In the recent movie Mesmer, Alan Rickman, as the eighteenth-century psychic, erotically and ecstatically strokes his patients' bodies back to health. The historical Franz Anton Mesmer claimed that the human body was magnetically charged and that an unbalanced charge resulting from illness or madness could be rectified through hands-on healing. Mesmer was also, of course, famous for his hypnotic skills and hence contributed the term mesmerism to our vocabulary. The film is framed by the charismatic healer's appearance before the Academie Royale in Paris, where he was asked to argue the scientific basis of his work and was ultimately dismissed as a charlatan. Viewers are left to decide for themselves.
The aura, the term most commonly used today to describe what Mesmer considered a magnetic substance, is still dismissed by much of our western scientific establishment. And its widespread popularity among New Age devotees has only confirmed the skeptics' suspicions. Observations of the phenomenon, however, are neither new nor entirely restricted to the fringes of established society.
From Pythagoras in the sixth century BCE to Valerie Hunt in the 1970s and 1980s, thinkers, scientists, "psychics" and laypeople have observed, puzzled over and tried to make sense of some kind of emanation from or substance around the body. A number of scientists have tried to measure the emanations they observed. In Britain, Walter J. Kilner used coloured screens and filters to reveal a slightly glowing oval "mist" around his patients' bodies. The psychiatrist George De La Warr diagnosed his patients with a radionics instrument he developed to detect radiation from living tissues.
In the second half of the twentieth century, scientists working in this domain have returned to Mesmer's explanation of the aura as a magnetic or energy field. Since the seventies, Dr. Valerie Hunt at UCLA has electronically measured the frequency and location of what she calls the biofield on human subjects. And in Japan, Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama has measured the aura with light-sensitive devices.
Two American scientists, in particular, have argued not only that they can see and feel auras but that, like Mesmer, they can heal diseases by manipulating these auras. John Pierrakos, a psychiatrist, and Barbara Brennan, a former NASA research scientist, have worked both together and individually and published their findings in a number of books.(1)
They draw on both western science and eastern traditions. In the West, they refer to twentieth-century physics, especially the equivalence of matter and energy in Einstein's theory of relativity. Among eastern traditions, they refer to the Chinese notion of Ch'i or universal energy; the tradition of acupuncture, which sees the body as made up of energy lines; and the Hindu notion of chakras (Sanskrit for wheels), which they describe as concentrated points of energy in the body.
Brennan and Pierrakos argue that the human energy field, as they call the aura, is composed of pulsatory rhythms that vary in speed. These pulsations are faster at the outer rim of the field than they are next to the physical body, which is what enables the human energy field to draw "nourishment" from the universal energy field (the Chinese Ch'i permeating all individual human energy fields) into the body's organism. In their understanding of the aura, it both permeates the solid body and extends beyond it: "The material and the nonmaterial functions differ in vibratory frequency, not in substance. …