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Science & Technology

Can humans sense the Earth's magnetic field ?

March 22, 2020 | Comment icon 17 comments

Humans appear to possess some level of magnetoreception. Image Credit: NASA / Peter Reid
The results of a recent experiment suggest that it is not just animals that can sense our planet's magnetism.
It might sound like one of the X-Men's mutant powers, but according to scientists, the idea that we possess 'magnetoreceptors' that can pick up Earth's natural magnetism may not be that far-fetched.

Last year, Caltech geophysicist Joseph Kirschvink and neuroscientist Shin Shimojo set up an experiment that involved building a chamber that could filter out any outside interference.

Participants were then placed inside the chamber (which was itself placed inside a Faraday Cage) while their brainwaves were monitored via electroencephalogram (EEG).

Each session lasted about an hour and the participants were tasked with remaining stationary while the chamber was configured to rotate the magnetic field repeatedly.

Although none of the people taking part were able to consciously sense anything, their brain readings revealed that they had actually picked up "a strong, specific human brain response."
"Our results indicate that human brains are indeed collecting and selectively processing directional input from magnetic field receptors," the researchers concluded.

"Such neural activity is a necessary prerequisite for any subsequent behavioral expression of magnetoreception, and it represents a starting point for testing whether such an expression exists."

Interestingly, just like in animals such as birds which use the Earth's magnetic field to migrate, the human subjects appeared to sense the magnetic field as a direct biological signal.

Could this be some leftover perception our ancestors once used many thousands of years ago ?

Do we still unconsciously use this magnetic sense in our everyday lives without realizing it ?

The search for answers continues.

Source: Popular Mechanics | Comments (17)

Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #8 Posted by Susanc241 2 years ago
My understanding of this effect is that no one has even sized strides.  If your stride with your left leg, say, is a little bit longer than your right you will walk in a clockwise circle on terrain that has no land marks, like a desert.  The difference in stride length  only needs to be a millimetre or two and if you walk long enough you will proscribe a huge circle.  Same happens if you blindfold a person and tell them to walk in a straight line.
Comment icon #9 Posted by L.A.T.1961 2 years ago
I am not sure stride length would make a difference? if walking over rough terrain then every stride by each leg could be different which would create a random result. Circling creates a search pattern which would be useful if unfamiliar with the local area?
Comment icon #10 Posted by Piney 2 years ago
Deer, free range horses and cattle, goats, mountain lions, coyotes and bison all do it though. A "built in" response to locate food and other resources maybe? Archaic Indians bands in the Northeast of North America had huge band territories. Now that I think about it, they were almost circular in shape.
Comment icon #11 Posted by L.A.T.1961 2 years ago
The article does not make clear if the brain stimulation is in response to a detector in humans sending a signal to the brain, in response to a magnetic field, or that the magnetic field is having a direct effect on brain matter? Magnetic fields have other effects on the brain and they can stimulate limb movement, are we saying that this is also a built in feature of the brain to allow humans to be remote controlled.
Comment icon #12 Posted by L.A.T.1961 2 years ago
I think you would be better off if a random exploration trip tended to bring you back to where you started. So it could be an evolved trait. Whether its magnetic guidance, daylight or something else that allows this behavior seems open to debate. 
Comment icon #13 Posted by Piney 2 years ago
I have a cousin who owns 14,000 acres of Pine Barrens and another land owner friend with a contiguous 10,000 I would get purposely lost in as a teen. Cut off the trail and just explore. I've had that happen several times.  I just would like to understand it. 
Comment icon #14 Posted by L.A.T.1961 2 years ago
If it is something that is repeatable, like your own experience, then it could be embedded evolved behavior. 
Comment icon #15 Posted by Jujo-jo 2 years ago
Well I'm thinking of sharks and sea turtles... 
Comment icon #16 Posted by XenoFish 2 years ago
We know more than you think. The recticular activating system is the filter through which information is processed. 
Comment icon #17 Posted by qxcontinuum 2 years ago
I experienced a very interesting collective event when I was kid in general school. A couple of seconds before an earthquake we all rose up looking at each other waiting for something to happen but surprized ourself by the mass reaction. 3-4 seconds later the school started to tremble.

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