Is this ball lightning? Maybe you're just seeing things.  Image from ThinkQuest.

Is Ball Lightning Just a Shared Hallucination?

17 May , 2010

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For hundreds of years, people have reported seeing ball lighning, a weird phenomenon that resembles glowing, hovering spheres of electricity sometimes witnessed during lightning storms. But scientists have never been able to explain what causes it or even what it really is. Even though some surveys say that 1 in 150 people have seen ball lightening, photographic evidence is basically nonexistent. There are dozens of theories of how ball lightning could form, including the burning of hot silicon particles produced when a lightning strike vaporizes the ground. When people who claim they have seen ball lightining try to explain what they saw, often they are told, “You must be seeing things!”

Perhaps they are.

A pair of physicists from Austria say that the magnetic fields associated with certain types of lightning strikes are powerful enough to create hallucinations of hovering balls of light in nearby observers, and that these visions would be interpreted as ball lightning.

Alexander Kendl and Joseph Peer from the University of Innsbruck analyzed electromagnetic pulses of repetitive lightning discharges and compared them to the magnetic fields used in clinical transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which is a technique used by neuroscientists to explore the workings of the brain; it is also used for psychiatric treatments. Patients are subjected to a rapidly changing magnetic field that is powerful enough to induce currents in neurons in the brain. Patients will sometimes see hallucinations of luminous shapes in their visual field.

Rare but natural long (1-2 seconds) and repetitive lightning strikes produce electromagnetic pulses similar to what happens during TMS. The researchers calculated the time-varying electromagnetic fields of various types of lightning strikes for observers at various distances from the strike, from 20-100 meters away.
Their results suggest the variable magnetic fields produced by lightning are very similar to TMS, in both magnitude and frequency. Those people undergoing TMS have hallucinations, and see balls of light known as cranial phosphenes.

Kendl and Peer postulated that ball lightning could be hallucinations arising from lightning electromagnetic pulses affecting the brains of close observers.

“As a conservative estimate, roughly 1% of (otherwise unharmed) close lightning experiencers are likely to perceive transcranially induced above-threshold cortical stimuli,” said Peer and Kendl in their paper. They add that these observers need not be outside but could be otherwise safely inside buildings or even sitting in aircraft.

The calculations showed that only lightning strikes consisting of multiple return strokes at the same point over a period of seconds could produce a magnetic field long enough to cause cortical phosphenes. This type would account for around 1-5% of lightning strikes, but very few of these would be seen by an observer 20 to 100 meters away, and of those the researchers estimate seeing the light for seconds would occur only in about one percent of unharmed observers. The observer does not need to be outside, but could be inside an aircraft or building. Kendl and Peer also said an observer would be most likely to classify the experience as ball lightning because of preconceptions.

One of the earliest descriptions of ball lighting comes from way back in 1638 at a church in Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Devon, in England. Four people died and approximately 60 were injured when, during a severe storm, an 8-foot (2.4 m) ball of fire was described as striking and entering the church, nearly destroying it. Large stones from the church walls were hurled into the ground and through large wooden beams. The ball of fire allegedly smashed the pews and many windows, and filled the church with a foul sulfurous odor and dark, thick smoke.

That doesn’t sound like a hallucination, but many question whether the reports are accurate or not. Read some more reports of ball lighting at Wikipedia.

Have you seen ball lightning, or know someone who has?

Read Kendl and Peer’s paper.

Sources: PhysOrg, Technology Review Blog

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Aqua4U
Member
May 17, 2010 3:10 PM

Reports that ball lightning sometimes accompanies earth quakes are interesting as are recent lightning strikes captured in the dust plume of the Volcano in Iceland… Blue Sprites and electric ejecta shapes emitted from the tops of some thunderstorms must also be included in this discussion? There are several well known forms of natural electrical discharge that when lacking a ground, will seek one in a methodical seeming manner. Like fire or combustion in zero gravity electrical discharges are virtually weightless and forms a spherical ball when levitated above a ground plane. Ask N. Tesla?

