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Supposedly perceived by psychics and identified by some parapsychologists, but largely unrecognized by mainstream science, emanations play a significant part in theories about psychic phenomena. Throughout history, subtle emanations have been postulated under a variety of names, such as the prana of ancient India, the mana of Polynesian primitives, the telesma of Hermes Trismegistus, the pneuma of Gallien, the astral light of the Kabbalists, and the spiritus of Robert Fludd. Since the late eighteenth century and Franz Anton Mesmer 's proposals concerning magnetic fluid, a variety of terms for emanations have been proposed, such as "odic force," "animal magnetism," "ether," "radiations," and "vibrations." At various times emanations were said to proceed from and surround everything in nature. When living things were brought into contact through this medium the result was either interpenetration or repulsion.

Early Theories

Analogies with magnetism were inevitable because the properties of the magnet were known to ancient peoples, some authorities claiming that it was used in religious rites in Egypt, Greece, and Rome. They offered as evidence the iron rings and wings used in the Samothracian mysteries, the iron wings worn by priests of Jupiter to increase their magic power, and the various symbols ascribed to the paganistic gods.

It was said too that meteoric stones, because of a force they radiate, were used in religious rites, either as objects of worship or as tools for divination and soothsaying. Small stones were worn by the priests, and Pliny described the temple of Arsinoe as being vaulted with magnetic stone in order to receive a hovering statue of its patron. Cedrenus gave an account of an ancient image in the Serapium at Alexandria suspended by magnetic force.

The most ancient writing extant in which a theory of emanations may be found is ascribed to Timaeus of Locris (ca. 420-380 B.C.E.). He assigns the creation of the universe to divine emanations of God, an imparting of his being to unformed matter. By this union a world-soul was created that vitalized and regulated all things he said. Claudian, in his Idyl of the Magnet, uses the concept of emanations as a symbol of the informative spirit of things, the laws of nature, creative and existent.

The mysticism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries mainly depended on ideas of radiation emanating from all things, but especially from the stars, magnets, and human beingsof a force that would act on all things and was controlled by an indwelling spirit. The writings of Paracelsus abound with instances of the theory. He asserted that every substance in itself contained something of the nature of the lodestone, that an "astral light"one of the finer media of nature, finer than the luminiferous etherexisted throughout planetary space and especially around the human brain and spinal cord. He wrote that humans are simply organized magnets, each with poles that attract and repel, that our thoughts are magnetic emanations projected from our minds.

According to Paracelsus, the universe emanated from a great First Being and there was a reciprocity in all things. In man too there existed an "astral quality" emanating from the stars, which, when compared with the physical body, might be considered a spirit. He wrote that this life stood in connection with the stars from which it sprang and drew to it their power like a magnet. Paracelsus called this sidereal life the magnes microcosmi and made use of it to explain the manifestations of natureit glowed in the flower, glided in the stream, moved in the ocean, and shone in the sky.

The alchemist Jean Baptiste Van Helmont wrote of an ethereal spirit, pure and living, that pervades all things. Robert Fludd explained sympathy and antipathy by the action of the emanatory spheres surrounding man: in sympathy the emanations proceed from the center; in antipathy the opposite movement takes place. He maintained that these sensitive emanations could also be found among animals and plants, drawing an argument from the fact that if inert substances, such as the earth and magnet seem to be, have their emanations and their poles, living forms must also have them. William Maxwell, a seventeenth-century Scottish physician, wrote: "There is a linking together of spirits, an incessant outpouring of the rays of our body into another."

The philosopher Descartes asserted that all space is filled with a fluid matter that he held to be elementary, the foundation and fountain of all life, enclosing all globes and keeping them in motion. The idea of emanation and magnetism is also found in Newton's doctrine of attraction, which he called the "Divine Sensorium." As he suggests in his Principles of Natural Philosophy,

"Here the question is of a very subtle spirit which penetrates through all, even the hardest bodies and which is concealed in their substance. Through the strength and activity of this spirit, bodies attract each other and adhere together when brought into contact. Through it electrical bodies operate at the remotest distances as well as near at hand, attracting and repelling; through this spirit the light also flows and is refracted and reflected and warms bodies."

