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. Yet in 2019, Kirschvink et al, conducted a larger more in depth experiment concluding that humans don’t in fact have a magnetic-receptive sense which is connected to consciousness; we have definitely lost our sense of direction.
In the vast majority of the animals that have been studied, from fruit flies to whales, evidence of magneto-reception has been found, it is therefore puzzling how humans lost, evolutionary speaking, a sense of the earths magnetic field. One reason for this may be an evolutionary deselection of this sense in favour of the remaining 5 senses as we moved from hunting and gathering on migratory routes to a settled farming life 10,000 years ago.
It’s clear from human explorations over the centuries that we need to navigate using a compass, the sun or the stars. A 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 magneto-reception can be later confirmed by Joe Kirschvinks et al in 2019.
Perhaps some anthropological findings can point to evidence that suggests some cultures can rely more on an ‘intuitive’ sense of direction. 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. It was proposed that they may have a magneto receptive sense but more recently they have demonstrated a detailed knowledge of wind, smell, swell and sea currents in conjunction with the sun & stars whilst navigating on the sea. 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].
Stick Charts, (rudimentary maps,) which would also 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 pursuit of magneto-reception in humans may be more a romantic notion than science, we have literally and metaphorically lost our sense of direction.
“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/
Kirschvink et al (ENEURO.0483-18.2019)