Dr. Robin Baker in the late 1970’s conducted a series of experiments based at Manchester University to find out whether or not human beings possess the physical capacity to detect the earths magnetic field. His finding were published in the New Scientist in 1980 (article). Unfortunately, peer reviews later discredited his findings when the repeated experiments were found to be inconclusive.
Yet more recent scientific studies have used more controlled environments and sophisticated Electroencephalography (EEG) techniques to suggest there may be a ‘lost’ sixth sense or a ‘primal sense’ as geophysicist Joe Kirschvink presented at the Royal Institute of Navigation in London in 2016, that some people may be able to tap into better than others.
In the same way some people have better eyesight or hearing, so it may be the same when it comes to sensing the earths magnetic field. As in most of the animals that have been studied, from fruit flies to whales, evidence of magnetoreception has been found, it is therefore puzzling that humans appear, in an evolutionary sense, to have lost (at worst) or have an extremely weak sense (at best) of the earths magnetic field. The reasons for this may be an evolutionary deselection of this sense in favour of the remaining 5 senses or it may be that we are surrounded by electric cables that generate magnetic fields therefore confusing our magnetic sense apparatus as it does with animals. Yet studies continue to find out more about this ‘primal’ sense.
It’s clear from human explorations over the centuries that we need to navigate using a compass, the sun or the stars as we can’t rely on a natural sense of direction as this study by Jan Souman showed in 2007, concluding that a “drift in the subjective straight ahead [direction] may be the result of accumulating noise in all components of the sensorimotor system”. Here are some GPS recorded routes of participants in the experiment. This study clearly shows how bad our magnetoreception can be and is at odds with Joe Kirschvinks claims in 2016.
Perhaps some anthropological findings can point to evidence that suggests some cultures can rely more on an ‘intuitive’ sense of direction when background noise can be eliminated. Polynesian sailors, known as masters of navigation have been known to travel for 1000’s of miles in the Pacific ocean without sight of land though day and night, and in thick fog without rest and sill maintain a true direction. If true this account may favour magnetoreception in their ‘sense’ hierarchy as a matter of survival in particular circumstances. He recorded many interviews with Pacific inlanders and recounts that many of those interviewed talked of extreme situations where “they suddenly calmed down and intuitively knew the right course” [Finney, B. 1995].
However, Finney may not have been aware of the existence of Stick Charts, (rudimentary maps,) which would have helped identify landmarks when they came into view and therefore re-setting their intuitive compass.
So it seems, in light of more recent evidence, the persuit of magnetoreception in humans may be more a romantic notion than science but I’m sure the question of whether it’s possible to tap into the earths magnetic field won’t go away until it’s proven one way or the other.
“A sense of Magnetism” New Scientist, Sept 1980 (https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=FMQQnijnhsUC&pg=PA844&dq=robin+baker+new+scientist+magnetic&hl=en&ei=GU79TfWdD5Hxsgbo_q3zDQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result#v=onepage&q=robin%20baker%20new%20scientist%20magnetic&f=true).
Finney, B. (1995). A role for magnetoreception in human navigation? Current Anthropology, 36, 500–506. (https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/204386?journalCode=ca)
Jan Souman : https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/phenomena/2009/08/20/do-lost-people-really-go-round-in-circles/