Study finds some people can sense Earth's magnetic field

Researchers with the University of Tokyo and Caltech have found evidence that humans may have the ability to sense magnetic fields. Many animals are known to possess magnetoreception, including birds and bees, but questions have remained over whether humans have the same ability. A newly published study potentially has the answer, detailing brain wave changes observed in isolated participants.

Though past research had attempted to answer questions over the (potential) human ability to sense magnetic fields, none of the studies were effective. The latest study is different, finding evidence that humans may, at the subconscious level, pick up on magnetic fields. The research involved 34 people who were placed within an isolated radio frequency-shielded chamber in complete darkness and silence.

While in the chamber, participants' brain waves were monitored using electrodes placed on their heads. Over the course of an hour inside of the chamber, the researchers silently moved a magnetic field around the chamber while recording the participants' brain waves. According to Caltech, the researchers paid particularly attention to the participants' alpha brain waves, which fall between 8Hz and 13Hz.

When someone is unengaged mentally, the alpha state is strong, but it decreases significantly when something catches the person's attention, engaging their mind. That dip in alpha state was observed in some of the study's participants right after magnetic stimulation began, indicating that the person had responded to the magnetic field.

The researchers also found signs that the human brain may be involved in actively processing the magnetic field data, ultimately rejecting any signals that wouldn't be natural. Additional research is necessary, however. Talking about the study is its co-corresponding author Joseph Kirschvink, who said via Caltech:

Given the known presence of highly evolved geomagnetic navigation systems in species across the animal kingdom, it is perhaps not surprising that we might retain at least some functioning neural components, especially given the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle of our not-too-distant ancestors. The full extent of this inheritance remains to be discovered.