Aqua4U
Member
May 17, 2010 4:11 PM
Excerpt from “Twenty-Fifth Series Of German-Russian Plasma Physics Experiments” by Staff Writers Space Daily, Bonn, Germany (SPX) Feb 04, 2010 here: because it relates to this discussion? “Plasma – the fourth state of matter Plasmas are electrically charged gases and, after solids, liquids and gases, count as the fourth, least ordered state of matter. They make up lightning and the Northern Lights. In everyday life, we use plasma in fluorescent light tubes, for example. In contrast to pure plasma, complex plasma also contains dust particles. In the experiments on the ISS , the electrical field between two electrodes converts an inert gas such as argon or neon into a plasma. Particles of a synthetic material, each measuring no… Read more »
Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
May 17, 2010 1:32 PM
While I haven’t read the paper thoroughly yet, I discussed this on another blog due to that people commented before even browsing it. There seems to be three kinds of argument raised: – The magnetic pulse is too low energy compared to TMS. That is dismissed in the paper itself, and comes out of people mistaking magnetic field effects for the actual modeled induction effect on nerves. – The pulse is too long compared to TMS. Again a confusion based in the above, and again IIRC the paper discusses a (measured) frequency-phosphene effect, where the pulse length becomes a support _for_ the theory. – Several people may share the experience. But properly the paper only discusses a single… Read more »
ackerman
Member
ackerman
May 17, 2010 2:29 PM

My mother’s story about ball lightening is that lightening struck the porch at their summer home at Eagle Lake near Ticonderoga in upstate New York. (I’ve been there.) A ball rolled across the porch and left a scar. No information about how it disappeared. It doesn’t seem to me that a hallucination would leave a scar. I’m aware that story-tellers often improve stories. Also none of the people involved is still alive. I didn’t know that ball lightening was controversial until today, or I might have asked questions while they were still alive.

gopher65
Member
gopher65
May 17, 2010 3:14 PM

ackerman: Regular lightning could leave a scar if it struck, and that lightning was definitely close enough to them for them to be affected by the EMP. There would need to have been another lightning strike somewhere nearby at almost the same time, but that’s not unlikely.

So even if they did hallucinate the ball of light that doesn’t mean the rest of their story isn’t completely accurate.

Olaf
Member
Olaf
May 17, 2010 3:59 PM

Wait a minute!
They are comparing the 1 second lightning erratic magnetic field with a continuous regular changing magnetic field and this is proof that it must be an illusion?

Olaf
Member
Olaf
May 17, 2010 4:04 PM

@Torbjorn
“added to the fact that there is a lot of empirical observations of how people share suggestions in séances and the like.”

This happens but if you if you interview these people very carefully without introducing stuff they can hold on to, then these reports will be none-consistent.

Ask questing: “What did you see.”
Not “So you saw a blue orb floating around, tell us more about it”

Olaf
Member
Olaf
May 17, 2010 5:24 PM

@Aqua
“Something to ponder? Jah-Jah?”

So you give an overview about plasma.
And what has this to do with this article?

IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE
Member
IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE
May 17, 2010 6:10 PM

@ Olaf,

It has come to be that any article on Universe Today that mentions any one of these buzz-words “electromagnetic”, “electric fields”, or “magnetic fields” is going to result in “the usual suspects” arriving on the scene and buzzing around like bloody annoying wasps at a Sunday summer afternoon picnic.

Lawrence B. Crowell
Member
Lawrence B. Crowell
May 17, 2010 6:57 PM
A problem that I got into with charged particle beam physics involved the stability of beams. I set up a spectrometer and various instruments to observe lightning. This lightning was facilitated by a rocket version of Ben Franklin’s kite experiment. Large model type of rockets were shot into thunderheads. The rockets carried a copper wire behind them and guided the lightning down. It was fairly impressive to be that close to a lighting strike, and a repeated occurrence of them. One of the things which was visually apparent was ball lighting. I would describe it as bright blobs that flew out from the place the lightning struck, moving as if one dropped mercury on a table and watched… Read more »
iantresman
Member
May 18, 2010 2:21 AM
I don’t think it is fair to say that “scientists have never been able to explain what causes [ball lightning]”, but that there has no been a consensus on the phenomenon (see “Ball lightning: an unsolved problem in atmospheric physics“). But there are regular conferences and publications on the subject. *Theme Issue ‘Ball lightning’ compiled by J. Abrahamson (Philosophical Transactions A of the Royal Society, January 15, 2002; 360 (1790)) See also: *Report on the Third International Symposium on Ball Lightning *Report on the Fourth International Symposium on Ball Lightning *Proceedings 5th International Symposium on Ball Lightning (ISBL 97) *Proceedings of the 6th International Symposium on Ball Lightning (ISBL99), edited by G. C. Dijkhuis (University of Antwerp, Antwerp,… Read more »
Torbjorn Larsson OM
Member
Torbjorn Larsson OM
May 18, 2010 12:05 AM
In fact it is mostly interesting that this is a matter of some controversy. It does not sound terribly unphysical to think these are loops of fairly strong magnetic field which hold a plasma in toroidal orbits around these field lines for some transient period of time. This is, to me, a paradoxical set of sentences. The first one in effect asks why there is a controversy, while the second one describes an issue as still a matter for speculation. I believe the facts are that no one knows if these phenomena exist, since there are no records of it. “photographic evidence is basically nonexistent”. To speculate about if or which physics apply, whether of lightning vs atmosphere… Read more »
Brian Sheen
Member
May 18, 2010 1:29 AM

