When I was young enough to think Dr Who was scary, I remember thinking it was good to live in times when people didn’t believe in superstitions anymore. Recently, US taxpayers coughed up US$350,000 testing the effectiveness of Therapeutic Touch. It’s one of those alternative therapies. The practitioner waves his hands over the patient, without touching them, while thinking gooey thoughts.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that people who think this could work are not very good at designing experiments. The experiment lacked decent controls and the results were meaningless. If they want to be taken seriously, they should at least try to eliminate the placebo effect.

Initially I asked myself rhetorically, “What did they think they were doing?” As in, what a waste of money. But the question is not a silly one. Why would anybody think that moving their hands over a sick person might make him get better?

The answer is that the practitioner thinks he (or she) is manipulating the patient’s aura.

Their what?

Their aura, their spiritual energy, life force, as in “Use the Force, Luke”. The stuff that’s left when you take away the atoms and photons and stuff. I don’t know all the details of what these practitioners are supposed to be doing, but then I haven’t spent $14,000 to learn the techniques. They believe this energy can be manipulated to benefit a sick person. But if illness is an imbalance or a lack of this energy, why take antibiotics?

There are many types of energy and it is possible, I suppose, that there is a thing called spiritual energy. The forms of energy that science is familiar with are detectable, usable, and often measurable. I can detect my body’s stored chemical energy by pinching a wad of skin around my waist. I could use it by driving to the gym and riding the exercycle, if I wanted to. I can detect electrical energy by turning on the television. I can increase my body’s stored energy by drinking beer. Who ever said science isn’t fun?

What about this Life Energy? Can it be detected? Some people say they can see auras. Apparently the life energy tends to leak out of our bodies and the psychically aware can see a sort of glowing fuzzy bit around our outline. The bigger the aura and the more colourful, the better. It can also be used to assess good versus evil, and political correctness.

Crystals also, allegedly, have an aura. They can be charged up by thinking good thoughts at them, or leaving them in the sun for an hour.

The good news is that this is a testable claim. A person with a large aura should be easy to spot hiding behind a corner in the dark. Unfortunately, muggers have small, black auras.

A simpler test that I saw in a Skeptical Inquirer a while back was to use a crystal and some empty matchboxes. If you have someone who claims to be able to see an aura around a crystal, try this on them. Once you have been assured that a particular crystal (a diamond engagement ring should do) has a good aura, place it in one of many empty matchboxes. Open all the boxes just a bit. You should be able to tell which box has the ring in it by the aura shining out of the box. A person’s ability to see an aura appears to be suppressed by this test.

For those of us who can’t see auras, there is always technology to fall back on. Go to any Newage (rhymes with sewage) fair and there will be someone offering to photograph your aura. For a fee. The method they use is called Kirlian photography. Some even use the Kirlian photos to assess the health of your aura, and treat any imbalance with some natural therapy. For a fee. The photos can be impressive. If you use colour film you can get a beautiful pattern around the photographed body part.

It works on anything that conducts electricity. A dead rat can have a lovely aura. So can a paper clip. Semyon Kirlian, a Russian, accidentally discovered/invented Kirlian photography in 1939. If you want a Kirlian camera of your own they can be bought from:

The cheapest ones are US$180, but there are also links to sites that provide schematics for Tesla coils, the important part of the Kirlian camera. A competent electrician could probably make one from spare parts in a couple of hours.

The Kirlian camera produces an alternating current with a very high voltage and frequency. If you place any electrically conductive material close to this, the electrons in the conductive material get excited. I mean, who wouldn’t? They produce light. In a dark room, you can see a glow, called a coronal discharge. If you place light-sensitive paper under your hand, the light emitted from your hand, exposes the paper. If you then develop this, you get a pretty picture.

It is sometimes claimed that Kirlian photography will show the missing part of a torn leaf, something known as the “phantom effect.” It doesn’t actually happen — the electric field moves around quite a lot, and because the shape of the field changes, it can occasionally appear to outline areas of the subject that never existed in the first place. This can create the illusion of the phantom effect.

The important point is that the Kirlian camera does not detect your aura. It produces it. There is no aura until the machine is turned on. The Kirlian corona can be altered by a whole range of variables, such as voltage, frequency, how hard you press on the plate, moisture on your hand, and humidity. It therefore seems unlikely that a Kirlian photo could be used to diagnose illness the way some claim (see Skeptical Inquirer, Spring 1986 and Winter 1989).

If you wanted to make a bit of money, you could take a photo at a low voltage, producing a poor aura. Then, tell your victim, er, I mean patient, you are going to give him a psychic healing. Pass your hands over the patient and say “Hmmm” a few times. Then take another photo. This time turn the voltage up to maximum. The aura should be much bigger at the higher voltage but your patient will give all the credit to the “healing”. Fortunately, no self respecting tree hugger would ever risk the bad karma that would result from such a confidence trick.

There are some who think they can feel this life energy stuff through their fingers. They get a tingling sensation when they pass their hands through someone’s aura. While I’d like to see them do it with a blindfold, they may just be sensing body heat. We have pressure sensitive nerve endings, and heat sensitive ones, but not aura sensitive ones. Just thinking about a body part may cause you to become aware of the sensations from that part. Pick a body part, any body part. Wave it about in the cold air for a few minutes and concentrate on whether it is tingling or not. It makes me tingle just thinking about it.

It doesn’t seem as if anyone has reliably seen, touched, heard, tasted, smelt or even photographed an aura. So why on Earth did they spend $350,000 testing Therapeutic Touch?

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