Kirlian Photography

Stephen Barrett, M.D.
June 2, 2001

Kirlian photography allegedly depicts the body’s “aura,” a so-called “human energy field” that is said to be not ordinarily visible. During the procedure, the object, such as a person’s hand, is placed on a photographic emulsion within an apparatus that generates a high-voltage (15,000 to 100,000 volts), low-amperage, high-frequency electric current. The resulting photo shows a fuzzy glow surrounding the outline of the object. Proponents correlate these patterns with acupuncture meridians and claim that “auric” qualities reveal changes in health and emotional state. Kirlian photography has also been claimed useful for demonstrating changes before and after chiropractic spinal manipulation. However, scientific investigators have shown that Kirlian effects depend on physical factors that are well understood.

Kirlian photography is named after Semyon Davidovich Kirlian (1900-1980), a Russian electrician who observed that an electric spark can “take its own picture” as it passes through a photographic emulsion. This phenomenon had been well known to physicists and electrical engineers since the earliest days of photography. But in 1939, Kirlian proclaimed that he was photographing a supernatural human energy field.

The Kirlian photographic process requires a high-voltage, high-frequency, alternating current supply. The basic process — a corona discharge phenomenon — occurs when an electrically grounded object discharges sparks between itself and an electrode generating the electrical field [1]. Two set-ups can be used to take Kirlian photographs. In the first, one end of the circuit is attached to an electrode above a piece of film, the other to an identical electrode below the piece of film. The second method involves grounding one electrode of the power supply and placing a dielectric slab on the other. A piece of film is then placed on the slab. Any object placed between two films in the first method, or on the film in the second method, will produce a beautiful photograph as “streamers” of charged particles leave any “bumpy” features of the object and pass through the film [2].

Kirlian himself did not understand the involved science. To him, the “fuzzy” field surrounding any object was a photograph of its “aura.” He was ignored by Russian scientists, but during the early 1960s the Russian press and popular magazines promoted him as a “great discoverer.” American and European journalists and pseudoscientists flocked to see him and returned home ready to “study the aura” and “probe the bioenergy field.”

Kirlian photography is alleged to detect all types of disease (even before physical signs appear) and emotional states. Many “energy healers,” “clairvoyants,” and other occult practitioners still rely on it today. “Supernaturally gifted” people are claimed to generate unusually dramatic photos. However, scientific investigation has found that the outcome depends on the type of film, the voltage, the skin resistance (which can be affected by perspiration and the amount of pressure of the finger on the film), how well the subject is electrically grounded, the humidity of the room, the exposure time, the photographic development time, and even the order of the photograph in a series [3,4]. Moreover, coins and water droplets can generate Kirlian “auras” as effectively as living things. In fact, at least 22 physical, chemical, and photochemical characteristics can influence the coronal discharges seen in Kirlian photos.

  1. Guiley RE. Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical & Paranormal Experience. San Francisco: Harper, 1991, pp 313-315.
  2. Coker G. Kirlian photography and the “aura.” ASTOP fact sheet, 1983.
  3. Watkins AJ, Bickel WS. A study of the Kirlian effect. The Skeptical Inquirer 10:244-257, 1986.
  4. Watkins AJ, Bickel WS. The Kirlian technique: Controlling the wild cards. The Skeptical Inquirer 13:172-184, 1989.

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This page was posted on June 2, 2001.