Man walking on a plain

Do you know where you are going? Follow magnetic fields


Do you know where you are going? Yes, sometimes it can be hard. Not just in life but also on the ground. Some people would tell you to stay calm, take a breath, and trust your judgement. Well it turns out trusting your judgement might be a good thing. 

It turns out that just like birds, bees, and even worms that humans may also have a capacity to use magnetic fields to navigate their way.  Joseph Kirschvink at the California Institute of Technology found that changing the directions of nearby magnetic fields caused temporary changes in human brain activity. Brain activity was recorded using electroencephalography (EEG), while electromagnetic coils were used to create magnetic fields.

The direction and intensity of Earth’s magnetic field varies by geographical location. For example, at the magnetic north pole, one of two poles where the magnetic field is the strongest, the direction of the field points vertically downwards, into the ground. In the wider northern hemisphere, this vertical angle changes but the magnetic field is always skewed downwards – meaning that when you hold a compass horizontally, the end pointing north is slightly pulled down. The south-pointing end of some compasses in the northern hemisphere are weighted to compensate for the pull.

When the team exposed people to a downward-pointing magnetic field, they saw changes in brain wave patterns when they rotated the field horizontally in a counterclockwise direction, but for some unknown and yet to be explained reason this does not happen when the magnetic field was rotated clockwise. 

Rotating an upwards-pointing magnetic field didn’t cause a change either, which the team speculates may be because the participants’ brains were attuned to the magnetic field of the northern hemisphere, where they conducted the study. Earth’s magnetic field always points up in the southern hemisphere.

The claims are controversial, however. Other researchers say Kirschvink’s experiments might have shown the brain responds to changes in magnetic fields but that does not mean they represent the actions of an internal magnetic sense. “If I were to stick my head in a microwave and switch it on, I would see effects on my brain waves,” a biophysicist, Thorsten Ritz from the University of California, Irvine, told the journal Science. “That doesn’t mean I have a microwave sense.”

As to why we do not witness people using internal compasses to navigate today, modern life may have obliterated their relatively weak operation in humans, it is argued.

For example, Kirschvink points to studies of Asian and Australian people who speak languages that are fundamentally different to European languages. These differences could influence our abilities to respond to weak signals from our “internal compasses”.

“These people have no words for front or back or to your right. Instead they talk about looking in a direction to your north or turning to your east. These are languages of geographic reference and they are still spoken by aboriginal people.”

Oddly enough this also happens in the Irish language where cardinal direction points are sometimes used to signify movement. 




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