Kirlian Photography

Dave Palmer

A correspondent wrote:

> A long time ago, I saw a documentary on tv about a phenomena
>called the "phantom leaf". Researchers were doing an experiment where
>they would place their hands or other objects (sometimes a leaf) on a
>clear (appeared to be glass) plate and somehow passed an electric current
>over it. They photographed it and you see the outlining of the object
>from the sparks it produced around the object. Well, they took a leaf,
>cut it in half and placed it on the plate and passed a current through
>it. Amazingly, the leaf did not show just the outlining of its one half,
>but as if it were a whole one. They did the experiment several more
>times with different cuts and sometimes they were able to get the whole
>leaf to show up.
> They extended the experiment to people who were amputees (sp?).
>Some of the people did not have the image show up at all, others on the
> ...etc

What you're talking about here is Kirlian photography. My article on it used be in the FAQ, don't know if it still is or not. I did a fairly extensive research project on Kirlian photography many years ago. Kirlian photography was a pseudoscience fad in the 70's, and has recently been making a comeback amongst New Age loonies.

The technique is this: a high-voltage, high-frequency, but very low-current source (such as from a Tesla coil) is applied to a grounded subject sitting on a piece of photographic film or paper (this happens in a darkroom, needless to say). A pretty corona of electrical discharges is produced, outlining the subject. The resulting photos are interesting to look at.

And that's it.

This is not a "life energy" image, or anything else but a simple electrical corona discharge. ANY subject that conducts electricity, organic or not, produces the Kirlian effect.

The so-called "phantom limb" effect is, well, a phantom. It simply doesn't happen. Not with organic nor inorganic subjects. I have semi-reliable information that the whole "phantom limb" story actually comes from just one, count 'em, ONE experiment with a leaf, which was never replicated. I've never seen it in the hundreds of my own photos...and I've tried. To my knowledge, this effect has NEVER been reproduced on a human or animal amputee...except perhaps as a staged stunt for a gullible TV crew.

There are at least two possible explanations for the "phantom limb" effect, assuming it ever existed at all:

-First, the corona discharge is very dynamic, which means it jumps around a lot. It is very sensitive to anything which effects electrical conductivity (humidity, conductance of subject, etc.). Thus, it is possible that a random jumping around of the field might have produced an image that, in an uncritical mind, might have resembled the missing piece of the leaf.

-Or, far more likely in my judgment, is experimental error. The common Kirlian setup is to put a piece of glass on top of the subject to hold it flat during the exposure. If this were done with a moist leaf, the leaf might leave a moisture imprint on the glass, which, even after a piece of the leaf was torn off, would still be a conductive path that would show the full outline of the leaf.