Can the Brain Allow us to See Psychic Auras?

image: iStock Photo

Many people have reported that they can supposedly see psychic auras around others, like a coloured hue that surrounds the person.

This kind of anecdotal report has largely been dismissed by the scientific community, but new evidence suggests that this ability may actually be a form of synaesthesia.

At a 2010 presentation at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting, Luke Miller discussed results from his research team, lead by eminent Neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran, where they studied a 23-year old male, known in the study as RF, who has Asperger’s syndrome.

When RF was a child he had difficulty perceiving people’s emotions, which is mostly typical of children with autism spectrum disorder. So his mother asked him to try to match his emotions with a colour. After a few years, this practice actually evolved into a full-blown ability to see ‘auras of colour’ around people, which changes with different emotions, which is something that some people with supposed psychic ability say they experience.

Ramachandran’s team have hypothesised that RF’s ability to actually see colour around people might be due to a link-up between the area of the brain responsible for our perception of colour, known as V4, and an area known as the Insula, which is involved in our ability to perceive emotion in others.

We perceive emotions in people largely by their facial expressions. We have a circuit in the brain known as the ‘Mirror Neuron System’, which causes our brain to mirror the facial expressions and actions of people we see. Part of this system is the insula, which gives us a subjective sense of the emotion that accompanies that expression.

When we see facial expressions, our mirror neuron system stimulates our own facial muscles in a similar way to those we are looking at and brings about a similar emotion. Through this, ‘emotional contagion’, we can feel happy when we are around happy people or sad when we are around sad people.

Children with autism spectrum disorder often have difficulty perceiving people’s emotions and this is thought to involve problems with the mirror neuron system. RF had this problem and so his mother taught him to associate his emotions with a colour.

This inevitably led to brain wiring changes where his brain most likely began to link facial expressions with colour and emotions, establishing RF’s particular form of synaesthesia.

There are many examples of synaesthesia, which is a sort of cross-wiring in the brain from the normal. It causes some people to be able to smell colour, experience touch when they see someone else being touched, and even perceive emotion from paintings. Some people even see numbers as distances, where the year 1999 might appear farther away than 2010. It might even explain the abilities of some people with autism spectrum disorders to be able to recite pi to thousands of decimal places, where some report seeing the number series as changing landscapes.

Perhaps there are more people in the world who have the same type of synaesthesia as RF. It is estimated that as much as 1 in 23 people have some form of synaesthesia.

Seeing colours around people due to synaesthesia doesn’t necessary mean that a psychic aura actually exists as a physical emanation around others. But it does suggest that some people really can perceive others’ emotions in colour, and as the emotion changes, reflected in the facial expression, synaesthetes might see this as changing colours, which is precisely what some people who say they have psychic ability report that they experience.


Endnotes: To read more on emotional contagion and the mirror neuron system, read my book ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking‘.