This summer, I visited Glastonbury, the New Age epicenter of England, to speak at a “Great Mysteries” conference about orbs. Orbs are best known as those mysterious balls of light that have appeared on digital photographs for the last fifteen years, though some claim they can see them with the naked eye as well. Orbs have spawned an enthusiastic subculture of people who believe the blobby wisps are not dust particles or lens anomalies, but angels, spirits, other-dimensional beings and so on.
Although I am now an accredited orbs expert, I remain agnostic on the subject. In this area, one encounters the same difficulties in establishing a methodology as one does with other phenomena that float on the outer edge of cultural possibility, such as UFOs, crop circles, occult conspiracies, miraculous appearances of the Virgin and so on.
The Orbs Conference offered an eccentric collection of testimonies, channeling, scientific research and slide shows. My favorite take on the orbs came from William Bloom, a local mystic, who claims he has telepathic chats with the spheres. The orbs told him they work like “a cloud or a flock,” and visit us to “support group consciousness.” According to the orbs, “As we touch your individual psyches you begin consciously to experience yourselves as intimately connected with all other life forms on this planet and throughout the cosmos.” A physicist who connected two cameras to take simultaneous photographs found that orbs would only appear on one or the other camera. While he took this as evidence of their quantum subtlety, it could suggest spoof rather than proof.
In my talk on the orbs, I downplayed the question of the orbs’ authenticity to take a sociological approach. A postmodern phenomenon, the orbs only appeared in our world due to new technology, digital media, and social networks like Flickr, or blogs where people share orb images. As our evolving social technologies keep bringing us together in unexpected ways, Bloom’s transmission about “group consciousness” is thought provoking. As media theorist Clay Shirky explores in Here Comes Everybody, new social tools are making it possible for previously unconnected groups of people to suddenly behave like a “cloud or a flock,” when their interests coincide.
The orbs express a cute, trickster element by redirecting our attention. Most people first discover orbs when they are trying to photograph something else — friends at a party, a politician, their cat. Once captivated by the odd spheres floating through their images, their perspective changes: what seemed most important becomes marginal, and vice versa. A friend of mine once suggested that the year 2012 — end-date of the Mayan “long count” — might be when the center and the periphery of our attention switches places. The areas that our culture now finds important — such as possessions and wealth — might become marginal, while other areas, such as the development of soul and the ability to perceive subtle energies, will take on greater significance.
Although I do not pretend to have certainty in this area, I find the theories of the Dr. Alexey Dmitriev, a Russian scientist, to be highly intriguing. Dr. Dmitriev believes that our entire solar system is undergoing a phase transition, entering a region of the galaxy saturated with more intense cosmic energies. He has documented changes on other planets and moons around our solar system, some of which are developing atmospheres or experiencing polar reversals. One way this phase-transition is manifesting on earth is in increasing “vacuum domains” such as tornadoes, which are occurring with greater frequency. The orbs might be linked to this transition to a higher-energy state, as plasma-based vacuum domains that appear for an instant before spinning away. Plasma is the most unstable form of matter, and could be responsive to psychic energy — the orbs seem drawn, if not produced, by conscious intent. In photographs, they appear with greater frequency and in greater numbers at celebrations, group meditations, weddings and so on.
It can seem a bit reductive to seek to explain phenomena — such as the gregarious orbs — that resides at the periphery of our awareness. What is an explanation, in any case? Generally, it is a like cheap magician’s trick that pretends to make the Mystery disappear by covering it with language. As a phenomenon, the mass interest in the orbs suggests we are going through another wave of “Spiritualism,” a movement that swept the U.S. and Europe in the 1890s, bringing with it a wave of aura photography, levitating mediums and other anomalous events. Only the future will reveal whether the orbs reflect a deeper development of psychic awareness, or whether they are a fad that will soon trail off into the ether, from whence they perhaps came.
Daniel Pinchbeck is the author of Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism (Broadway Books, 2002) and 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl (Tarcher/Penguin, 2006). His features have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Wired and many other publications.