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Is Aura Reading Synaesthesia? Probably Not.

by Steven Novella, May 07 2012

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. 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.

18 Responses to “Is Aura Reading Synaesthesia? Probably Not.”

  1. Steven Sashen says:

    I’ve long wondered if “aura reading” was a form of synesthesia, and I still think it may be. I think that comparing aura reading to face-color synaesthesia doesn’t show results not because aura reading is a different “flavor” of synaesthesia.

    As you suggest, this is only one study. But to write off the aura/synaesthesia possibility based on it, as you do, I believe is premature.

    Here’s part of my theory:

    I’ve often marveled at how quickly we can recognize people from great distances, merely by seeing their posture/gait when they walk a few steps. Our ability to perceive movement patterns (I won’t say “body language” due to all the baggage that term brings with it) is clearly predominantly non-conscious, especially since we don’t have a robust language for describing the information we’re seeing.

    My suspicion is that aura reading synaesthesia is more closely connected to our ability to recognize non-verbal cues.

    How would you design a test for that? No idea. But I’d put money on it being more revealing than the face-color study.

    • qbsmd says:

      I’ve often marveled at how people can recognize me from so much greater distances than I can them. There are so many times I’ve been looking for someone only to have them some up to me and say “you looked at right me, and I was sure you saw me, but you walked away.”

  2. Other Paul says:

    Seems to me that what you have here is a very straightforward and easy to demonstrate case of misreporting – you’ve pretty much done all the work by providing the relevant links for readers to follow (or not). So, how about firing off your own headline: “Internet proves Science Reporting always wrong“.

    The beauty of it is, that if people propagate the ‘always’ part – which is of course not proven …

  3. tmac57 says:

    HaHa! even got bitten by this,citing Science Daily as it’s source,but at least they have now corrected their piece (with Dr. Novella’s input),so, good on them.
    Good reporting Steve.

  4. tmac57 says:

    I wonder if there was anything within the full study that would have supported the kind’s of apparently incorrect conclusions that other outlets have come to. (I’m not about to pay $31.50 to find out though)

  5. I read the whole article to be sure. The answer is no – there is a lot of background in the article about prior speculation. But the conclusion of the article is quite clear – these are distinct phenomena, here are all the differences. This study is essentially debunking the hypothesis. Reporting simply got it 100% wrong.

  6. D. Schreiber says:

    Thank you for the skeptical comments on today’s focus on “brain” phenomena. While brain scans are real, I often wonder how far it has really advanced our understanding in some areas. I always try to rephrase a story for myself without using the word brain, and it often works, revealing a platitude. For example, exercises that change the brain are often simply mental drill exercises, an ancient practice with limited scope. Of course, they change the mind or brain in some sense–you’re learning something–but not in the sweeping sense that the phrase changing the brain hints at. Are we trying to avoid using terms like mind and learn? Do we gain anything if all we’re doing is making a simple substitution?

  7. Pete H says:

    Given that we already know of brain conditions that cause visual auras (epilepsy, migraines), it seems a bit of a stretch to look for something more rare.

  8. David H. says:

    I wonder if anyone has done a study of aura readers using (1) twins (or triplets) or (2) repeat customers dressed and acting differently for each reading. Would the reader see the same aura if I went in for a reading in the morning as a beer-swilling wife-beater, and in the evening as a meek civil-servant type? Or, what if the reader could not see the subject’s face/clothing at all? Methinks this should be tried, probably at one of these psychic fairs (to minimize the likelihood of recognition b the reader).

    • David H. says:

      “…by the reader).”

    • tmac57 says:

      Aura ‘readers’ can apparently only see the aura if they can see the person i.e. they cannot be obscured by a screen of any kind.That’s why I believe that this is at best a psychological phenomena as opposed to some real thing.At worst,at least some of the time,it might just be another woo scam.

  9. Steven Sashen says:

    Let’s be clear, Steven.

