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Is Ball Lightning Just a Shared Hallucination?

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

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


Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Dark Gnat May 18, 2010, 4:59 PM

    Although I have never personally seen it, I think ball lightning is a real occurance, and there is a reasonable explanation.

    I’ve read accouts were people claimed that ball lightning caused scorches, and one one occasion melted though the glass in a window.

    Remember, just a few years ago, blue jets and sprites were not considered real, and I believe there were theories that they were after-images or hallucinations as well.

    Slightly related: Years ago, I was standing on my parents front porch while a thunderstorm came up. Without warning the utility pole in the front yard (about 50 feet away from me) recieved a direct hit. I didn’t get hit, but I think the force of the expanding air knocked me against the door. I happened to be looking right in the direction of the strike. The light was so bright that I saw a blast of green, and then darkness. It actually blinded me for a few minutes – long enough that I was afraid that it was permanent. Fortunately it returned, and I had a large after image – lust like looking at the sun, but it was large and had no real shape. For a few minutes, that’s all I could see. I knew it was an after-image, and I was relieved to an extent. Afterwards my vision slowly returned. I never saw glowing orbs or anything like that, but it did scare the **** out of me.

    I’m not really sure how this relates to the topic, but it gave me a healthy respect for lightning – which has always fascinated me anyway.

  • Dark Gnat May 18, 2010, 5:08 PM

    One more thing:

    You know the lit match-in-a-jar-in-a-microwave-plasma trick?

    Could that occur in nature, say if lightning hits something, and causes fire which is hit with microwaves or gamma rays from a return stroke?

    That might be a good rocket-wire lightning maker experiment! Don’t forget to video tape it.

  • meteoricide May 18, 2010, 7:34 PM

    I have seen ball lightning and my impression based on my experience is that it may occur during extremely intense rain events. I witnessed this in the Arizona desert while driving towards a thunderstorm and the rain “shield” leading this storm was so intense that I could not see the side view mirror of my car with my window rolled down. It was literally a solid wall of water. Now imagine that rain “shield” acting like a wire shorting the cloud tops to the ground … what do you think might occur at the interface between the earth (ground) and the “wire” … that’s what I think ball lightning is imho.

  • Greg May 18, 2010, 7:58 PM

    I am an eyewitness who has experienced this phenomenon directly. I was living in my former house about 3 years ago when during a thunderstorm a particularly violent lightning strike occured in the street outside. I was in my kitchen walking towards the family room. I cringed from the shock of the flash outside and blast of thunder. I was completely shielded visually from it by two walls with a room and no windows (on the inside wall) between them. Almost instantly I thought I saw a flash and orb of electricity flash by about 3 meters in front of me, and at a height of about 4cm above the floor, running from the wall of my kitchen closest to the strike across the opening to the family room and into the opposing wall of the kitchen away from the lightning strike. The orb moved very quickly taking a no more than a second to move the meter distance across the doorway. I knew this could not have been a real electrical discharge since there is nothing in that wall that would carry current across the doorway, and there was no evidence of an electrical burn. I was at a complete loss to explain what happened, but my wife who was in the family room also reported seeing the same thing from her persepctive. The fire company was called by my neighbor so I went outside to investigate after the storm subsided. A tall Norweigan pine had been hit, split in two and had caught fire briefly before the downpour put the fire out. The tree was about 50 meters from where I had been standing in my kitchen and elevated about 30 meters (the house is on a hill and the strike was up the hill.) This explanation makes perfectly good sense to me. The ball of electricity that I thought I witnessed could not have been real based on the wiring of the house and the lack of physical evidence. I would be careful to note that it likely does represent a human ability to sense magnetic fields indirectly under the right circumstances. I believe that to be of some significance.

  • omarta May 18, 2010, 10:13 PM

    What about the Hessdalen phenomena in Norway? They have photographic evidence of “strange orbs of lights” done from different angles, by independent research teams at the same time. The theory is it’s caused by metals in the ground (malm)

  • thieu4u2 May 19, 2010, 2:34 AM

    Isn’t this amazing. It remembers me that in the middle ages, people where executed for seeing meteorits faling from the sky. Because stones don’t fall from the sky, no? But happy for us, stones kept on faling and these days, meteorites and asteroïds are considered to be the oldest objects in our solarsystem. Indeed, they are still rare phenomena, and in general, ordenary people report them. And indeed, every meteorite only fall one time, making it difficult to repeat the observation. The same for ball lighting. It is a rare phenomena, and to make matters worse, they can’t be really explained by physics. Just like the metheorites couldn’t be explained in times when people thought the earth was flat and the rest of the universe was circling earth. Ball lightning is puzzling science, and some scientists don’t like that a bit. It is more easy to reject the phenomena than to do some real research to figure out what it really is. I think that the real reason why some scientists wants to reject the phenomena is because ball lightings come close tho the controversial topic of unidentified flying object. And we don’t want to be associated with that topic aren’t we? But isn’t this attitute come close to the inquisition tactics to protect a worldview that doesn’t include stones faling from the sky? If scientists want to study lightning balls, just go to places, called hot spots, where balls of light can be seen almost daily. Maybe, just maybe, they eventually come up with a theory to explain this remarkeble phenomena in nature. And yes, maybe they have to change or adjust some equasions in physics. Because in my opinion, these balls of light will keep on coming out of nowhere, all over the world, just like meteorites are still faling. They don’t disappeare because we THINK they are not there.