Sunday, May 27, 2007

Kirlian photography and auras.

I haven’t been idle, I haven’t been ignoring this blog, I’ve just been occupied.

It’s all the fault of the UK version of Amazon, and their book sale. Books I wouldn’t pay full price for, but would be interested to read anyway, were on sale for £1 (about $2). This meant I ended up with a rather large pile of new books.

One of these was ‘The Unseen Self’, a treatise on Kirlian photography by Brian Snellgrove. A subject I have paid little attention to in the past, and one I’m not likely to pay much more attention to in the future. This slim (130-page) book’s retail price was £7.95. At that price I’d have passed. For £1, I decided it was worth the risk.

The first thing to note is that Kirlian photography does not photograph auras. Nor does it claim to. The device uses a contact-print photographic technique. Whatever you’re photographing has to be in direct contact with the film. There is no photographic technique that can capture an aura. One technique that claims to do this is a bizarre system that uses skin-resistance to illuminate lights within the camera. These lights are then claimed to represent the aura. That device is clearly a nonsense, and provides ammunition for the sceptics, even producing a ‘debunking’ of the aura in the Skeptical Enquirer.

The debunking applies only to this device, but is used as part of the reasoning behind the sceptic’s view that the aura does not exist. Since we cannot record it, it cannot be. To me, it sounds like the child who hides by covering his eyes – ‘if I can’t see you, you can’t see me’. I would be intrigued to hear what these sceptics have to say on the subject of dark matter. But I digress.

Kirlian photography uses a high-voltage plate, safely insulated, with photographic film and the subject of the photograph placed directly on the film. By ‘directly’, I mean in physical contact. If you put your hand on this, only those parts that are actually touching the film will be recorded. So it’s not possible to photograph something that’s not in contact with the film, and therefore the high voltage. The corona discharge between the (earthed) subject and the high-voltage plate is recorded on the film.

Great claims are made for this technique (I repeat, photographs of auras are not among those claims). What makes me sceptical of the whole thing is that I have, for a long time, had one of these things:

The principle in operation is much the same. The corona discharge between the high-voltage centre ball and the outer, earthed shell produces a series of electrical arcs, which appear as miniature lighting bolts. Photographing this is difficult because the things move around and produce little light, but the picture is good enough to show that the bolts are evenly distributed.

This changes if you place your hand next to the outer shell:

Now, the bolts intensify in the direction of this earth source—my hand—rather than spreading evenly. To me, this looks like very much the same effect obtained by Kirlian cameras, but in three dimensions.

The book does nothing to convince me that Kirlian photography is anything more than interesting photographs of electrical discharges. Similarly, it does not provide me with enough information to dismiss the subject out of hand. Some of the claims in the book go beyond what can reasonably be inferred from the studies performed, and this does nothing to promote study of the paranormal. Rather, it hands ammunition to hardened sceptics. As I mentioned with the ‘camera that photographs auras’ above, all a sceptic needs is one easily refutable claim, and they will dismiss the entire subject area.

As an example, the book describes an ‘experiment’ in which one subject hold out their hand, palm upwards, while the ‘reader’ places their own hands above and below the subject’s, but not touching. Then they wait until tingles appear in the hands, and note where those tingles are felt. Repeated tests show tingles in several parts of the hand.

Try it yourself. You don’t need anyone else. Just hold your hand out, palm upwards, until it tingles. Keep holding until the tingles start to hurt. Don’t panic, it’s not your energy field burning out. It’s just cramp.

There might be something to be learned from images of discharges from the hands and feet, but Kirlian photography has led to jumping to conclusions. I would suggest to those interested in the subject that they adopt the approach science insists on: back off from public announcements, accumulate data, correlate the findings with the feelings/emotions/ illness/health of the subjects, and find out what’s repeatable. What can Kirlian photography reliably measure, and what can’t it measure? Restrict claims to what you can prove, what you can back up with data, and then you’ll be on much firmer ground.

The book does make repeated assertions that Kirlian images are related to the aura, but there is absolutely nothing to support this assertion. The images bear no relation to any of the auras reported by those who see them.

The images are electrical discharges. They might be useful, they might relate to the physical or mental state of the subject, but that needs to be studied, not assumed.

I’m not going to pursue this subject further. It needs time dedicated to its study, and I don’t have that time so I can’t investigate this because I won’t do half-hearted work.

Assumptions are no use. That’s just giving the sceptics a way to destroy the subject before it starts.

Anyway, on to the next book...


Southern Writer said...

Nice hand. Yours?

Romulus Crowe said...

Yes, I'm appearing on the internet in instalments ;)

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