51pm

This document is not a formal publication of the World Health Organization (WHO), and all rights are reserved by the Organization. The document may, however, be freely reviewed, abstracted, reproduced and translated, in part or in whole, but not for sale or for use in conjunction with commercial purposes.

The views expressed in this documents by named authors are solely the responsibility of those authors.

Microwave Dizzy, Gerringong Big Ill. USO
September 13, 2013 4:24am

I have spent the last few years doing a lot of research on aura's, human radiation, and the idea of whether or not magick, is real. if it works, if the same result can happen over and over based on the appropriate actions and or rituals. In my experience, its half and half, half of it is fake or frauds, the other half seems to be telling the truth and even shown me examples, but the people who seem to know the most about magick refuse to show me things, they tell me stuff, but I am confused as to the scientific community's reaction to magick if someone were to prove if magick existed and worked with valid results viable for repetition. In any event, I have tried getting an aura photo, and seen several psychics, in the photo I have no aura.. we took several pictures with 2 different cameras, both times, no aura. many psychics claimed to see this aura or that aura, this color or this much of this color and that. but then one day an old women walked up to me and asked me if I had no aura, when I said yes, how do you know? she said she was psychic... and then she told me that its not that I don't have an aura, Its that it can't be seen on this plane of existence... so... just putting this out there, what if some people have aura's that can't be seen? questions about magick are everywhere, I think the answer we should be looking for, is: "if magick is real, how do we find out?" rather than proving it real or not, just being able to tell, is there a chance its real?

Matthew, Seymour, IN
December 23, 2013 8:30pm

Matthew, my advice is to check out the simple exercise I posted on this thread, for yourself.

It is about the discernment of the "etheric" glow around the hands/fingers/body, not what is commonly termed the aura.

It is not a scientific experiment, just something you can easily try and make what you will of it.

My further advice is not to listen to any "psychics", whether you believe in them or not, nor to judge your own results on any scientific standard of proof, but to rely on your own judgement and observations.
Aura photography is not authentic. Frankly, it's rubbish, a mere showground novelty not be taken seriously in any shape or form, in my own experience.

Once you have obtained some results, or not, then you will be in a position to discuss things from the point of view of one who has some experience in trying a few things out, not just remaining a believer or disbeliever in such phenomena.

Macky, Auckland
January 05, 2014 1:13am

@Micky, the problem is if you are using only your own reference, you have your own internal bias, we all have.

In fact I'd say that is why much woo works, woo is not mainstream, so people tend to discover it either by associating with woo-doers or by sitting at home meditating with crystals on their heads or something like that, if they get something out of it, then they have some kind of confirmation bias, if they don't they don't become woo.

Think about it, just by experimenting yourself you are opening yourself up to the possibility, experimenting totally alone is definitely going to give you confirmation bias IF you 'feel' something is happening.

The mind is weird, I used to meditate for non spiritual reasons, just to calm my mind down - something I got into with martial arts - I could be gone for hours, then I started getting images, movies, sounds and voices in my mind, I don't believe in anything spiritual but, I can tell you this, my experiences put the frighteners on me and I no longer meditate, your mind DOES go to a place where rationality does not exist.

My experiences if undertaken by someone who believed and set out deliberately to seek spiritual contact would have had their belief confirmed - from then it is a short step to psychosis and delusion, imho, and then we enter the world where anything that doesn't support your belief is part of the big cover up...you become 100% woo.

Tony Parkes, Caergwrle, Wales
February 15, 2014 10:20am

I had a different kind of aura camera which had a kirlian attachment on an instamatic type camera. The pictures that I took were amazing as I could take pictures of people, plants, stone walls, and items of all kinds as it did not require plates to place a hand on. The colors emitted from the energy of each subject seemed to depict the aura type colors you would expect from the subjects of the photos. I don't know how it worked but it was verifiable to me and others that this was a phenomenon. It brought to me and others great enjoyment.

Rona Giese, Clifton, CO, USA
April 10, 2014 9:10am

Could it just be a representation of the color of the clothing that was worn? My family went to Sedona, AZ last week. We each had our aura done. We put our hands on some metal button-looking things and a picture was taken. An image appeared on a computer screen with various colors. All five of us had distinctive images. This was all for fun, as I have a lot of trouble believing something like this. My aura was interpreted as being very balanced, and the other four became very jealous. So they demanded we try to disprove the results. To do so we then went down the street to a competitor and had it all done again. The distinctive images with different colors in different places and they all came out exactly the same (me being very balanced again!), to everyone's surprise. I don't know what the colors could mean (are they from the clothing we were wearing?) but at least the results were consistent. We had no ideas on how it could be debunked (although if I would do it again, I would change my shirt color and see if the results were the same).

Don, Westport, Connecticut
April 23, 2014 11:53am

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