It is fairly rare for pseudo scientists (except medical quacks) to use any kind of gadget, and it is almost unheard of for pseudo scientists 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 Semon 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. Being scientifically illiterate, Kirlian decided he was photographing something “supernatural,” specifically, the “human energy field.”
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 at the turn of the century. 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 my means of what are called “streamers,” tiny tubes of ionized air that can conduct electrical current. These tubes are formed by electrons being 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, 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 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 streamer at the film surface or 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 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 100 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 from Eastern mysticism. As Madame Blavatsky had it, the aura is an invisible envelope that surrounds all objects in nature, both living and non-living; “a 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, “see” this aura and diagnose diseases and mental states from its inspection. “Aura reading” is still used today by some readers as the “gimmick” on which to hang list, formula, and cold readings.
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 pseudo scientists quickly made the pilgrimage and came back to Europe and the U.S. ready to “study the aura” or “probe the bio energy field” with their 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 — frequently people were diagnosed by Kirlian aura as having a certain disease, but upon medical examination were found not to have it; however, later they did get it! (4) No satisfactory Kirlian photography could be obtained if the experimenters were skeptical, upset, ill, nervous, 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 too were studying the human energy field. 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 about 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 pseudo scientists had piddled with, they found the “information channel” of streamer photography is so “noisy” that in uncontrolled conditions the pictures obtained vary 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 absolute humidity of the air in the room where the photo was taken. (5) Overall changes in skin resistance during the taking of a series of photos. (6) 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. (7) 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” 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. 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 base as you cut a piece off. The pressure forces moisture out of the leaf and thus forms an outline of the leaf against the film. Streamers from this moisture show the “whole leaf” even though only part of the leaf remains, or all of the leaf is removed.
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 “bio electric energy aura” as a photo of a dead flower or a living flower … provided the part of the “flower” that touches the film is equally moist in all cases.
There is no dependence whatsoever of the Kirlian photos on any distinctive characteristic of the individual, 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 show up in the usual pseudosciences “study” even if such dependence did exist; the noise due to uncontrolled variations in the way the photos were taken would swamp any such 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.
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 “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 recent “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, etc., etc., etc.
Also related is the 19th century Spiritualist conception of “ectoplasm.,” Nineteenth century mediums frequently caused 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 cloth, 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, 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, there must surely be something there, right?
ASTOP – The Austin Society to Oppose Pseudoscience – has prepared fact sheets on various pseudoscience topics for the benefit of teachers and others interested in promoting critical thinking. 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 (ICSA), a professional research and educational organization concerned about the harmful effects of cult involvement, prints and helps distribute these fact sheets. Because ASTOP fact sheets seek to stimulate critical thinking, rather than advance a particular point of view, opinions expressed are those of the authors. A list of available fact sheets can be obtained by contacting ICSA (firstname.lastname@example.org).