A possible scientific explanation for healers seeing auras (UPDATED: Media gets it wrong)

Synesthesia may explain healers claims of seeing people’s ‘aura’.

Researchers in Spain have found that at least some of the individuals claiming to see the so-called aura of people actually have the neuropsychological phenomenon known as “synesthesia” (specifically, “emotional synesthesia”). This might be a scientific explanation of their alleged ability.

This is the first time that a scientific explanation has been provided for the esoteric phenomenon of the aura, a supposed energy field of luminous radiation surrounding a person as a halo, which is imperceptible to most human beings.

To carry out this study, the researchers interviewed some synesthetes including a ‘healer’ from Granada, “Esteban Sánchez Casas,” known as “El Santón de Baza”.

Many local people attribute “paranormal powers” to El Santón, because of his supposed ability to see the aura of people “but, in fact, it is a clear case of synesthesia,” the researchers explained.

Source: Science Daily

Not much to go on in this piece but an interesting idea. It’s fairly obvious that people who claim to see auras have a different idea about life and energy and they see it all connected. It does not explain how the aura is seen or how we might understand what they are experiencing. I don’t have access to the research paper. While there are many suggestive words about the reality of auras and healing in the piece, it appears the authors are on the conventional side by saying:

Some healers “have abilities and attitudes that make them believe in their ability to heal other people, but it is actually a case of self-deception, as synesthesia is not an extrasensory power, but a subjective and ‘adorned’ perception of reality,” the researchers state.

Update: (7-May-2012) More on this from Dr. Steve Novella.
And we see that there is a major mess up going on here.

The researchers analyzed the subjective reports of four people with face-color synaesthesia. They then compared this to reports and descriptions of people seeing alleged auras. They concluded:

“The discrepancies found suggest that both phenomena are phenomenologically and behaviourally dissimilar.”

That means they are probably not the same thing. Of course this is a small study, and is therefore not the final word on this notion. However, there is no evidence for the synaesthesia-aura hypothesis. It is simply a new hypothesis without any evidence. The authors did a preliminary test of this hypothesis and found it to be lacking, so it is probably not worth pursuing further. Other researchers may decide to revisit the question, now that it has been raised, but until then all we have is a hypothesis that failed to get out of the gate.

Amazingly, the media has universally (as far as I have seen so far) misreported this item and have come to the opposite conclusion. Science Daily writes:”Synesthesia May Explain Healers Claims of Seeing People’s ‘Aura’”. Other outlets remove the “may”, and some even substitute the word “prove.”

This is an example of terrible science news reporting, and a major weakness of the current internet-based news infrastructure. It seems that the many news outlets reporting this story are mostly just reprinting one original source – a news report from the University of Granada. Somehow they got the story exactly wrong (erring on the side of sensationalism), and this error has been propagated throughout countless science news outlets and paranormal websites throughout the web. No one, apparently, clicked through to the original article. The article is behind a paywall, but the freely available abstract plainly states the phenomena are not the same.

Translation error happened somewhere along the line. This is a hazard of bad science reporting. Curiously, it took this story in a whole other direction.

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  8 comments for “A possible scientific explanation for healers seeing auras (UPDATED: Media gets it wrong)

  1. May 6, 2012 at 2:33 PM

    Weird, I always thought this was a fairly OBVIOUS explanation of people claiming to see auras.

    • May 6, 2012 at 2:44 PM

      This article was weird. As is from Science Daily, it’s a press release from the research source. Not all are well done. They appeared to correlate a higher number of syntesthetes characteristics in people who claim they heal. Don’t know how they test for that.

  2. May 6, 2012 at 9:22 PM

    Someone on Twitter pointed out that if you read the abstract of the paper itself here:

    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810011002868

    …it seems to say that synesthesia and aura reading are NOT the same thing, that they behave differently. Which is the opposite of the article.

    But the press release by their own university, on which the news article is based, here:

    http://www.alphagalileo.org/ViewItem.aspx?ItemId=119895&CultureCode=en

    …says what the article says, that synaesthesia explains aura readers for the first time.

    Is it possible the University press office goofed up and misinterpreted the meaning of the paper? Could it be an English vs. Spanish thing? (The University is in Spain but the press release and article are in English).

    • May 6, 2012 at 9:34 PM

      Well that is a whole other story in itself if they did that. Gosh, it’s a bit of a mess.

  3. May 7, 2012 at 10:57 AM

    Steve Novella weighed in this morning at his Neurologica blog and at SkepticBlog, and he says the press totally got it wrong, the paper says that synaesthesia does NOT explain auras, at least based on this data. He also points out some earlier work in this area.

    http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/is-aura-reading-synaesthesia-probably-not/

    • May 7, 2012 at 11:10 AM

      Thanks Tim. I saw this same time as you did and made an update.

  4. May 7, 2012 at 4:58 PM

    And how they got it wrong is particularly important, I think. This is a classic case of the “all the myths are true” style of reasoning. That every mystical, spooky, fantastical, or legendary thing isn’t just people being wrong or deceitful (which hurts feelings or makes people feel uneasy), nor is it real. So instead you explain these phenomena with a “natural” solution that doesn’t fit the history or facts of the case. For example

    – Werewolves and vampires are really sufferers of Porphyria
    – The Salem Witch Trials were because of ergot poisoning
    – The parting of the Red Sea/Stopping the Sun and the falling of the walls of Jericho was because of an earthquake/passing comet

    These end up being like impossible to dispel “scientific facts” (the Great Wall is the only object visible from space). They simultaneously allow one to sound rational but still have something weird to and knowledgeable to say rather than ‘well, that’s just not true.’

    This strikes me as being very much in that vein.

  5. maximus_379@hotmail.com
    March 18, 2014 at 7:06 PM

    This is an interesting article. I personally bought this book Ancient Techniques For Beginners that claims that this is an ability that can be learned. I experimented with some of the techniques with some success. One of them was quite fascinating where you sing a middle C note with the chant “May.” It created an alpha state or daydream state where you catch flashes of colors around people. They seem to match the mood of the person however it is impossible to say if it is just the way you mind interprets the unconscious impressions of the person or if it is an objective phenomenon. Another interesting experiment that I tried involves “mirror gazing” which is when you stare into your eyes in the mirror for ten minutes or so and go into a hypnotic state and see swirling colors around you which is quite strange. I quite like experimenting with these techniques as an open minded skeptic but of course the lack of empirical evidence of auras does suggest that it is a subjective phenomenon.

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