It’s amazing to me that the brain also generates magnetic fields outside of our heads. Perhaps this is what some people call the ‘aura’ of a person but I’ll leave that for another day. Proof of these magnetic fields are evidenced in the use of very sensitive magnetic sensors which are placed on the head, usually by neuroscientists conducting experiments, which pick up electrical wave lengths via the magnetic fields they produce. Neuroscientists can look at the graph produced by the EEG (electroencephalogram) and make diagnoses like epilepsy or sleep disorders. Magnetoencephalogram (MEG) headset technology is able to detect magnetism deeper in the brain (without any ill effects on the subject) and can give a more detailed picture of the cognitive processes in different areas in the brain whilst performing different activities.
Magnetoencephalogram (MEG) 3D printed headset developed by Nottingham University.
It’s proven that many animals possess a sense that make them aware of the earths magnetic field, mice, rats, flies, bees, birds, whales, dolphins, turtles, dogs, deer, cows, snails, foxes, bats, eels and so on, have all been scientifically proven to have ‘magnetoreception’. This magneto sense is a precision instrument like hearing or eyesight and is sensitive to minute variations in magnetism which is why many animals have been shown to be affected by man made magnetism, namely electricity. As Michael Faraday showed us 200 years ago, magnetism is an integral part of electricity. Cows naturally align themselves along the north-south magnetic field as do Roe Deer but both display random alignment when in the vicinity of electricity cables carried by pylons across fields (Burda et al., 2009) see article.
In red foxes it has been proven that interference with the natural magnetic field by humans via electric cables can have a detrimental effect on it’s hunting behaviour. Red fox align themselves in a particular direction before pouncing on rodents underground, they are more successful in a north east direction (Cˇ erveny ́ et al., 2011).
It has also been demonstrated that the reason dogs often spin in circles whilst trying to defecate is because they may not get a good sense the earths natural magnetic field, perhaps because of electromagnetism produced in underground cables. (article)
Radar, has proliferated the natural environment across the globe which produces electromagnetic magnetic waves travelling long distances through the earth, the sea and air. Radar is used in ship navigation, mobile phone, radio and tv, air traffic control, weather monitoring and satellite technology. There are WHO guidelines for it’s safe use in humans (article) but we are less sensitive than birds for example where it has been shown that radar does affect migratory behaviour (article).
The question that arises is to what degree are animals with magneto reception, in the air, on the ground and in the sea, being affected by the electromagnetic noise we humans emit all over the earth? Just because we humans have an almost extinct magneto sense should we not be protecting the depleting wild biomass left on the earth ? (article)
Burda, H., Begall, S., Cˇ erveny ́, J., Neef, J., & Neˇmec, P. (2009). Extremely low-frequency electromagnetic fields disrupt magnetic alignment of ruminants. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106, 5708–5713.
Cˇ erveny ́, J., Begall, S., Koubek, P., Nova ́kova ́, P., & Burda, H. (2011). Directional prefer- ence may enhance hunting accuracy in foraging foxes. Biology Letters, 7, 355–357. Cook, C. M., Thomas, A. W., & Prato, F. S. (2002). Human electrophysiological and cognitive effects of exposure to ELF magnetic and ELF modulated RF and microwave fields: a review of recent studies. Bioelectromagnetics, 23, 144–157.
Eleanor Sheridan, Jacquelyn Randolet, Travis Lee DeVault, Thomas Walter Seamans, Bradley Fields Blackwell, & Esteban Fernández-Juricic. (2015). The effects of radar on avian behavior: Implications for wildlife management at airports. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 171, 241–252. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2015.08.001.
I’m fascinated by this subject. For hundreds of years humans have known of animal migration, at least seasonally animals appeared and disappeared, the mechanics of which have been a mystery until recently. Science has discovered that most animals have a sense which can detect the earths magnetic field, in short they instinctively know which way is north and south. This is a young area of science and we are still finding out to what degree this sense plays a part in the migration patterns of animals.
The animals which have been studied and proven to have a magnetic sense are: pigeons, salmon, trout, dolphins, whales, squid, octopus, fruit flies (of course), mice (of course), moles, bats, red fox, roe deer, red deer, eels, robins, turtles, dogs, geese, in fact most migratory birds – and the list goes on. However, it is apparently a difficult sense to study compared to the other senses which is why we don’t have a comprehensive list. Humans on the other hand don’t seem to demonstrate a clear magnetic sense at all, although there have been studies which claim to show that we do have this magneto-receptive ability.
Here Joe Kirschvink (Human Frontier Science Program, California) wearing an EEG monitor inside a faraday cage (which neutralises the earths magnetic field and induces a new field in any direction). Kirschvink, a respected geophysicist, suggests that human Magnetoreception is a primal sense which we may have lost but is still doing experimental work in this area with colleges in Japan.
This of raises the question as to whether Humans have lost their sense of direction both literally but also metaphorically when we consider the state of the planet in ecological terms and socio equality. If we have lost this Magnetoreception then when in our evolutionary history did it become genetically deselected and why? Could it have been as a result of our move from hunting & gathering to farming when we first put down roots as a species around 10,000 years ago? Perhaps we’ll never know but for me this is a rich area of postulation that will, no doubt, migrate into my own work.
magnets, iron filings, magnetic canvas (rusted) by richard paton 2017
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.