Is Ball Lightning Just a Shared Hallucination?

Article written: 17 May , 2010
Updated: 24 Dec , 2015


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


26 Responses

  1. Member
    Aqua says

    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?

  2. Member
    Aqua says

    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 more than a few microns across, are then injected into this plasma.

    The particles become electrically charged by the plasma field and gain the same polarity. Since they repel each other, they form a structurally ordered aggregate which eventually leads to the development of a crystal structure, similar to that of many metals, known as a plasma crystal.

    By varying the electrical field and the gas pressure in the plasma chamber, scientists can dissolve or fix the plasma crystal, thus investigating its phase changes. The advantage of this is that the phase changes occur much more slowly than with ordinary materials and the changes in position of each particle can be followed with cameras.

    This means that the scientists are effectively looking directly inside the material, so they can observe, among other things, the interaction between the particles in the propagating waves and turbulent flows and the segregation of different particle species.

    However, the large 3D crystals needed for such investigations can only be created in zero gravity conditions. This is because gravity makes all the particles fall to the bottom of the plasma chamber, so that the complex plasma only forms a thin layer. More than 40 articles on the results of these zero gravity experiments have been published in scientific journals so far.”

    Something to ponder? Jah-Jah?

  3. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    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 person, narrow view angle subset of observations. However that isn’t strictly necessary since plural of anecdote isn’t data, added to the fact that there is a lot of empirical observations of how people share suggestions in sĂ©ances and the like.

    The most consistent response however was to discuss the own model of the phenomena and dismiss or consciously or unconsciously obfuscate the paper analysis. 🙁

  4. ackerman says

    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.

  5. gopher65 says

    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.

  6. Olaf says

    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?

  7. Olaf says

    “added to the fact that there is a lot of empirical observations of how people share suggestions in sĂ©ances 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”

  8. Olaf says

    “Something to ponder? Jah-Jah?”

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


    @ 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.

  10. Lawrence B. Crowell says

    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 the beads fly away in an almost frictionless way. The blobs were not huge, maybe only inches in diameter or so.

    I have not looked into this matter in particular. 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.


  11. iantresman says

    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, 1999) (See also a Report)

    *7th International Symposium on Ball Lightning (MS Word) (ISBL 2001), July 26-30, 2001, University of Missouri, St.Louis, Missouri, USA (Report)

    *Eighth International Symposium on Ball Lightning (ISBL04), 3rd–6th August 2004, National. Central University (NCU), Chung-Li, Taiwan, 38–43 (Abstracts)

    *9th International Symposium On Ball Lightning, Eindhoven, The Netherlands, 16-18 August 2006,

    *Proc. 10th Intern. Sympos. on Ball Lightning & 3rd Intern. Sympos. on Unconventional Plasmas

    *11th International Symposium
    on Ball Lightning (ISBL-10), 21 – 27 June 2010 at the I. Kant University of Kaliningrad, Russia

    Forum policy: Be nice (and you won’t upset the wasps’ nest)

  12. Torbjorn Larsson OM says

    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 or lightning vs biology, is then premature. However, the added fact that it has been “hundreds of years” of sightings makes the latter set of models the most likely by far. (All assuming the posts description is correct, of course.) That doesn’t make the paper correct, but interesting.

    And, contrary to the plasma hypotheses, this model is testable! Precisely because there are no observations but sightings, putting the possibility of actually deriving a data set squarely in the biological corner.

    Let’s hope someone will do the leg work, so one can retreat either the model or the whole area of speculation. Any of which would constitute progress.

    @ Olaf:

    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.

    True, except, I would speculate, in such cases where the suggestion is part of the experience (magic, séances, cold reading).

    But the anecdotes offered earlier where from groups that weren’t immediately separated (so no common history can be arrived at) and neutrally interviewed after a shared experience. I suspect that type of interview isn’t available for ball lightning.

  13. 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!

  14. Member
    Zargon says

    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 – again a strike followed by a glowing ball lasting for a couple of seconds. These were at high-ish altitude (just under the cloudbase) and 6 to 8 miles away.

    I saw ’em. I have not seen anything like that since (or before). But I saw ’em.

  15. Ziggy66 says

    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.

  16. Member
    Aqua says

    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 a huge surprise when it was first discovered in 1994.

    Most of the gamma rays observed by Fermi and other telescopes come from the destruction of supermassive stars and other cataclysmic events far beyond the galaxy.

    “Probably the last place we ever expected to see gamma rays was from Earth or Earth’s atmosphere,” Gerald Fishman, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., told Discovery News.

    “It was a serendipitous discovery,” he added. “For 10 or 12 years, it was treated as a scientific curiosity. No one knew what to make of it.”

    Gamma ray collisions may be limited inside lightning strikes, thereby providing a medium for reaching and interacting with elements at ground level. The vaporization of elements into a conductive cloud near ground level may provide a conductive medium for plasma generation?

  17. Spoodle58 says

    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 entering the room he was in and dissipating quickly as it exploded in the room.

  18. Olaf says

    @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.

  19. Member
    Aqua says

    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!

  20. Dark Gnat says

    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.

  21. Dark Gnat says

    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.

  22. meteoricide says

    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.

  23. Greg says

    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.

  24. omarta says

    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)

  25. thieu4u2 says

    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 asteroĂŻds 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.

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