Friday, January 15, 2010

The Difference Between Magnetoreception and Bioelectromagnetics

Earlier this month, I did a search in Pubmed on the term “magnetoreception”. An article came up which described an experiment on humans. The abstract ended with the following sentence: “Magnetoreception may be more common than presently thought.” The implication is that humans may have magnetoreceptive abilities.

The experiment involved studying how exposure to low-intensity, low-frequency magnetic fields can alter pain sensitivity in humans. Subjects were exposed to acute thermal pain while lying in an fMRI machine. Experimental subjects received the magnetic field exposure (which involved different magnetic fields than the fMRI machine normally produced), while control subjects didn’t receive this. The fMRI machine imaged both experimental and control subjects’ brain activity. Significant differences in activity were found in various brain regions in the experimental versus control group.

I would classify this experiment as an example of a bioelectromagnetic phenomenon, but not as a magnetoreceptive phenomenon. Bioelectromagnetics is the study of how electromagnetic fields interact with living beings; magnetoreception (aka magnetoception) is the study of how animals utilize magnetic fields for orientation. There has been much more research on bioelectromagnetics than on magnetoreception. One familiar bioelectromagnetic research area is the possible increased cancer risk from cell phone radiation.

Magnetoreception involves the perception of magnetic fields for orientation, i.e. to alter behavior. Some animals (e.g. migratory birds) navigate partially based on information in the geomagnetic field. Magnetoreception is basically a “sixth sense,” similar to vision or hearing, in which sensory information is processed by the brain to produce a perception. In this case, the perception is some sense of where the animal is, where it needs to go, and how to get there (i.e. an internal GPS, possibly combined with an internal compass).

To my knowledge, there has been only one research project involved in understanding whether or not humans have magnetoreception. This was undertaken by Robin Baker at the University of Manchester in the 1970’s and 1980’s (summarized in his book Human Navigation and Magnetoreception). Baker did a variety of studies designed to ascertain whether or not humans have magnetoreceptive navigational abilities. I talk about his research in my scientific paper. It’s difficult to summarize his results; a fair assessment is that he was unable to convince the scientific community in the existence of human magnetoreception.

For two years, I studied what I believe to be my own magnetoreceptive abilities. Unlike Robin Baker, who studied a weak orientational ability (involving internal GPS and compass ability) in normal subjects, I focused only on a limited-functionality GPS ability that was directly connected with my psychiatric symptoms. My research revealed that my symptoms (negative versus positive) indicate whether I’m north or south of (magnetic) home. I claim no compass ability at all. I can’t tell whether I’m facing or moving north, south, east, or west. All I can do is feel whether I’m north or south of magnetic home. To get to magnetic home, I need to utilize external navigational aids (e.g. maps, roads, technical GPS, etc.).

The most important aspect of my research is not that it will provide an awesome new navigational tool for humans. The modern technical GPS is great as a navigational tool, and my internal GPS is no match for it. The significant part of my research is that it provides an explanation for the environmental cause of psychiatric disorders. Right now, this environmental cause is unknown, and as a consequence we’re unable to effectively treat mental illness, or to prevent new cases from happening. Drugs treat symptoms, and can help many people function better, but they are no cure. To find a cure (or way to prevent psychiatric disorders from happening), we must understand the environmental cause. My hypothesis is that psychiatric symptoms are navigational tools, the human equivalent of the animal instinctual response to being north or south of home. This hypothesis can be tested (I describe some experiments in my scientific paper), and if confirmed, can hopefully lead to a future in which schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are as rare as smallpox and polio are today.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

What $640 / month rent gets you in Tokyo

Times are tough in Japan right now. Their export-oriented economy has been hit hard by the Great Recession. "Hotels" like the one pictured above, originally intended for salarymen who stayed out too late and missed the last train, now rent out a third of the units long term. Read more about life in a 6.5 x 5 ft cubicle here.