Mesmer, in detailing his theoretical work for the committee of the French Academy of Science, broke down his ideas into a series of propositions. One was the following:

"Between the heavenly bodies, the earth and human beings, there exists a mutual or interchangeable influence. The medium of this influence is an universally distributed fluid which suffers no vacuum, is of a rarity with which nothing can compare and has the property of receiving and transmitting all impressions of movement. Animal bodies experience the mutual effect of this agent, because it penetrates the nerves and affects them directly. In the human body particularly are observed properties analogous to those of the magnet. It is shown by experiment that a matter flows out so fine that it penetrates all bodies without apparently losing any of its activity. This may be communicated to other bodies, animate or inanimate, such as mirrors; it is communicated, propagated, augmented by sound. Its virtues may be accumulated, concentrated and transported."

These propositions were basic to Mesmer's larger under-standing of animal magnetism and its use in curing disease. Some experimenters in the field who followed Mesmer began to place increasing emphasis on the "mesmeric trance" and the phenomena associated with a mesmerized subject rather than the claimed physical properties of animal magnetism. In the trance condition, many sensitive individuals were said to exhibit clairvoyant and other paranormal faculties, as well as insensitivity to pain and susceptibility to suggestion. This direction of research culminated in two contradictory developments: a natural association between the psychic faculties of mesmerized subjects and the phenomena of Spiritualism; and the medical transition from mesmerism to hypnotism, in which psychic faculties were discredited and emphasis was given to abnormal physical phenomena.

Reichenbach Phenomena

During the nineteenth century, these different directions of research and theory coexisted and were often inextricably entangled. From 1840 on, German chemist Baron Karl von Reichenbach conducted experiments in electromagnetic phenomena in relation to a vital force which he called od or "odyle." Reichenbach maintained that this force was perceptible to sensitives, or psychic individuals, who could identify the poles of magnets as well as lines of force from human, animal, mineral, and vegetable sources in a totally dark room. These emanations were perceived by the sensitives as differing in color, size, intensity, and temperature according to the nature of the object examined. The poles of a magnet emitted flames which were reddish-yellow from the south pole and bluish-green from the north; similar polarity was perceived in the luminous emanation from crystal. He said that human fingers also radiated patterns of light. His claims have a unique bearing on the phenomena of psychical research and parapsychology because they deal with the question of special sensitivity of certain individuals to subtle force.

Dowsing or water witching, with its associated fields of radionics and radiesthesia, is specifically concerned with a claimed sensitivity to subjective and objective aspects of subtle force and polarity. The visual indications of subtle force allegedly perceived by Reichenbach's sensitives also have relevance to aura research, where lines of force and colors are described by psychics as surrounding the human body. Theories of emanations are also invoked for such phenomena as psychometry. Sir Oliver Lodge, lecturing before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool, speculated:

"Here is a room where a tragedy occurred, where the human spirit was strung to intense anguish. Is there any trace of that agony still present, and able to be appreciated by an attuned or receptive mind? I assert nothing, except that it is not inconceivable. If it happens, it may take many formsthat of vague disquiet perhaps, or even imaginary sounds or vague visions, or perhaps a dream or picture of the event as it occurred. Relics again. Is it credible that a relic, a lock of hair, an old garment retains any indication of the departedretains any portion of his personality? Does an old letter? Does a painting? an old master we call it. Aye, much of the personality of an old master may be thus preserved. Is not the emotion felt looking at it a kind of thought transference from the departed?"

Writing on the psychic gifts of the medium Stephan Ossowiecki, Charles Richet stated:

"There is something profoundly unknown in a line of our writing, other than the lines traced on the paper. This un-known something may be called an emanation. I have called it pragmatic emanation, which would act on our cryptesthesis and stimulate cognition. It resembles somewhat the emanation from subterranean water that provokes the movements of the dowsing rod."

The simile is suggestive. Running water, metals, crystals, and magnets produce strange sensations in some sensitives. In hypnotic and in hysteric cases the sensitivity to metals is very pronounced. The magnetism of the earth is felt by some sleep-ers according to whether they lie in the north-south or in the east-west position. Reichenbach discussed all these phenomena.

His famous work Researches on Magnetism, Electricity, Heat, Light, Crystallisation and Chemical Attraction in their Relations to the Vital Force was published and translated in 1849 and 1850. However, his Letters on Od and Magnetism (1852) provides a less complex introduction.