Not exactly relevant but many years ago I was close to a lightning strike and that was rapidly followed by a ball of brown gas. This I took to be nitrogen dioxide. Something I have not seen since or seen written about.

Just for interest!

Zargon
Member
Zargon
May 18, 2010 2:16 AM
I have seen ball lightning but at a distance – nothing like 100-400 Metres away. This occurred during a fierce thunderstorm in the early evening whose active centre appeared to be about 8 miles away – over a nearby town. (Canvey Island in the south east of the UK) The whole structure of the ‘anvil’ cloudbase was visible, as were the pancake clouds stretching before it and coming our way. The rain had not yet reached my garden so visibility was unaffected. After a very fierce lightning strike I saw a glowing ball hovering and wavering just below the storm clouds. It lasted for about 4 seconds before fading out. This was repeated a couple of minutes later… Read more »
Ziggy66
Member
Ziggy66
May 18, 2010 3:10 AM

My mother was just telling me about an experience like this she had last week. She was at her kitchen sink during a sudden and intense lightning storm. She had just decided to get away from the window when there was a very close lightning strike. She looked toward her wind and saw a blue streak of light flash right above her sink. Later, she saw that there was no damage either inside, nor on the outside of her house so its unlikely there was an actual strike through her window. The phenomena described in this article seems to be a plausible explanation for what she saw.

Aqua4U
Member
May 18, 2010 8:28 AM
Olaf – Ball lightning is a plasma. Which MAY be caused by the levitation of a conductive medium associated with a lightning strike. From Discovery News: “A satellite dispatched to scout out high-energy gamma rays streaming from the cosmos found that not only were flashes of gamma rays oddly close to home, but they were also powerful enough to annihilate matter. The radiation stemmed from lightning storms on Earth. Scientists using NASA’s Fermi Gamma Ray Telescope recorded 17 gamma ray flashes coming from Earth that matched up with lightning tracked by the World Wide Lightning Location Network, operated out of the University of Washington in Seattle. Previous gamma ray telescopes had detected the terrestrial gamma radiation, which was… Read more »
Prime
Member
Prime
May 18, 2010 7:12 AM
Spoodle58
Member
May 18, 2010 9:05 AM
Fascinating read all of this and the comments. It seems there is still quite a lot we don’t understand about lighting and its associated phenomenon. I have heard a few witness accounts of ball lighting, most notably from my mother and father-in-law, whom over the years I have asked and re-asked them to tell there story which remains more or less the same. My mother was young then and walking home from school one evening during a storm. She described a ball of lighting passing along the road she was walking along near to her, and she felt heat from it. My father-in-law describes a ball of lighting coming down the chimney of a big open fireplace and… Read more »
Olaf
Member
Olaf
May 18, 2010 9:12 AM

@Aqua ,
This article is about magnetic fields causing hallucinations.

Unless your explanation about plasma is somehow showing us that EU/PC is also a hallucination caused by lightning?

But my guess is that plasma copy&paste here is some spam method to guide people to EU/PC web sites.

Aqua4U
Member
May 18, 2010 4:03 PM

What does the possibility of an open air plasma as an explanation for ball lightning have to do with this blog? I suggest a vehicle, not an hallucination. Furthermore, like the Apollo astronauts when they saw cosmic rays flashes, open air plasma’s might also emit high enough energetic particles to be seen with eyes closed…. el rayo X!

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