Maybe You Really Can Sense Magnetic Fields

We’ve known for years that many animals can somehow sense magnetic fields. Birds apparently use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate. Dogs can find a box containing a magnet better than they can find a similar box with a food treat in it. But humans, apparently, can’t visualize magnetic fields without help. Several scientists at California, New Jersey, and Japan have done experiments that seem to show that people’s brains do have changes when a magnetic field rotates. If the paper, titled “Transduction of the Geomagnetic Field as Evidenced from Alpha-band Activity in the Human Brain” is a bit much for you, might enjoy the video from Veritasium, below, which is much easier to parse than the paper.

To see it work, a subject sits in a dark isolated room with an electrode cap that picks up the subject’s EEG. The study shows that different people have different sensitivity to the field. Also, picking up a magnetic field in an isolated chamber is different from picking it up on the sidewalk and using it to navigate with.

However, there is some evidence that human cultures may have been shaped by this in the past. A number of human languages lack specific words for things like front and back and instead use cardinal directions like north and south.

If you really want to sense magnetic fields, your best bet might be to implant a magnet in your finger. Then again, you don’t actually have to use your finger.

42 thoughts on “Maybe You Really Can Sense Magnetic Fields

  1. Not sure exactly how they work, but for a long time in my childhood, I could ‘sense’ the field around the security scanners in shop doorways. Also I’d sometimes sense electric fields around bundles of wiring that my friend had left coiled around on the floor when setting up his PC. He said he couldn’t feel anything but I definitely felt ‘something’ (weird tingling).

    1. I believe this is real, and I think some people really can feel rf at certain frequencies. I can remember going into Maplins around 2000, when wifi and the like was first becoming available, and definitely feeling something odd when I walked through the door. Likewise installing new wifi repeaters on different channels the first time you turn them on. I think you get used to it and stop noticing it after a while.

      1. Yes, when my first wifi go home, i would have some difficulty to sleep.
        A day, i’ve wake up after a very good sleep to see the wifi have shut down at night… Now, i’m used to it, but i allway can feel an induction owen when on.

    2. i can confirm that i think i felt the tingle on my shoulders and forearms when walking thru anti-theft antennas at the front of stores. i can’t tell whether i am actually experiencing outside stimulus or am i simply wishing my brain to sense it.

    3. – When I was younger a friends mom was sensitive to (at least some frequencies of) RF (believe they caused migranes?). Had to turn cell phones off at her house. And if you forgot, ‘she knew’ and reminded you, so it wasn’t like she was making it up or a quack afraid of RF. I know cell phones are not ionizing radiation and whatnot, but i think all of these fields have some effect on us, just maybe not to a noticeable level for most. Kind of wonder if there aren’t cumulative effects on the body, that as we keep upping the noise floor, more people might have symptoms present (whether or not they are ever tied to RF exposure) due to whatever our tolerance levels are. Kind of like most people can drink cow milk – while it is rare, some are sensitive and even a bit will cause them problems, but most can handle a fair quantity, but most anybody has problems if they try to down a 1/2 gallon at a sitting.

  2. A friend of mine have once lived something surprising that could be linked with that. He was in Sahara desert for work with a group of collegues, and had to go from one point to another, a several hours trip. In his car was a desert-living man. And this man gave the route to follow as they were going. “This way”, “that way”, from time to time. Without anything noticeable to see in the land.
    When they finally arrive, they had to wait for the other car, which had a GPS. They had encountered dead end and quicksand…

    It often happens that I came to a place that is new to me, and to feel I know it. And to suddenly remember that when I was a child, I came here once, but going the other way. I’ve got a quite good visual memory, but I’ve come to believe that there is maybe bit more than just visual here, as the feeling of having been here comes far before I can recognize anything.

    1. A friend of mine have once lived something surprising that could be linked with that. He was in Sahara desert for work with a group of collegues, and had to go from one point to another, a several hours trip. In his car was a desert-living man. And this man gave the route to follow as they were going. “This way”, “that way”, from time to time. Without anything noticeable to see in the land.

