The fear of becoming lost in the woods is primal. Maybe your GPS died on you; perhaps you took a side trail that disappeared into nothing, and now the meadow you’ve just come across looks eerily similar to one you passed through hours ago. But imagine you could close your eyes, calm your breath, and center your attention on a small pulse in your brain. You turn your head this way, then that, and feel this pulse grow strongest when your face is pointed just so. There, you sense: North.
How it would feel to sense the earth’s magnetic field is wild conjecture, but according to a new experiment by Joe Kirschvink, geophysicist at Caltech who specializes in animal magnetoreception, we may already do so subconsciously. Magnetoreception, as the sense is called, is how birds and fish are able to navigate incredible distances with surprising accuracy. Kirschvink theorizes that magnetite, an iron crystal found in our brain, serves a similar purpose for us as it does for north-sensitive animals. No one, however, has yet been able to prove the biology.
So Kirschvink set about to prove the behavior, instead. Previous experiments in the early eighties with humans failed to be conclusive or reproducible, creating false positives and cries of charlatanism. Kirschvink himself had criticized a 1980 study by Robin Baker, a biologist from the University of Manchester in the U.K. who took blindfolded subjects along winding country roads and then had them point to home. He claimed that a statistically significant number of subjects could do so, but the number fell dramatically when he placed magnets on their heads. Kirschvink, among others, could not repeat the findings in the U.S. One theory for this failure in reproducibility is that AM radio waves—a frequency range the U.K. doesn’t use—are very effective at interfering with the magnetic field.
To avoid similar failings in his own study, Kirschvink built what is called a faraday cage, which blocks out all electronic and magnetic interference. He placed subjects in the cage, fired up a series of electric coils to create artificial magnetic fields, and measured the subjects’ brainwaves on an electroencephalogram (EEG). Drops in alpha wave patterns are associated with mental processing, and this is precisely what Kirschvink found: consistent, reproducible drops in response to changes in the magnetic fields, the only variable in the experiment. Though the sample size was small—roughly two dozen—the results nonetheless open the door to what could be a new, or long dormant, human sensory ability.
That’s the short version, and the long version is worth a read. But it begs the question: so what? If this truly is a latent sense, silent for millennia but perhaps accessible with training, is it worth developing? Some recent studies in orientation suggest yes.
A group of scientists in Japan showed that blinded mice were able to navigate a maze with the same accuracy as sighted mice when they embedded an electronic compass into the mice’s visual cortex. Similarly, researchers at the University of Osnabrueck in Germany created a “tactile compass belt” that continually notified the wearer of true north through vibrating motors placed around the belt. Blind test subjects reported a noticeable improvement in their ability to navigate known and unknown areas. Even more interesting, subjects stated that they very quickly stopped noticing the belt, and instead simply “sensed” north. It worked so well that they didn’t want to give the belt back.
As a potential new sense that would be particularly beneficial to the blind, magnetoreception has interesting parallels to echolocation, which is the ability of humans to use sonar to map their environment. I reached out to Daniel Kish, founder of World Access for the Blind and pioneer in teaching echolocation to the blind. All humans have this ability, which centers on creating a loud sound—usually a sharp click with the tongue—that creates echoes that the brain uses to map objects in the environment. While Kish agreed that magnetoreception could be a welcome tool for the blind, the more interesting part of our conversation centered on echolocation’s history. Kish thinks it could serve as a primer for how a magnetic sense may go from the stuff of mystic psychobabble to a functional, teachable skill.
“You have century upon century of echolocation not being understood,” Kish says. “It was well known that some blind people had an optical sense, but the way in which it was done was wildly speculative. It’s hard to teach something when you have no idea how it’s happening.” Scientists studied echolocation in animals as early as the 1940s, but one of the earliest formal studies on human echolocation didn’t appear until 2009. “But even so, it was not until very recently that a method of teaching it was developed. So it’s possible that magnetoreception is similar.”
So perhaps, we mused, that person who never seems to get lost, or can park a car at Disneyland and walk straight to it when the day is over, is subconsciously tapping into the earth’s coordinates in the same way blind persons subconsciously sensed objects around them. Maybe the hiker who never needs to check the map, the husband who, honest to God, doesn’t have to ask for directions—perhaps they are the naturals. They just have a feeling, and can’t explain it beyond that. Research like Kirschvink’s may begin to show that such feelings aren’t a fluke, and from there it's possible that, like human sonar, we'll turn this latent ability into conscious behavior.
The largest barrier to the sense being truly useful, however, may be human rather than scientific. The magnetic sphere is not a strong signal, and our civilization has flooded the environment with everyday electronics and radio frequencies that create interference. Dense, labyrinthine cities—the very places a person could most use an innate sense of magnetic north—are the very places where this skill would be least accessible. Unless, of course, you have a faraday cage you can take on the subway.
But before the why, or even the how, Kisrchvink still needs to definitively prove that the sense is real at all, through repeated studies with larger samples. This has already begun: Researchers in Tokyo have shown similar EEG readings with their own faraday setup.
In the meantime, if you find yourself lost and afraid in the woods, close your eyes. Focus. Chances are you won't feel a thing, but perhaps there's a small tingle between your eyes when you face just the right way. Maybe that's north.
You should still pack a compass, just in case.