In the 1880s the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) investigated and replicated Reichenbach's claims. In trials with 45 subjects of both sexes, with ages ranging between 16 and 60, three professed to see something luminous. With one subject 14 consecutive successes were recorded. The SPR's committee concluded:

"In view of these apparent confirmations of previous testimony, the committee is inclined to the opinion that, among other unknown phenomena associated with magnetism, there is a prima facie case for the existence, under conditions not yet determined, of a peculiar and unexplained luminosity resembling phosphorescence, in the region immediately around the magnetic poles, and visible only to certain individuals" (Proceedings, vol. 1, 1883: 230).

However, another, more exhaustive, investigation on behalf of the American Society for Psychical Research by Prof. Joseph Jastrow and Dr. George Nutthal was entirely negative.

Other Turn-of-the-Century Experimenters

During the decades before World War I, the first generation of psychical researchers devoted a signifcant amount of energy in attempts to verify the existence of various forms of emanations from the human body. Among the more famous of these efforts center upon the experiments on the human aura by the physician Walter J. Kilner.

An interesting analogy can be found in the experiments of Dr. Joseph Maxwell regarding a "digital effluvium," the colored perception of which, according to his conclusions, indicated a highly psychical temperament. He advised that a dark object (e.g., an armchair covered with dark velvet) be placed between the light and the experimenter; the subject's hands were joined at the fingertips, palm toward the chest, and then slowly withdrawn, with the fingers kept stretched out. Seven or eight out of ten subjects, if their heads were on a level with the operator's head, perceived a sort of gray mist uniting the fingertips. Maxwell found that out of three hundred people of both sexes 240 to 250 perceived the effluvium; two or three out of a sample of one hundred saw it blue. Two saw it yellow and one saw it red. If the hands ceased to move, the effluvium disappeared. If the movements of withdrawal ceased when the fingertips were within 10 to 15 centimeters' proximity, the effluvium remained visible for a longer time.

Maxwell's experiments were conducted in daylight. One of his mediums saw the effluvium escape from the hands of the sitters and spread itself over the séance table. Putting out all light, Maxwell traced letters on the table with the tip of his finger. The medium was able to read five-lettered words thus traced.

This effluvium recalls the magnetic fluid of mesmerizers about which controversy ran high through much of the nineteenth century. Charles Richet believed that no satisfactory answer could be given to the question of whether the old method of mesmeric passes sets free some special human power that acts on other human beings. Eugene A. D. Rochas, Hyppolite Baraduc, and Emile Boirac claimed photographic evidence for its existence, though this evidence has proved inconclusive.

E. K. Müller, an engineer of Zürich and director of the Salus Institute for electromagnetic treatment of nervous disorders, also indicated the existence of an emanation from the human body that is capable of decreasing the resistance of an electric circuit. The experiments were further supported by the work of a Professor Farny of the Zürich Polytechnicum, who gave the name "anthropoflux" to the emanation. The maximum emission came from the inner surfaces of the fingers of the left hand. Its source appeared to be in the blood, but the breath was also charged with it. It penetrated a large number of substances, many of which gave off a secondary radiation and it could be stored in an inverted test tube in the same way as a gas.

Other mysterious emanations were claimed by Prosper Blondlot of the University of Nancy, France, in 1903. He asserted that the human brain and nerves give off rays that are capable of penetrating aluminum, black paper, and other opaque objects. He named them "N-rays" after the town of Nancy. The rays were believed to consist of at least four groups of ether vibrations. They were said to be of long wavelength and near electromagnetic waves in frequency. They could be obtained from various sources other than the Roentgen tube, and certain bodies seemed to have the property of retaining or storing the rays for a considerable amount of time. The human body was said to emit them continuously. Although nonluminous in themselves, the rays would increase the glow of any phosphorescent body they touched. A small spark or flame was similarly influenced. The existence of "N-rays" was supposedly demonstrated in photography; pictures taken without the rays were very faint, while those obtained while the "N-rays" were in action were much stronger.

Dr. Jules Regnault held it probable that the "N-rays" only constituted part of the radiation studied under the name "odic force." The reports of "N-rays" were followed by those of "N1-rays" and by the demonstration of Gustave LeBon that all bodies emit effluvia, which he called "dark light." In 1893 a Dr. Luys published a book on the direct visibility of cerebral effluvia.

