Synesthesia Could Explain How Some People See ‘Auras’

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Experience of ‘auras’ around people may be result of a neuropsychological condition called synesthesia.

Synesthesia is a fascinating condition which causes a cross-wiring of the senses. People with it find they can taste numbers or associate particular colours with certain people.

Rather than being weird, spooky or mystical, it is now a recognised neuropsychological phenomenon which is thought to affect about 4% of the population.

Some argue that synesthesia may help to explain the claim that people have auras–a subtle field of energy around them which can be read.

It may be that seeing this ‘energy field’ is a type of synesthesia.

One example of this cross-over between New Age beliefs and recognised neuropsychological phenomena is the case of Esteban, a faith healer from southern Spain.

Researchers from the University of Granada have examined him and found that he has mirror-touch synesthesia (Milan et al., 2012). He experiences a sensation when he sees other people being touched; this means he can literally feel other people’s pain.

He also has face-colour synesthesia, which results from a crossover between parts of the brain responsible for face processing and colour perception.

These synesthetic phenomena, along with high levels of empathy, and a slightly delusional personality, mean Estaban has special emotional and pain reading skills.

In Estaban’s case it looks like there is some relationship between his synesthesia and his perceived special abilities.

To further examine the claim, though, Milan et al. looked specifically at four synesthetes who don’t claim any special ‘New Age’ abilities.

They then compared this with known faith healers and aura readers who do claim special abilities. A large enough overlap between the two might suggest a causal role for synesthesia.

The researchers, though, found too many differences between the experience of synesthetes and those claiming to read auras.

This does not mean that the aura readers are really seeing auras, just that their ‘powers’ can be explained by alternative means. Seeing auras may instead be a result of the normal functioning of the visual system:

“…the complementary colour effect, which results from a temporary ‘‘exhaustion’’ of the colour-sensitive cells in the retina, could account for the presence of auric colours seen by a sensitive viewer when staring at a person. Staring at a darker object (a human figure) against a bright background may induce the perception of a bright ‘‘halo’’ around the object.” (Milan et al., 2012)

Or it could be that ‘aura readers’ simply see what they want or expect to see, and perhaps invoking synesthesia is too complex an explanation for a much simpler cause.

Image credit: PhotoGraham

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Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 23 October 2013

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Images: Creative Commons License