      I do that sometimes when navigating across a mostly featureless ocean in Minecraft, but that’s just dead reckoning and I do sometimes end up in the wrong place, especially if my computer is being slow and the framerate drops to around 0.1 fps, causing my integration to become inaccurate. Hey, an idea: wear a magnetic field hat to help in-game navigation!

      I’m very good at navigating visually and by map too, whether in a game or in real life. In Minecraft, I’ve never followed the rule of placing torches only on one side of the cave/road. Sometimes I get lost, but it’s pretty rare. I guess the fact that I’m good at navigation in games means it’s not just based on magnetic fields in my case. I don’t think magnetic fields can even be very useful for navigation on their own. Direction, of course, but one place versus another? I doubt it.

      It often happens that I came to a place that is new to me, and to feel I know it. And to suddenly remember that when I was a child, I came here once, but going the other way. I’ve got a quite good visual memory, but I’ve come to believe that there is maybe bit more than just visual here, as the feeling of having been here comes far before I can recognize anything.

      I think that might still be at least mostly visual, just subconscious. Do you know about the research into grid cells and place cells in the brain?

      1. “Hey, an idea: wear a magnetic field hat to help in-game navigation!” If this effect proves to be more common than we thought, what you suggest may be a very good idea. You might even want to induce a ~10x or much stronger field change to go along with turning. Who knows, maybe it will reduce nausia and increase realism in 3d games and/or VR. …could be bery useful. :-)

  3. While this isn’t consciously controllable or interpretable, it is likely part of our general sense of direction and location. Excellent research and hopefully more will be looked into as time goes on.

    1. I don’t know, in the past people may have been more “aware” of it, considering that they had to be more aware of their general surroundings. Today we rely more on other ways of navigating, and if this true then maybe people could learn to use it again. (Wonder what modern electromagnetic fields would do to it though.)

    1. I’m “usually” that way. Never got lost up in the mountains etc. Then moved to Silicon Valley… on drive down my sense of direction just spun just outside Sacramento. Even when I intelectually knew direction (from sun position and driving direction from road signs) I couldn’t feel the direction. Took me months of living in new environment before I regained my sense of direction. Curious part is that it didn’t go away again when I moved back…. or since. Was just that one time first exposure to California crazy.

      1. I had a similar experience. Living in the southwest part of the country for many years, and did well exploring the mountains in that area or driving in new cites. We moved to Washington State and it took a year+ to get some of the sense of direction back.

    1. Luckily, the source of the magnetic field suggests that it should take thousands of years for the field to shift and flip. It isn’t like the Earth’s fluid is going to make a sudden change in circulation.

      People born in an unstable field will likely have reduced power sensors, because they have to align as the cells form. So when the poles are flipping, the sense should merely weaken for n generations until the field is stable again.

    1. I’ve had two in the past year, and were unnoticeable. I also spent 40+ years working with all kinds of fields from high power pulses through X band microwaves. Never felt a thing, except for the odd RF burn.

    2. The small number of detector cells that humans are likely to have suggests it is only a small scale directional sensor, and even for people who can “feel” when the sensor is triggered it would probably already be maxed out just from a small field. I’d expect an MRI to be detectable from a greater distance, but otherwise feel the same as an active power transformer right next to your head; eg, a slight tingle.

  4. is there a chance that the components attached to the persons head are somehow interacting with the magnetic field, and then passing this on to the wearer (in the form of microwaves/vibration/heat) and then the wearer becomes aware of that? The difference between people could be a difference in the way the people interact with the response from the components.

    1. Good point!

      Even just the physical vibration of any wires would couple to your head. If you consider the “bell curve” and that there isn’t an obvious physiological limit on the sensitivity to touch, it seems totally reasonable that some people would be able to detect when the orientation of the field has moved; most likely subconsciously, in a way that would feel like something else or something non-specific.

  5. Something I’ve been interested in is The Hum, which is very annoying to a small number of people. There are many theories, and many more conjectures without sound basis. VLF radiation, underground rivers, earthquakes, tinnitus, ALIENS, and many more. See serious research at thehum.info.

    Possibly a magnetic sensitivity has something to do with the Hum, in a small number of people. Possibly some people are hypersensitive to RF, except double blind studies have not found anyone. Lots of questions, no definitive answers.

