May 07 2012

Is Aura Reading Synaesthesia? Probably Not.

I am often asked, and wonder myself, if there are significant hard-wired and genetically determined brain differences between skeptics and new agers or conspiracy theorists (or name your favorite flavor of true believer). It can certainly feel this way when you are knee deep in a cyber-debate with someone with a radically different world-view than yourself. Obviously there is no simple answer to this question. Biological brain effects are filtered through culture, education, and personal experience, which in turn have an effect on the wiring of the brain (the brain has memory and learns from experience). Further, genetically determined hard-wiring, to the extent that this exists, is extremely complex, with many factors affecting each other.

While it may be difficult to tease out the contribution of genetic hard-wiring to things like belief in fairies, I think it remains an open question and it is not implausible that there is a significant contribution in some cases. Perhaps to some extent the conflict between skeptics and true believers is really a competition between different  versions of human brain wiring. Perhaps we will need to just accept this neurodiversity (its existence, if not its effect on our culture).

While this is a fascinating question, at the same time I feel there is a tendency in popular culture, especially among journalists and (ironically) some purveyors of dubious products and services, to reframe many phenomena with specific reference to the brain. Old fashioned learning is now “training your brain,” for example. While this is technically true, it makes it seem like a new, targeted, reductionist technology when in fact it’s just practice and learning.

A recent study explored one small aspect of the question of brain function and spirituality – researchers asked themselves if those healers and gurus who claim to be able to see a human aura are really synaesthetes, people with a hyperrobust connection among different brain regions that make them smell color, taste sound, feel numbers, or otherwise experience one sensation or experience with an overlay of another sensation. There is a form of synaethesia in which people experience the faces of those familiar to them as having a specific color.

This is a reasonable and interesting hypothesis. I generally try to avoid speculating about people’s motivations, but it I do often wonder what is going on in the minds of someone who claims to see something (like an aura) that is simply not there. I tend to chalk it up to the power of suggestion and self-deception, but perhaps in some cases the person really is seeing something. If true, the face-color synaesthesias hypothesis would bring aura reading in line with many other similar phenomena in which people are sincere, they are just misinterpreting a brain phenomenon as if it were an external phenomenon.

My favorite example of this is hypnagogia, or waking dreams. People have a real experience in which upon awakening they are paralyzed and feel a threatening presence. It is a real and scary experience, and is often interpreted as a demonic visit, alien abduction, or whatever is culturally appropriate. However it is really a well known neurological phenomenon, a parasomnia or abnormal sleep phenomenon. In other words – it is an internal brain experience, but can seem like a real external experience to the person having it.

It would be nice to have a similar explanation of something like seeing auras. It’s a tidy little explanation, and it is a bit easier to explain to people that they are experiencing a real brain phenomenon rather than that they are likely just self-deluded.

Unfortunately, the hypothesis seems to be wrong. 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. For example, synaesthetes see color superimposed over a person, while aura reader see it as a halo. Synaesthetes see one color, while aura readers often discuss layers of color. Synaesthetes generally experience their phenomenon from childhood, while aura reading can apparently be learned.

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.

Now a hypothesis that may be interesting but is without a shred of evidence, and in fact the one test of the hypothesis is negative, is being reported as if it were proven, and this meme-genie is out of the bottle.

Interestingly, this is also not the first time this hypothesis has been raised. In an article in the Skeptical Inquirer in 2011, Bridgette M. Perez and Terence Hines write about auras and bring up the synaesthesia hypothesis. They refer to prior case reports of color synaesthesia, such as the case of GW reported on in 2004. In this case GW sees color associated with people he has an emotional connection to, and even words or concepts that are emotional, such as love. This is one of those features that do not, however, fit well with seeing aura, which are not limited to people with a personal or emotional connection. While GW does not believe in mysticism, Perez and Hines report:

“It is especially interesting that in two separate samples, Zingrone, Alvarado, and Agee (2009) found that individuals who reported seeing auras were significantly more likely to report synesthetic events.”

Interesting, but circumstantial. Given the weight of the evidence it seems that the connection between auras and synaesthesia is speculative and based on superficial similarities that are likely coincidental. The new study, if anything, is a deeper look at the question, finding the hypothesis lacking.

You will learn none of this, unfortunately, reading the lay press, but instead will be led toward the exact opposite (but more headline worthy) conclusion.

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