Of the several attempts to substantiate the existence of human emanations, the "N-rays" were most singularly proven nonexistent. A few months after Blondlot had been honored by the French Academy of Science, he was visited by an American physicist, Robert W. Wood. Wood slyly removed a prism from Blondlot's apparatus while the latter was describing an "N-ray" spectrum. According to Wood, this had no effect on Blondlot's observations, which he concluded could only be imaginary. The ridicule that followed this "exposure" (see Nature, vol. 70, 1904, p. 530) culminated in Blondlot's madness and death.

In 1896 Commandant Darget of Tours, France, claimed to have proven the existence of vital emanations in plants by placing a freshly cut small fern on a photographic plate in a dark room. After two days he obtained the exact portrait of the plant, effluvia thrown from each leaflet and zones of contracting during its loss of vitality. His experiments led him to propose that a photographic plate be placed on the head and heart of a man who was believed to be dead but might be in danger of being buried alive. Darget believed that traces of life would show themselves on the plate. But G. de Fontenay advised caution, saying there might be "perfidies of the sensitive plate" and the interchange of gaseous matter between living bodies and the atmosphere, the influence of secretions, or the action of radiant heat that might well be responsible for some of the phenomena.

Dr. Louis Favre, experimenting with Agnes Schloemer, claimed to have discovered powerful vital emanations of the human body. By the imposition of her hands, Schloemer could allegedly destroy such resistant bacteria as the Bacillus subtilis and the bacillus anthracis.

Dr. H. Durville published similar results with the typhoid bacillus in the Bulletin General of the Psychological Institute of Paris, but the most sensational experiments in this field were conducted by Drs. L. Clarac and B. Llaguet of Bordeaux with a Mme. X. The report of their seven-year investigations, published in 1912, appeared to prove the existence of a fluid emanation by certain individuals that prevented the decomposition of plants or animals and preserved them in a desiccated but much finer state than any mummification process could.

The experiments were conducted in the doctors' own laboratory; the various objects were provided by the physicians and placed immediately under lock and key. The treatment took place in light, under perfect control, each experiment taking about twenty minutes and consisting of placing the hands of Mme. X in contact with the object or sometimes only near it. Plants dried up with the preservation of perfect color; wine showed no signs of acid fermentation; in oysters the process of putrefaction was prevented, or stopped if the treatment began at a later stage; and fish and birds were preserved in their form, color, and brightness of the eyes. The blood of a rabbit (without being drained) was preserved in a liquefied state for 25 days and remained as a solid red mass afterward.

Similar phenomena were demonstrated by Joanny Gaillard, a shoe dealer of Lyons. He claimed that from his youth he had been able to heal burns and bruises of any sort by laying on his right hand. He observed that when he juggled with oranges they became hardened. He believed that a fluid that counteracted putrefaction and had germicidal qualities emanated from his hands. He made experiments beginning in January 1928, one being to mummify animal corpses and perishable commodities in general. He found that even fish, after treatment, were perfectly preserved. Oranges and lemons became as hard as wooden balls.

He made a little museum of such objects, which René Sudre in Psychic Research (March 1929) admits having seen. Lyons physicians tested Gaillard's "fluid" on seeds and microbes. It appeared that he had succeeded in arresting the germination of lentil seeds. When he tried his fluid on a bacterial culture, however, it seemed to be reflected in some curious fashion and he got the sensation of having burned his hands. A committee of physicians in Paris before whom Gaillard appeared came to the conclusion that the existence of his fluid had not been demonstrated.

A. Bue, in his Le Magnétisme curatif (1894), narrates interesting experiments in hastening the growth of plants by "magnetic passes." Bulbs of hyacinths were used. According to Bue, "By magnetizing every day, for about five or ten minutes, the water in the vases where the roots of these tubercles are immersed, one is able to give such vitality to the sap, that stem and flower will speedily assume extraordinary appearances."

Similar experiments were reported by Dr. Louis Favre at a meeting of the Psychological Institute at Paris in 1905. According to his findings, the human hand exercised an action over the germination and growth of plants, the right hand being the most active. It strengthened feeble vitality and the influence of six minutes' action on the first day extended to the whole period of germination. The better the health of the plant, the stronger the action.

