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.
In synesthetes, the brain regions responsible for the processing of each type of sensory stimuli are intensely interconnected. Synesthetes can see or taste a sound, feel a taste, or associate people or letters with a particular color.
The study was conducted by the University of Granada Department of Experimental Psychology Oscar Iborra, Luis Pastor and Emilio Goez Milan, and has been published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition. 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.
In basic neurological terms, synesthesia is thought to be due to cross-wiring in the brain of some people (synesthetes); in other words, synesthetes present more synaptic connections than “normal” people. “These extra connections cause them to automatically establish associations between brain areas that are not normally interconnected,” professor GÃƒÂ³mez MilÃƒÂ¡n explains. New research suggests that many healers claiming to see the aura of people might have this condition.
The case of the “Santon de Baza”
One of the University of Granada researchers remarked that “not all ‘healers’ are synesthetes, but there is a higher prevalence of this phenomenon among them. The same occurs among painters and artists, for example.” To carry out this study, the researchers interviewed some synesthetes including a ‘healer’ from Granada, “Esteban Sanchez Casas,” known as “El Santon de Baza”.
Many local people attribute “paranormal powers” to El Santon, because of his supposed ability to see the aura of people “but, in fact, it is a clear case of synesthesia,” the researchers explained. According to the researchers, El Santon has face-color synesthesia (the brain region responsible for face recognition is associated with the color-processing region); touch-mirror synesthesia (when the synesthete observes a person who is being touched or is experiencing pain, s/he experiences the same); high empathy (the ability to feel what other person is feeling), and schizotypy (certain personality traits in healthy people involving slight paranoia and delusions). “These capacities make synesthetes have the ability to make people feel understood, and provide them with special emotion and pain reading skills,” the researchers explain.
In the light of the results obtained, the researchers remarked on the significant “placebo effect” that healers have on people, “though some healers really have the ability to see people’s ‘auras’ and feel the pain in others due to synesthesia.” 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.
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I love your blog, but I’m a little sad to see you report this story because the actual conclusion of the study was the exact *opposite* of what the mainstream media has reported. People who see auras are probably *not* synesthetes. Most likely, they are deluded, though this study does not prove that one way or the other. Here’s more on the study: https://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/is-aura-reading-synaesthesia-probably-not/
That’s interesting. As other people did, we republished a press release from a university. It’s not uncommon for such a press release to have a title that isn’t entirely accurate, and once in a while the titles are wildly misleading and sensationalized. We try to watch out for that. But we assume that the body of the reporting is accurate.
In this case the title did seem sensationalized (“Scientific Evidence Proves why Healers See the “Aura” of People”) and we made sure we didn’t use any “prove” language in the title, and made sure that we had a “may” and a “some” in order to indicate the tentativeness of the results as reported in the body of the release.
Now, looking at Steven Novella’s article (which you linked to), and looking at the content of the actual press release, including the quotes from the scientists (which I assume are accurate) and the actual abstract, I don’t think Novella’s statements can be justified. The abstract does say, “We analyse the subjective reports of four synaesthetes who experience colours in response to human faces and figures. These reports are compared with descriptions of alleged auric phenomena found in the literature and with claims made by experts in esoteric spheres. The discrepancies found suggest that both phenomena are phenomenologically and behaviourally dissimilar.”
But at the same time the press release has “Many people attribute ‘paranormal powers’ to El SantÃƒÂ³n, such as his ability to see the aura of people ‘but, in fact, it is a clear case of synesthesia,’ the researchers explain.” Assuming that the quote is correct, then the import of the article and abstract taken together would seem to be:
(Article) Some people who believe themselves to be healers who can see auras are actually synesthetes.
(Abstract) The kinds of auras these synesthetes experience are different from “descriptions of alleged auric phenomena found in the literature and with claims made by experts in esoteric spheres.” And therefore “The discrepancies found suggest that both phenomena are phenomenologically and behaviourally dissimilar.”
So I don’t think there’s necessarily the kind of mis-reporting that Novella is claiming. One would have to penetrate the paywall and read the original article to be sure, however.
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