Can Humans Sense Earth’s Geomagnetic Field?

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Researchers have documented the strong sense of Earth’s geomagnetic that some animals and insects have.  While the research hasn’t returned conclusive results for human’s magnetic sensitivity, a group of researchers wanted to test if humans do have geomagnetic sense from a neuroscientific perspective.  The team of researchers involved geophysical biologist, a cognitive neuroscientist and a neuroengineer  geophysical biologist, a cognitive neuroscientist and a neuroengineer.

Magnetoreception test chamber. Modified from 'Center of attraction' by C. Bickel (Hand, 2016).

Magnetoreception test chamber. Modified from ‘Center of attraction’ by C. Bickel (Hand, 2016).

To see if humans are, after all, magnetically sensitive organisms, 34 participants were asked to sit in a magnetoreception test chamber while their electrical brain activity was measured using electroencephalography (EEG).  The magnetic field of this modified Faraday cage was moved and responding brain activity was recorded.  This simulated the effect of a person turning their head in different directions.

Study participants sat in the experimental chamber facing north, while the downwards-pointing field rotated clockwise (blue arrow) from northwest to northeast or counterclockwise (red arrow) from northeast to northwest. Magnetic Field Laboratory, Caltech, CC BY-ND

Study participants sat in the experimental chamber facing north, while the downwards-pointing field rotated clockwise (blue arrow) from northwest to northeast or counterclockwise (red arrow) from northeast to northwest. Magnetic Field Laboratory, Caltech, CC BY-ND

While the participants didn’t feel any changes in the Faraday cage, their brains did react to changes in the magnetic field.  This video shows how when the magnetic field was change to a counterclockwise direction (CCW) from northeast to northwest, researchers recorded a decrease in alpha wave amplitude (dark blue).  When the magnetic field was rotated in an unnatural direction, no correlated brain activity was measured.

The study

Wang, C. X., Hilburn, I. A., Wu, D.-A., Mizuhara, Y., Cousté, C. P., Abrahams, J. N. H., … Kirschvink, J. L. (2019). Transduction of the Geomagnetic Field as Evidenced from Alpha-band Activity in the Human Brain. Eneuro, ENEURO.0483-18.2019. https://doi.org/10.1523/ENEURO.0483-18.2019

New evidence for a human magnetic sense that lets your brain detect the Earth’s magnetic field. March 18,.2019.  The Conversation

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