Now you science, now you don’t

I’ll admit, I love it when science and esotericism collide. I was fascinated by ‘unexplainable’ phenomena as a kid, and the interest has carried along through to adulthood – during which the advances in science and technology have been such that many of these can now be more closely examined, opening new realms of understanding. So when I saw the headline Scientific Evidence Proves why Healers See the “Aura” of People bouncing around on Twitter, I got a little excited.

 The initial link shared out by most hit Science Daily, but being a stickler for source info, I punched through the rabbit hole to the Alpha Galileo writeup, which provided references to both the University of Granada writeup (from where the info seems to have been originally pulled) and (finally!) the paper itself.

 Eager eyes ablaze, I cracked open the paper and skimmed the abstract for all those juicy facts and figures.

 Blah blah blah, photism, emotionally mediated synaesthesia, blah blah, The discrepancies found suggest that both phenomena are phenomenologically and behaviourally dissimilar.”

 Wait, what?

 Surely there had been some kind of mistake. I mean, the headlines are pretty clear in their assertion that science had established a correlation.

I read through the research article, and sure enough, and while it references previous research that had established similarities, it also points out this research is contradictory, and it can be inferred (and later, in a sense, proven) that “the term emotionally mediated synaesthesia for the person–colour synaesthesia (on which the previous studies evidently found their conclusions) does not seem appropriate.”

 Back to the ‘aura readers are synaesthesic’ thing though.

 “None of these [aura readers] tested positive in the battery of synaesthesia or in the extensive interview. That is, they are not synaesthetes. They show neither frequent nor rare instances of synaesthesia.”

Pretty straight forward, right? Yet somehow the ’scientific media’ picked up the exact opposite view, so there has to be some kind of ambiguity down the line that confuses the matter. I kept reading

 “Contrary to the hypothesis put forward by Ward (2004), we found a number of notable discrepancies, suggesting that the two phenomena are not alike.”


 In summary, synaesthetes’ phenomenological experience seems to be qualitatively different from that of sensitives and clairvoyants. Claims made by people claiming to be psychic, or aura readers, can be alternatively explained by proven science. Duerden (2004b) shows how phenomena which arise as a consequence of the normal functioning of the human visual system can explain the purported direct experience of the aura. For instance, the complementary colour effect, which results from a temporary “exhaustion” of the colour-sensitive cells in the retina, could account for the presence of auric colours seen by a sensitive viewer when staring at a person. Staring at a darker object (a human figure) against a bright background may induce the perception of a bright “halo” around the object. This is due to a contrast amplification mechanism “built-in” to the human visual system, which allows for an efficient detection of edges. (See the original paper by Duerden, 2004b, for a detailed description of this and other optical illusions.) In any case, regardless of the plausibility of these scientific explanations of the aura, it seems clear that synaesthesia and the (esoteric) aura are phenomenologically and behaviourally dissimilar phenomena which plausibly have different neurocognitive backgrounds.

 The UoG article, and those sites that regurgitated it, seem to have focussed solely on what has been provided as the ‘exception to the rule’ case given at the very end of the article:

 “However you can find mixed cases, like a very religious grapheme–colour synaesthete or an aura reader with some subtypes of synaesthesia. This is the case of Esteban ‘The Faith Healer from Baza’”

Not quite content to just mark down the aura story to shitty journalism, I sent an email to E.G Milan, one of the researchers of the synaesthesia/aura study asking if he was aware that his work was being misrepresented. Here’s the [edited] reply:

Hi, yes I am aware of it. It is a funny situation that is out of my
control. However probably I am guilty of it, only in part, because in my
discussion with journalists in Spain we have focus the attention just in
one single case, a famous santon from the south of spain who shows some
forms of synaesthesia (Esteban de Baza: we prepare a new paper about this
single case), overall mirror-touch synaesthesia. From that information
they have made an implicit generalization: all aura readers are
synaesthetes and despite my efforts to explain that synaesthesia is not
an illness or is not a power, some newspapers offers the version of
synaesthesia like an illness and the conclusion that aura readers are
crazy people and others the oppositte, that synaesthesia is a power and
then that esoteric aura is demostrated. You can not eliminate prejudices
against or in favor of a belief. For me it is an interesting test of the
relationship between survival of ideas and the role of data.  For me
things are complex  and I like to discuss about the possible origins of
some beliefs but we never made any afirmation about extrasensorial powers
like real or false. The ms is there.It is about the relationship between
forms of synaesthesia (heterogenous person-color synaethesia) and aura.


So. After recovering from the nhilistic despair this ‘meh, my bad, can’t be helped’ response briefly wrought upon my mind, body and soul, (and presumably aura, should it actually exist – not that a synthaesthesiac would be able to confirm that mind you) I got on with my life. It’s not exactly like someone being wrong on the internet is the end of world, right? And then the Universe did her ‘smack you in the face with serendipity’ thing, and threw this at me via Twitter:

EdYong209: Odd Atlantic piece: we need bullshit sci journalism to get the meaty “contrarian” stuff? No. Just get it right 1st time

The article itself describes the claim/counter-claim/investigate/debunk cycle around science news, and finishes by suggesting:

Without the borderline false headlines, we don’t get the contrarian debunking part [ohai!], which is when we generally learn what the research really says. Without the cycle we might not ever learn anything about science at all.

Well, after my brief little foray into this cycle, I can only say that perhaps it’s not just journalistic integrity that needs to carry the burden of responsibility of accurately representing scientific research, but in some cases, that of the researchers themselves. Although, as this Forbes piece demonstrates, sometimes even that may not be enough.


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