Kirlian Photography and the “Aura”

It is fairly rare for pseudoscientists (except medical quacks) to use any kind of gadget, and it is almost unheard of for pseudoscientists to deal with any actual, existing phenomenon. Where a real phenomenon is involved, it is generally well known to science but almost totally unknown to the general public, so that it can be publicized and accepted as a “revolutionary New-Age discovery.” The classic example is that of Kirlian photography, named for Russian electrician Semyon Davidovich Kirlian. In 1939, Kirlian made a “discovery” well known to physicists and electrical engineers since the earliest days of photography— namely, that an electric spark can “take its own picture” as it passes through a photographic emulsion, without lens or camera. Being scientifically illiterate, Kirlian decided he was photographing something supernatural, specifically, the “aura” or “human energy field” familiar to pseudoscientists since the heyday of Madame Helena P. Blavatsky 50 years before.

There are two ways of taking such photographs. Needed is a high voltage (20 to 100 kilovolt), high frequency (100 to 200 kilohertz) alternating current supply— the sort devised by Nikola Tesla around 1900. One end of the circuit is attached to an electrode above a piece of film; the other end is attached to an identical electrode below the piece of film. An object placed between one electrode and the film, or between two pieces of film sandwiched between the electrodes, sparks to the electrodes by means of what are called “streamers,”  tiny tubes of ionized air that can conduct an electrical current. These tubes are formed by electrons being pulled from molecules and then rapidly accelerated by the strong electric field near the electrodes, and near any sharp point or strongly curved surface feature of the object between the film and the electrodes. These rapidly accelerated electrons collide with air molecules, knocking out other electrons, in a kind of avalanche that dies out after a short distance, typically about an inch, producing a short hair-like extension of plasma (molecules missing electrons, plus the free electrons) that emits visible light (due to recombination of electrons with molecules, and due to impact-excitation of the molecules). This hair-like glowing tube is the streamer. These streamers can be photographed directly with a regular camera, but they can also be caused to create a beautiful photograph on the naked pieces of film between the electrodes— the film emulsion itself becomes ionized, like the surrounding air, and the light from the streamers right at the film surface, or from new streamers actually within the film emulsion layers, exposes the film directly.

The second way of taking such a photograph involves grounding one electrode of the AC power supply and placing a dielectric (i.e., waxy or plastic) slab on the other. A piece of film is then placed on the slab, and any object placed on the film directly then sends streamers through the film to the electrode.

Any object whatsoever, placed on the film in the second method, or between two films in the first method, will “take” a beautiful photograph as streamers leave any “bumpy”  features of the object and pass through the film. Kirlian himself had no idea of anything we have described, although as we have said, these sorts of pictures of streamers have been taken for more than 120 years (engineers usually call them Nasser photographs) and the streamer phenomenon is perfectly understood. To Kirlian, the fuzzy field surrounding any object in the photographs was a photograph of the aura, a pseudoscience concept inherited from Madame Blavatsky, who in turn drew it loosely from Eastern mysticism. As Madame Blavatsky had it, the seven-layered aura is an invisible envelope that surrounds all objects in nature, both living and non-living; “ psychic effluvium partaking of both the mind and the body, as it is the electro-vital and at the same time electro-mental aura, called in Theosophy the akasic or magnetic.”I hope that's clear! Madame Blavatsky and her followers could, of course, psychically visualize this aura and diagnose diseases and mental states from its inspection. “Aura reading”  is still used today by some readers (fortune tellers) as the “gimmick” on which to hang their list, formula, and cold readings. And New Age fairs today are full of Aura Cameras, which produce neat instant photos of the paying customer's aura, or something, despite the fact that, as Madame Blavatski stressed, the aura is completely invisible to the mechanical eyes of physics and cannot be photographed!

For obvious reasons, Kirlian was totally ignored by Russian scientists. But in 1962, as an elderly retired dodderer in a garage “laboratory,”  he was written up in the Russian press and popular magazines as a “great discoverer.” Western journalists and pseudoscientists quickly made the pilgrimage and came back to Europe and the US ready to study the aura or probe the bioenergy field or whatever, with their borrowed high-voltage power supplies and sheet film from Polaroid or Kodak.

The usual modest claims immediately followed: (1) Kirlian photography was able to distinguish between living and non-living objects (there might be an easier way to do that!). (2) Kirlian photography could be used to diagnose diseases of all kinds and even to identify emotional states. (3) Kirlian photography could be used to predict the future— most of the time people were somehow diagnosed by Kirlian aura as having a certain disease, but upon medical examination strangely were found not to have it; however, much later they sometimes did get it! (4) No satisfactory Kirlian photograph could be obtained if the experimenters were skeptical, upset, ill, nervous, not in the mood, stressed, having a bad day, etc. (5) Kirlian photos showed parts of objects even after those parts had been cut off the objects and then thrown away. Usually leaves were used for this “demonstration,” hence the name phantom leaf effect.   (6) Psychics or other supernaturally gifted individuals have unusually dramatic Kirlian photos (the part usually photographed being a fingertip or thumb, since the object has to be in direct contact with the film).