    1. I can’t think of anything that radiates large magnetic fields without generating electro(static) fields or sound.
      As an example of double blind test: reports of health effects sharply rise when new antenna’s are placed, NOT when they are switched on. Ionizing radiation, sunlight, sticking your head in a microwave, or standing in front of large transmitters with similar frequencies, mobile phones with similar frequencies, MRI, etc. I do believe could be harmful or at least noticable. Magnetic field from a few amps of 50 or 60 Hz, often with the return conductor very close to cancel out the magnetic filed, not so much.

      1. Take a look at Helmholtz coils. They usually are run at 0 Hz and so there is no electromagnetic emmision (although there can be thermal emmision if the current is high enough) Interestingly enough, such devices seem to be a bit lost in antiquity since when you look up matters of actual such devices the units involved are rarely standard. I imagine that this experiment is to some degree duplicating what a pair of Helmholtz coils does multiplied by 3 and oriented to each of the X, Y, and Z axis.

    2. See my first comment.

      I could hear ‘the hum’ when I’d walk into shops with working rf/whatever it was security scanners they’d have on the doors. (The ones defeated by a silver foil bag).

      It’s faded with age (or just the fact you never see that kind of security anymore?)

      1. Those were in the high kilohertz range, like a metal detector. So you don’t hear a hum like the other “hearers” do?
        It’s possible there are many “hums”. Could be acoustic/infrasonic, could be generated right in the hearer’s ears (like tinnitus), maybe some are RF but so far nobody has genuinely found anyone proven to be affected by RF. Glenn McPherson, the “Hum” website guy, has done experiments, all pointing nowhere.

  6. I work with 7T Ultra-High Field MRI and it surprises me this isn’t an well know thing already.

    The effect of 7 Tesla’s is quite noticeable and can even be disorienting. I try to minimize head movements of myself and volunteers near the bore of the scanner to reduce these (harmless) side-effects. Although the tested field strengths in this study are a lot less than 7T, it seems plausible that it could still be picked up subconsciously…

    1. Water is diamagnetic, so you might feel a (slight?) repulsion from your 7T magnetic field.
      Moving in such a stationary field would change these Forces relatively to your body.

      This triggered a memory of an experiment where a frog was competely suspended in a magnetic field. According to Wikipedia a field strenght of 16T is enough for this. (search for frog on that page).
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetic_levitation#Diamagnetism

      I can well imagine that moving in a 7T magnetic field induces differential forces, dependent on the water content of your organs, and may well induche headaches.

  7. From my experience working with 7T Ultra High-Field MRI scanners, it surprises me this isn’t an well known thing.

    The effects of 7 Tesla’s is quite noticeable and can even be disorienting. We try to reduce these (harmless) side-effects by minimizing head movements near the bore, since it’s the change it magnetic field (flux) and not the static field that can be felt. Even though the field strengths in this study are a lot less than 7T, it seems plausible that we could still sense it subconsciously…

  8. Up until I was about 6, I had a perfect sense of direction. You couldn’t fool me. I always knew with absolute certainty which way was north, even right after waking up in unfamiliar surroundings with no visual cues. (Meanwhile, left and right were horribly confusing – they kept changing every time I turned around.)

  9. We need to get some cooperative Australian Aborigines in this test equipment. They are legendary for their navigation skills, use North, South, East, West when others would normally use words like left and right. The situation screams innate sense of direction. They are also genetically more separated from the rest of humanity than any other group I can think of. If anyone can detect magnetic fields, you would thing those people to be capable. Personally I think they would do well to have something special about them brought forward too, something for them to be proud about. :-)

  10. I read an interesting thing in an article about this the other day. I don’t know if it’s in the video because I haven’t watched it yet, but I don’t see any mention in the comments here.

    That interesting thing is that this only happens with magnetic fields oriented as they would be to a human on the surface of Earth in the northern hemisphere! It said that due to this, they were able to rule out cryptochrome-based and other “likely” mechanisms, as only something ferromagnetic could be sensitive to polarity. This was also said to be a reason to believe that magnetosensitivity evolved as a useful ability for our ancestors, which I think means that our ancestors evolved in the northern hemisphere, and any magnetic field oriented as it would be in the southern hemisphere could be rejected as local interference.

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