Heinrich Nusslein, the German automatic painting medium, claimed the power to prolong the life of fresh-cut flowers for several days by making passes over them.

Gambier Bolton, in his book Psychic Force (1906), recommends the flower-healing test to discover mediumistic powers. In this test a dying blossom is put into fresh water in a place where it is sheltered from the full rays of the sun. The experimenter rubs the palms of his hands together sharply for half a minute and then, standing in front of the flower, places the palms of both hands behind the flower and draws the hands in a semicircle toward his body. This action is repeated slowly and steadily, with concentration, from 12 to 20 times, remembering that it is not at all necessary to touch the flower. As a further test, another dying blossom might be placed in water three feet away from the first. When the 20 passes have been made over the first blossom, both should be placed out of reach, in a moderate temperature, and left there for 24 hours. If at the end of that period the one treated shows any signs of improvement, the experimenter has some powers; if both look better, he is likely to be a good medium.

Hyppolite Baraduc spent many years studying the emission of human "fluid" and photographed the emanations of human hands. He also invented a biometer to register vibrations emitted from the hands. In the hands of psychics he found luminosity radiating from the base of the palm. The subjects' mental state had great influence over the lines of light he obtained.

Mental distress was disclosed by confused lines. Baraduc also photographed his son and his wife, one four minutes after death and the other 24 hours after death. In each instance there was seen stretching from the lifeless body a great stream of force that extended to the ceiling of the room and then turned down again. The son's face allegedly could be recognized in the stream, seen close to the body, by anyone who had known him. A profile of his wife was also seen in the room.

Albert Nodon, president of the Bordeaux Astronomical Society, tested the radioactivity of living substances by a specially constructed electrometer. He found that the radioactivity of vegetable matter was of the same order as that of uranium. It was found to be greater in the reproductive organs than in other parts of the plants, and was greater in newly cut plants than in dried ones. Freshly dug earth had similar radioactivity. The insects showed three to five times greater radioactivity by unit of weight than uranium. Unfortunately Nodon's instrument, because of its construction, could not be applied to humans.

As reported in The Lancet in 1931, British physician Charles Russ constructed an instrument to demonstrate that an energy radiates from the human eye. He suspended in a jar a delicate solenoid of mica covered with strips of aluminium. Electrically charged metal plates were fixed to the outside of the glass vessel. When a person's gaze was focused intently on one end of the cylinder it moved away from the eye. When the gaze was fixed on the other end it moved toward the eye. When the gaze was directed at the center it remained stationary.

The destructive effect of the human gaze on séance room phenomena was claimed frequently. D. D. Home, before his levitations, usually asked the sitters not to look at him. The fire-resistance test was sometimes similarly handicapped by the spectators' earnest stares. Experiments suggest that when sitters blindfold their eyes, psychical phenomena gain in strength, and direct voice may be obtained in fair visibility. Unfortunately, preventing close observation in séances also facilitates the production of fraudulent phenomena.

Recent Experiments

In spite of years of research and thousands of experiments there has been no completely satisfying scientific demonstration of emanations of psychic force nor any definitive explanation. Most of the earlier experiments have not proved repeatable under strict control conditions.

The best of recent work on emanations began with the efforts of Bernard Grad, a gerontologist at McGill University in Montreal. In the 1960s he began work with Oscar Estabany, a Hungarian immigrant who claimed healing powers. Utilizing his large laboratory and trained staff, Grad was able to put Estabany through a series of tests involving the stimulation of plant growth and the healing rate of mice, all with positive results. His work was followed by that of biochemist M. Justa Smith, who also worked with Estabany. By using nonhuman targets in their work, they were able to isolate the healing "power" as the causative agent and eliminate human suggestibility. Their re-search has stood for several decades without refutation and has been supported by parapsychological research on psychokinesis.


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Grad, Bernard. "Healing by the Laying on of Hands: Re-view of Experiments and Implications." Pastoral Psychology 21 (September 1970): 206.

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Russ, Charles. "An Instrument Which is Set in Motion by Vision." The Lancet (July 3, 1931).

Tromp, S. W. Physical Physics; A Scientific Analysis of Dowsing, Radiesthesia, and Kindred Divining Phenomena. New York: Elsevier, 1949.

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