Jul 25 2012

Mood Photography

Whenever I see a pretty picture of an astronomical object, like a gas cloud, or even the surface of Mars, I always like to know how much of the color I am seeing is computer enhancement. The same applies for any scientific image. Often it’s obvious, such as the color coding of brain activity or blood flow in a PET scan or fMRI. The color is just a way to visually represent the data. Other times it’s not so obvious, like the color of the sky on Mars.

At the very least, however, the source of the image needs to be transparent – what exactly are we seeing.

Several people have recently pointed me toward a form of photography that is being sold as aura photography, but actually isn’t. There is, of course, no such thing as aura photography because there is no such thing as an aura.

Believers claim that every person has an aura – a shroud of color resulting from their energy field. For example, this aura photography site claims:

An AURA is the electromagnetic energy field that surrounds, encompasses and permeates the body as well as all living things. The colors and patterns within this energy field constitute a blueprint (the results of the energy we radiate from our feelings, thoughts, and physical being). Until recently, Aura’s were only seen by the special few who had a gift to see the rainbow of colors.

This is utter nonsense. People do radiate electromagnetic energy, but this is mostly infrared and is a function of our body temperature, not our thoughts and feelings. People do not give off visible light, however. Those who belief they can see an aura around other people are largely self deluded (it is thought that some may have a visual or sensory disorder, but this is speculative). There is also no instrument that can detect what “aura readers” claim to be seeing – because it has no basis in physical reality.

This has not stopped people from trying. Perhaps the most famous form of such photography is known as Kirlian photography. This technique is just producing an image on film by applying electricity to moisture. Terrence Hines explains it well (via The Skeptics Dictionary):

Living things…are moist. When the electricity enters the living object, it produces an area of gas ionization around the photographed object, assuming moisture is present on the object. This moisture is transferred from the subject to the emulsion surface of the photographic film and causes an alternation of the electric charge pattern on the film. If a photograph is taken in a vacuum, where no ionized gas is present, no Kirlian image appears. If the Kirlian image were due to some paranormal fundamental living energy field, it should not disappear in a simple vacuum.

This is essentially the problem I identified above – what, exactly, is being photographed?

The new form of alleged “aura” photography being touted by believers is the Guy Coggins Aura Camera 6000. This technique also is not imaging an energy aura or anything else around people. What it does is use biofeedback technology – attaching electrodes to the skin – and then it use the skin conductance to determine what color to add to the Polaroid film it uses.

The “aura” and the color, in other words, is entirely fake. It is added to the film. It is not being “photographed” in any way. The major assumption of this technique is that the data from biofeedback somehow relates to the person’s aura. This is all just made up, however, without a lick of scientific plausibility or evidence. In fact the data from the skin electrodes is highly variable, from moment to moment. It’s nothing more than a mood ring. It reflects skin temperature, sweatiness, and conductance – nothing about the personality of the individual.

But it produces images of the subject with a colored halo around their head and body. It’s a clever gimmick, but nothing more.

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