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Are powerful magnetic fields the source of reports of anomalous luminous phenomena during thunderstorms (usually termed as ‘ball lightning’)? A new scientific paper (abstract and full text here) suggests that sightings of such phenomena could actually be hallucinations caused by “magnetic phosphenes transcranially stimulated by nearby long repetitive lightning”:

So what would this kind of lightning-induced transcranial stimulation look like to anybody unlucky enough to experience it? Peer and Kendl say it may well look like the type of hallucinations induced by lab-based tests, in other words luminous lines and balls that appear to float in space in front of the subject’s eyes.

It turns out, of course, that there are numerous reports of these types of observations during thunder storms. “An observer reporting this experience is likely to classify the event under the preconcepted term of “ball lightning”,” say Kendl and Peer.

While I enjoy reading speculative papers like this, I find it hard to reconcile their phosphene suggestion with real-world reports. People see ‘3D’ objects moving in the local environment, not on their visual field. They report heat when ball lightning is close, they hear pops and bangs when it disappears, and multiple people see the same thing. And most notably, they don’t seem to need to be close to multiple lightning strikes for it to happen. So, neat theory, and perhaps elements of merit, but pretty shaky overall (and if you want to apply Occam’s Razor, why explain away luminous phenomena during a lightning storm by resorting to hallucinations from magnetic fields?).

Interesting to see this though as a branching of Michael Persinger’s Tectonic Strain Theory* – yet another attempt at linking anomalous luminous phenomena with magnetic stimulation of the temporal lobe. Compare it to the border experiences mentioned in our feature article “Her Sweet Murmur” and you get the feeling that there’s a kernel of truth in there with at least some instances.

(* And what the heck is up with that ‘Pseudoscientific Concepts’ panel on Persinger’s Wikipedia page?)

Previously on TDG: