You see auras, researchers see brain signals
People who see colorful “auras” in response to people or words may simply have a brain condition, not psychic powers, according to a new research report.
In the report, a UK researcher suggests that a woman who sees colors around the people she knows or upon hearing the sound of their names may have synesthesia, a condition in which people’s senses get crossed, causing them, for example, to see words as colors or to experience a smell in response to a sound.
Dr. Jamie Ward of University College London in the UK suggests that the patient, known as GW, may have a form of synesthesia tied to emotion, in which she sees colors in response to a feeling she gets about a person or word.
“These colours do not reflect hidden energies being given off by other people, rather they are created entirely in the brain of the beholder,” Ward said in a statement.
Scientists believe synesthesia, which appears to run in families, may occur as a result of cross-wiring between brain centers.
In Ward’s report, published in the journal Cognitive Neuropsychology, GW underwent a series of tests to determine what was triggering her perception of colors.
In one experiment, she reported the colors she saw in response to seeing people she knows or hearing their names. Different names elicited different colors, which GW could not suppress. For instance, “James” elicited pink, while “Hannah” elicited blue.
GW did not see colors attached to common names, such as Anne or Edward, if she did not know anyone with that name.
In a subsequent experiment, GW rated her emotional response to 108 words. She was significantly more likely to see colors in response to emotional words, either positive or negative.
In general, words that elicited positive feelings appeared pink, orange, yellow and green, while negative words elicited brown, grey and black shades.
Interestingly, GW said she did not see colors associated with some words that have obvious color associations, such as color names or food names.
All of this evidence points to the fact that GW’s synesthesia is likely brought on by emotions, according to Ward.
“GW does not believe she has mystical powers and has no interest in the occult, but it is not hard to imagine how, in a different age or culture, such an interpretation could arise,” Ward said.
“Although many people claiming to have such powers could be charlatans, it is also conceivable that others are born with a gift of synesthesia,” he noted.
SOURCE: Cognitive Neuropsychology, October 2004.
Revision date: July 8, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD