Magnetically-Induced Hallucinations Explain Ball Lightning, Say Physicists

By Potter · May 12, 2010 · ·
  1. Potter
    Powerful magnetic fields can induce hallucinations in the lab, so why not in the real world, too?
    Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is an extraordinary technique pioneered by neuroscientists to explore the workings of the brain. The idea is to place a human in a rapidly changing magnetic field that is powerful enough to induce currents in neurons in the brain. Then sit back and see what happens.

    Since TMS was invented in the 1980s, it has become a powerful way of investigating how the brain works. Because the fields can be tightly focused, it is possible to generate currents in very specific areas of the brain to see what they do.

    Focus the field in the visual cortex, for example, and the induced eddys cause the subject to 'see' lights that appear as discs and lines. Move the the field within the cortex and the subject sees the lights move too.

    All that much is repeatable in the lab using giant superconducting magnets capable of creating fields of as much as 0.5 Tesla inside the brain.

    But if this happens in the lab, then why not in the real world too, say Joseph Peer and Alexander Kendl at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. They calculate that the rapidly changing fields associated with repeated lightning strikes are powerful enough to cause a similar phenomenon in humans within 200 metres.

    To be sure, this is a rare event. The strike has to be of a particular type in which there are multiple return strokes at the same point over a period of a few seconds, a phenomenon that occurs in about 1-5 per cent of strikes, say Peer and Kendl.

    And the observer has to be capable of properly experiencing the phenomenon; in other words uninjured. "As a conservative estimate, roughly 1% of (otherwise unharmed) close lightning experiencers are likely to perceive transcranially induced above-threshold cortical stimuli," say Peer and Kendl. They add that these observers need not be outside but could be otherwise safely inside buildings or even sitting in aircraft.

    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.

    That's an interesting idea: that a large class of well-reported phenomenon may be the result of hallucinations induced by transcranial magnetic stimulation.

    A difficult idea to test, to be sure, but no less interesting for it. And it raises an important question: in what other circumstances are ambient fields large enough to trigger hallucinations of one kind or another?

    Ref: Transcranial Stimulability Of Phosphenes By Long Lightning Electromagnetic Pulses


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  1. Terrapinzflyer
    hasn't ball lightning been filmed? (a quick google video search returns a lot of results though I didn't check them out) Or does this mean there's a way to film hallucinations- now that would be cool!
  2. bcubed
    I can see it now:

  3. corvardus
    SWIM has known about magnetically induced brain phenomena for a while but reading this again got her thinking about what would happen if they focused the field in, say, the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens.

    It would be an interesting experiment, indeed, and possibly one that might render any pleasure inducing drugs obsolete. Probably not that simple but, hey, it might be a possibility.

    Wonder how the ACMD would ban electromagnetism. LOL
  4. Charenton
    Curious indeed. The boffins seem to be saying that ball lightning does not exist, but is hallucination produced by proximity? This does not explain the burn marks left, nor video evidence (unless camera equipment also is subject to the same stimulus) as Terrapinzflyer mentions. Scientists find debunk theories very attractive as they attract media interest and I am very sceptical. On a similar note the accepted science regarding absinthe was debunked by an obscure German lab which made a huge "song and dance" about it. Recently some more notable academics - Eadie, Arnold etc - have privately and now publicly suggested that their debunk is not all it seems.
  5. corvardus
    I do? That is news to me. I thought I was in a scientific field to progress human understanding in my own limited way. Seems I have a hidden agenda, even hidden to myself.

    It is generally understood that if you are going to play with fire you are going to get burnt those "scientists" that have made such statements to court the media can have their careers ruined or their reputation reduced so much they can barely get published again.

    Hwang Woo-Suk (Korean stem cell infamy); Andrew Wakefield (MMR infamy) are prime examples.

    It is clear you have a... contempt... for science and I'm not here to change that view but try not to paint the entire field as being media whores, when I'd say the opposite is true.

    Its like saying all Catholics are paedophiles. The brush is wide.

    I presume you are referring to this?

    Seems a perfectly reasonable statement to me. Production might have altered and probably did alter in 35 years but by how much? Conclusion based on Absinthe's of a significant time later can be, itself, questioned. Again I don't see this as a "debunking" but a questioning of the validity of the experiments and conclusions derived from such, in both instances. The scientific process at work.

    The published article:

    I am unable to find a "song and dance" declaration here just that a suggestion that Absinthism might not be what it seemed a misdiagnosis. They even tried to explain "Absinthism" as a function of other chemicals present in the mixture.

    The "Accepted science" is over a century old and, IMO, trying to place modern scientific standards on stuff back then has an element of intellectual dishonesty to it.

    It is more likely the press got hold of it and proclaimed that it was debunked such as:

    Darwin's theory of evolution has undergone similar processes especially with the discovery of DNA. It has had the freedom to evolve (pardon the pun). The "accepted science" of Absinthe should likewise have the same freedom.

    The questioning by Eadie of the work of the "german labs" is valid. The author did not say that their entire line of reasoning might be flawed since they did good science but that the samples they used were not "old enough" to have been used in the time of Magnan. It does suggest, however, that Absinthism might have been misidentfied as a function of some other variable.

    Back on the subject of Ball lightning. This the hallucination hypothesis is one that needs testing. They did an experiment. The experiment had similar characteristics to descriptions of ball lightning. A hypothesis based on the results of the experiments indicate that "ball lightning" might have a different origin.

    With further experimentation one of them would be "more probable" in nature and would become the favoured theory. The other one is discarded.

    Like with UFO's video evidence needs to be analysed with a fine tooth comb. I have not seen any such verified evidence for ball lightning in nature on video. Yes it has been created in a laboratory but it required magnetic containment and didn't last very long.
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