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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Kirlian Photography

Also called “electro-photography,” it is a technique that purports to produce a photograph of the aura, both of humans and plants. The technique is named after its discoverer, a Russian electrical technician named Semyon Davidovich Kirlian who introduced it to the world with his wife Valentina. Kirlian had paid attention to an effect which many others have noticed: when one unplugs an electric cord, a small spark is frequently produced. Kirlian’s genius consists in his wondering whether this effect could be put to some use, whereas others had simply noted and then ignored it. He also wondered whether this effect was in any way related to the phenomenon sailors call “St. Elmo’s fire” in which their ship is seen to glow during electrical storms. In Kirlian’s technique, a short burst of high-voltage, low amperage electric current is sent through something placed on a metal plate with a sealed photographic film (usually color Polaroid film) on top of it. Commonly, freshly picked leaves or fingertips are used. The developed film shows an energy discharge with certain beads of light and characteristic colors surrounding it. Most commonly, fingertips show a bluish energy pattern, but when the person whose fingertip is being photographed is directed to feel various emotions (such as sadness, love, or anger), the color changes. It is this latter effect which leads people to interpret the photographs as being those of the biological aura (see, for example, The Kirlian Aura, ed. Stanley Krippner and Daniel Rubin, 1974).

Actually, we have very little understanding of what happens when such objects are subjected to a burst of electricity. We know that organic bodies are constantly exuding various gases, including oxygen, carbon dioxide, water vapor, and sodium chloride, some of which would ionize as distinct colors. And we know that different emotions affect the biochemistry of the human body so color changes are not unexpected. That leads skeptics to believe that the technique does not really offer any proof that there is an aura surrounding biological objects. Furthermore, those skeptics would say, inanimate objects, such as coins, also show energy discharges yet they are not thought to have an aura. This latter criticism actually is not particularly significant, since, as has been noted, “The pattern of luminescence was different for every item, but living things had totally different structural details than non-living things. A metal coin, for instance, showed only a completely even glow all around the edges. But a living leaf was made up of millions of sparkling lights” (quoted in Thelma Moss, The Probability of the Impossible, 1974, p. 24). Certain effects have been produced with organic objects which are extremely difficult to explain solely in terms of electro-chemistry. For example, one Brazilian researcher, H. Andrade, claimed to produce pictures of the full aura of a leaf after a part of it had been cut off. This is called the “lost leaf phenomenon.” Others claim to have replicated that effect. Thelma Moss, with her colleague Kendall Johnson, at the University of California in Los Angeles, developed a technique in the 1970s by means of which motion pictures can be produced using the Kirlian method. In one of these, two people (a male and female) had their fingertips photographed while opposed to each other, perhaps one-and-a-half to two inches apart. The energy discharges were clearly individual, but slightly merging between them. When the subjects were asked to feel intense anger toward one another, the energy discharges actually curled away from each other. When they were asked to feel sensual passion for one another, the two energy patterns merged into a single bright red halo. This cannot be accounted for solely by the ionization of gases emitted by their fingers.

Russian researchers identify the effect as the result of a “bioplasmic body” surrounding all organic things. Theosophists interpret it as a result of the “etheric double” around biological organisms. In other words, the technique indirectly photographs the etheric aura because that aura organizes into the patterns produced in Kirlian photography. Nevertheless, although hundreds of photographs have been produced, many of which simply cannot be accounted for in biochemical terms alone, the technique remains quite controversial. Even some who accept it would claim that it still does not prove that the aura could exist independently from the body, but might merely be an effect produced by and dependent for its existence on that body. Theosophists would point out that at best it does not prove the existence of deeper aspects of the human aura, since the etheric double is just a subtler form of physical matter, nor does it offer any evidence for survival after death. It does, however, seem to offer evidence for the energy Hindus call pr€Ša, the Chinese ch’i, the Polynesians mana, the German scientist Hans Reichenbach od, and the much-misunderstood German scientist Wilhelm Reich orgone energy.

R.W.B.

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