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Ball Lightning a Trick of the Mind?

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:

  1. Chicken and the egg
    I think that these guys went a bit ahead of the whole ’cause & effect’ explanation, since I do think that electromagnetic phenomena can elicit some altered states of consciousness on some folks —exciting the pineal gland to cause an endogenous release of DMT, as Micah Hanks speculates on his latest book ‘Magic, Mysticism 6 The Molecule’ perhaps?

    So the ball lightning might be the cause of the hallucination, but not the end result of it! 🙂

    Also, isn’t it true that there’s records of ball lightning causing fires on barns and houses? there’s a reason why DARPA have made ample research on the probable weaponization of globular plasma charges in the past few years [there used to be a video on that link showing several examples of ball lightning, too; how can a camera hallucinate?]

  2. Real physical effects
    A friend of mine witnessed ball lightning bouncing towards her during a storm one day. One ball bounced up and hit her in the heart area causing her to lose consciousness and necessitated a trip to the local hospital to have her heart beat ‘reset’. She felt that the only thing that saved her from death was the fact that she was wearing joggers at the time.

    Could this be viewed simply as a ‘hallucination’? I don’t think so.

    Regards, Kathrinn

      1. Not jogging
        My friend wasn’t jogging, Red, she was working in a farm shed packing tomatoes. The reason she was wearing joggers is that standing on a concrete floor for 8 hours at a time makes the legs ache unless you have padding under your feet.

        Regards, Kathrinn

  3. Mind Games?
    Greg, RPJ and crew,

    As Greg points out in his commentary above, “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.” Having researched Ball Lightning phenomenon for nearly a decade near the vicinity of Brown Mountain, North Carolina in the Linville Gorge wilderness, I find the proposition that such manifestations are merely “hallucinations” to be absurd.

    The obvious presupposition by those authoring the study has to do with the notion that the “hallucinations” are perceived as a localized phenomenon (in other words, for hallucinations to be perceived as physical objects in this way, they would likely have to appear to be near the viewer). This is almost never the case in studies like those I’ve participated in at locales like Brown Mountain, where the objects are almost always seen at a distance (sometimes more than a mile), and usually by groups, rather than individuals.

    In fact, it’s a common source of recreation for locals in the area to visit the popular Wiseman’s View overlook to try and catch a glimpse of the lights on adjacent ridges in the distance, which brings us to the second point of interest here: how logical is it to assume that “hallucinations” perceived as strange objects–often at great distances–are the result of electromagnetic influences in the environment, when entire groups of witnesses are present? Are we to assume that, given this hypothesis, the effects of the EM transcranial stimulation would elicit experiences so specific among a group of individuals that they would perceive the same phenomenon, exactly, and so vividly that they would agree with one another that it had been a physical occurrence nearby?

    This logic almost begins to point toward the notion that EM fields stimulating the human brain actually reveal hidden elements in the environment, which normally remain outside the bounds of human perception… RPJ noted this (and I’ve speculated on it in my book, as he points out). Surely, this wasn’t the intention of Kendl and Peer in their study, but by proposing blanket observations such as the fact that ball lightning is “often seen during thunderstorms,” the degree of carelessness inherent here becomes evident, and we are left with things far more bizarre than the perceived appearance of strange lights to have to explain!

    I personally don’t believe that “hidden” objects around us can be revealed to humans via EM exposure, though I’ve certainly expressed interest in such theories (often proposed by others) in my written works. Occasionally, strange circumstances might result in this interpretation, and in order to be fair, I think it’s fine to take elements of this sort of research and speculation into consideration alongside more conventional theories. That said, I do believe that EM fields, via electro-cranial stimulation and the like, can indeed produce unusual effects on the human physiology. The ultimate causes of these are not yet understood, but they certainly might contribute in some fashion (as I’ve already alluded) to incidents of “strange phenomena” that are sometimes reported. Needless to say, this is a very complex area of study!

    Great work Greg, RPJ, and co!


    Micah A. Hanks

    1. I have never studied this, so
      I’ll take your observations as being close to correct.

      I have seen ball lightning many times. Always at least 500m away. Mostly further. Summer storms only, with a dry, hot air. I have only seen them before the rain sets in and usually when lightning is very savage before the storm head. You can feel the charge in the air. Sometimes your hair stands on end and it prickles.
      I’ve spent a lot of time in the tropics and never seen them.
      I do find this atmosphere where I am now, 400m above sea level and separated by the Great Deviding Range from the coast, very charged in static. When the humidity is below 50%, I zapp my cat everytime I go to pat him.

      The correlation could be the dryness of air. STATIC.

        1. colour
          mostly white with blueish tinge, there was one that seemed green though. Got to be careful with colours, your mind is easily tricked by frequencies. You only have to change the colour of a rug on the floor to change the colour tinge on your wall.

          1. Radiosity
            The ‘bleeding’ of a strong color of the rug on the white walls is called radiosity. Basically the bouncing of energy (photons) from those objects to the surrounding area.

            I think Cezanne was about the first artist to realize that a red apple is never truly ‘red’ depending of the ambient it’s in.

            Anyway, bouncing of colors is now a standard feature of CGI rendering techniques.

            But I digress…

            So whitish blue and a bit greenish. I asked because I know many people have seeing orange glowing orbs, like our friend Regan Lee.

  4. from the Moving-Goalpost-Encyclopedia-Dept.
    Greg, you wrote in your OP: “(* And what the heck is up with that ‘Pseudoscientific Concepts’ panel on Persinger’s Wikipedia page?)”

    I edited that panel as ‘citation needed’ to get discussion going…and since then, it still hasn’t gone back up. Discussion is happening 🙂

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