    The study debunks the idea that aura reading is linked to this PARTICULAR form of synesthesia.

    You seem to suggest that the study says aura reading is not in any way a form of synesthesia, but I don’t see how you can conclude that from this one particular study of one particular relationship.

  10. Rob says:

    Im a synethsesac. I thought it was normal, almost thought it was a form of dyslexia.

    I’m also a lightworker. I wasn’t born into a gypsy commune, or had parents who practiced Wicca, in fact I was brought up with no religion, and considered myself an agnostic. I just kind of naturally became a lightworker. My mind is constantly pushing me into the esoteric. I fought it for the first 26-27 years.
    I can read auras, use devining tools, and I’m training now to heal other people by cleaning, reactivating, and refilling other peoples chakra systems.
    I believe synethsesia is a major, major, upgrade to humanity. We are Evolving. The only people I could see disagreeing is those without knowledge of their personal spiritual gifts.
    Each human is capable of recognizing their spiritual gifts. It is the lightworker, who can help.
    I understand those of you who can’t/won’t believe me.
    Time will cure that problem with tedious accuracy.
    Until then, I am a synethsesac, a lightworker, and a student of life, and that’s ok.

  11. Tom says:

    My wife and I are both skeptics / atheists.

    Since she was a child, she sees “auras”. When the phenomenon first started, she thought it was natural and when she discovered around 16 that she was the only one seeing the “colours” it came as a big surprise.

    She only sees auras on animals and humans. Colours seem to change but individuals have “dominant” colours that vary occasionally.

    My first thought was that this was some kind of visual artifact. However, due to the way colours fluctuate, I’m now more inclined to think its some form of Synaesthesia.

    Anyway, we both reject any mystical explanation but I’m really curious about what science will say in the future.

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  13. Tristan says:

    Tom! I’m so thrilled to see your comment! I’m also a passionate skeptic and atheist, a science student, and have seen what I can only describe as “auras” since my earliest memories (I have to put it in inverted commas, I hate saying that word). Ever since I found out what synesthesia was I assumed that it was that with not another word said. My experience differs from your wife’s in that people (and animals) either don’t change colour or perhaps I just don’t notice if they do.

    And frankly I’ve always assumed people who claim to see auras in a mystical, pay-me-$100-for-a-astral-consult way were just total frauds.

  14. Mandolin says:

    I see auras. I have been diagnosed with a permanent migraine and my eyes are no longer dominant, I presume that causes this weird visual effect. This was an adult onset issue that started with a pregnancy. My migraines cause weird visual issues beyond just auras sometimes people have three eyes or a nose that moves around someone’s face. My vision is always blurry, but blurry in a non-static sort of way. I recognize this is something neurological to do with my visual nervous system so it does not bother me anymore. It does not interfere with my life. I don’t read chakras or sell any services. I don’t think mine is a synesthesia either since there are no colors or sounds or smells. I don’t know what it is but I wish it would stop. So yes some people really do see auras and they are not necessarily crazy or selling weird religious ideas. Maybe they want to know whats going on the auras as much as you do.

  15. Jennifer Flint ~ The Aura Reader says:

    I am an aura reader as well (this is something of a recent development), and I also have color-grapheme synesthesia. I don’t know if one causes the other, but they do inform each other. I do readings from photos online, although I can also do them in person. But I have read people I’ve never seen a photo of, so I know this is also possible. I almost prefer it this way, because as you said, appearances can be distracting.

    My readings are intuitive, not visual, and mainly seem to follow the standard chakra color system, although I did not expect that to happen. In fact, I didn’t expect ANY of it to happen. I’m an INTJ, and a very skeptical, analytical sort of person myself. Not your standard woo-woo type at all, really.

    I discovered this ability quite by accident, and would not have believed in it myself except that it really does seem to work, for reasons I don’t begin to understand. But everyone is certainly entitled to their own beliefs and opinions. Live and let live, that’s my philosophy. :)