Newspaper reports about the wonders of Kirlian photography often resulted in calls to physicists, engineers or biologists (none of whom would even know what the word meant!) as to why they were not studying the human energy field too! Attempts by knowledgeable experts to explain what was going on led to still further confusion. For instance, the Kirlian Aura was often confused with the fact that a human body (and every other object in the universe that is not at absolute zero temperature) emits electro-magnetic radiation. A human being emits roughly the same power (100 Watts) in infrared radiation that a standard light bulb does in visible radiation. This has nothing whatsoever to do with Kirlian photography.

When scientists finally got around to trying the kinds of things that pseudoscientists had piddled mindlessly with, they found the “information channel” of streamer photography is so noisy that in uncontrolled conditions the pictures obtained vary seemingly randomly. Differences in photos stem from: (1) different types of films used (e.g., whether the film base is opaque or transparent, how dyes are distributed between different layers in color films, etc.). (2) How clean the finger is (a normal finger produces a very different photo than the same finger cleaned with alcohol or acetone). (3) How moist the finger is (a normal finger produces a very different photo than the same finger wet with perspiration or saliva). (4) The pressure of the finger against the film. (5) The absolute humidity of the air in the room where the photo was taken. (6) Overall changes in skin resistance during the taking of a series of photos. (7) What types of soles are on one's shoes (leather, rubber, plastic, etc.). Tremendous changes can be made in photos by removing or changing shoes. (8) Whether a photo is first of a series or in the midst of a series or end of a series makes a tremendous difference, since the streamers “clean off” the finger gradually, making the image denser the longer you “run.”

To cause the tremendous change from one photo to the next attributed to psychic, supernatural energy release, it is only necessary to touch a metal table leg or chair with some part of your body, or to press with widely varying pressures against the film with the fingertips, or slip off your shoes. Inserting a tiny piece of cellophane from a cigarette package, or a mylar sheet, between the film and your fingertip while the “experimenter” is not looking also causes a dramatic difference in the pictures obtained.

The phantom leaf effect is produced by pressing the leaf against the film surface as you cut a small piece off. The pressure forces moisture out of the leaf, if it is fairly fresh, and thus forms a complete impression of the leaf on the film surface. Streamers from the tiny moisture droplets in this impression show the “whole leaf,” even though only part of the leaf remains, or the entire leaf is removed.  A phantom-hand effect is equally easy.  Demonstrate to an amputee where and how he is to place his imaginary hand on the film, making sure to press hard enough to leave an invisible damp handprint on the surface, and quickly take a photo after the amputee follows your lead.  Thanks to you, his missing hand leaves a fine “aura.”

Similar photos can be made with any object which can be pressed against or sandwiched with the film.  Coins are particularly good! A Kirlian photo of an artificial plastic or cloth flower is just as full of “bioelectric energy aura” as a photo of a dead flower or a living flower. You might wish to insure that the part of the flower that touches the film is equally moist in all cases. Moisture is good; small droplets produce good streamers, just as do any very small surface details. But a completely dry never-living object, that fake flower made of some plastic, or that ordinary coin from the pocket, will still produce a very interesting Kirlian photo. The finer the detail or texture of the object, the smaller the radius of curvature of those details, the larger the electric field that will be induced, and the denser will be the streamers that result.

There is no dependence whatsoever of the Kirlian photos on any distinctive individual characteristic of the person involved, not on emotional state, not on health, not on “psychic abilities” whatever those are, or on anything else. The channel is so noisy that such things would not and could not show up in the usual pseudoscientist's haphazard “study” even if such dependences did exist; the random noise due to uncontrolled variations in the way the photos were taken would totally swamp any such tiny variations! Kirlian photography has no known practical applications, other than those inherited from the 19th century— finding out just where sparks are most likely to take place in an electrical system.

The 7-layered human aura of Theosophy!

The 7 chakras!

In pseudoscience and occult literature there is yet another concept frequently confused with Kirlian photography and the aura. (Confusion is a dominating tactic of pseudoscience.) Looted from the Eastern religious cult of Kundalini yoga, without any attempt to understand its cultural context or function within the religion, is the notion of the chakra. Crudely, the idea is that every human being has a subtle body or spirit double, a ghostly twin that occupies the same space and has the same shape as the body, but is conveniently “nonmaterial” (whatever that means). This subtle body has seven (of course) major centers of “psychic energy,” located along the subtle body's spinal column. These seven centers are the chakras. For a fee, you can learn to activate your kundalini, a kind of ectoplasmic cockroach. This cockroach can be sent crawling up the spinal cord of the subtle body, activating each chakra in turn. The first chakra is at the genitals, the second on the navel, and so on, the seventh being just at the top of the head. Naturally, the genital chakra is the easiest for the poor kundalini to crawl to (does it start from the toes or knees or hips?) and the top-of-the-head chakra is the hardest and most expensive to reach. Many so-called “wholistic healing arts,” such as polarity therapy, have adopted this gibberish, and it is often muddled together with pyramid power, Kirlian photography, chiropractic, the aura, acupuncture, crystal healing, and anything else that might get the bucks.

Authentic ectoplasm produced by genuine spirit mediums!

How about those cameras at New Age Fairs that photograph the aura of the paying customer? All such cameras actually just photograph the customer through an out-of-focus halo of fiber optics and LED lights of various colors. The colors are varied randomly from photo to photo. Usually there is no attachment between camera and customer, but a few cameras sport a wire with a skin-resistance cup, which can be attached to a customer's finger, a vital ritual of personalization which helps to get the Forer Effect working on behalf of the photographer and his instant photo (which can often cost up to $25 or $30!), but has no other significance of any kind whatsoever.

Also stuck in there and confused with everything else is often the 19th century Spiritualist conception of ectoplasm. Nineteenth century mediums frequently caused strange substances to extrude from their bodies. These “psychic structures”  or “spiritual substances” varied from medium to medium. Eusapia Palladino for Prof. Charles Richet in 1895 produced motion of tables with her very own foot and hand; for Prof. Baron von Schrenck-Notzing, Marthe Beraud in the 1910s produced linen, silk, paper and cotton. Ordinary pocket handkerchiefs rolled into cylinders, and forms cut out of liver and lung tissue from butcher shops, were also popular. Again the concept of ectoplasm (the tissue of which the “subtle body”  is composed?) is unrelated to Kirlian photography, the aura, Chakras, or anything else we have talked about so far. By mixing it all together the pseudoscientist uses his usual shotgun approach to overwhelm the uncritical listener with a mass of claims and concepts— with so much talk and activity, so many dazzling and complex concepts, there must surely be something there, right?


For further reading---

  • • “Theosophy,” by Robert S. Ellwood, in Encyclopedia of the Paranormal, ed. by Gordon Stein, Prometheus, NY, 1996.
  • Electrical Breakdown in Gases, ed. by J. A. Rees, Macmillan, London, 1973.
  • Electrical Coronas, by L. B. Loeb, Univ. of Calif. Press, Berkeley, 1965.
  • • “Image modulation in corona discharge photography,” by J. O. Pebek, H. J. Kyler and D. L. Faust, Science, 194, pp. 263–270, 1976.
  • • “Auras: Searching for the Light,” by Robert W. Loftin, The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 14, No. 4, Summer 1990, pp. 403–409.
  • • “Aura Photography: A Candid Shot,” by Joe Nickell, The Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 24, No. 3, May/June 2000, pp. 15–17.
  • Internet resources on Auras and aura "photographs" | Skeptic's Dictionary on auras | Kirlian photography | ectoplasm | Chakras.

    Acknowledgements— Dr. Rory Coker, Professor of Physics at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of this fact sheet. The International Cultic Studies Association, a professional research and educational organization concerned about the harmful effects of cultic and related involvements, prints and helps distribute these fact sheets. Because these fact sheets seek to stimulate critical thinking, rather than advance a particular point of view, opinions expressed are those of the authors. These fact sheets may be copied for educational purposes, but they may not be reproduced for resale.

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    Blavatsky, Queen of Pseudoscience!
    Cities on the Moon and Mars!
    Creationism and Intelligent Design!
    Distinguishing Science from Pseudoscience!
    ESP Experiments
    Flying Saucers (1947 - 1985)
    Fortean Phenomena
    The Fourth Dimension?!?
    Gods from Outer Space!
    Hollow Earth!
    Kirlian Photography and the Aura!
    Martian Canals!
    Medical Quackery!
    Monsters! and Ape Suits!
    Mystery Spots?
    Mystical and Bogus Physics!
    The New Age!
    Postmodernism vs. Science!
    Prophecy and Prophets!
    Psychic Detectives!
    Pyramid and Crystal Myths and Powers!
    Science Fiction and Pseudoscience!
    Space Brothers!
    UFOs 1985 - 2005!


    Standard streamer toys available at almost any novelty store are the plasma sphere, (left) and the plasma disk, (right). They cost about (1/100)-th the amount for a so-called aura camera, (center), in other words, about $10 to $20.