Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Can Humans Perceive the Geomagnetic Field and Utilize it for Navigation? A Review of “Human Navigation and the Sixth Sense” by Robin Baker

As evidence has accumulated that many animals utilize the Earth’s magnetic field (aka the geomagnetic field) for navigation, it’s reasonable to wonder if humans also do so. Since some members of every group of vertebrates possess the magnetic sense, why shouldn’t humans? Aren’t humans animals? Doesn’t modern biology, including the subdisciplines of genetics, evolution, physiology and anatomy, neuroscience, etc., emphasize the link between humans and lower animals? How can animals have an entire sensory apparatus that nature neglected to grant to humans?

Robin Baker, formerly a professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, asked these same questions over 30 years ago. He didn’t just ask questions, but conducted a pioneering research project to answer these questions. He wrote two books summarizing his research: Human Navigation and the Sixth Sense, at the beginning of his project, and Human Navigation and Magnetoreception, at the end. Having already read Human Navigation and Magnetoreception, I decided to read the earlier published book.

Human Navigation and the Sixth Sense focused on only one type of experiment, bus experiments (he would later add chair and walkabout experiments). It talked a lot about the animal magnetoreception research that motivated Baker to conduct his human research. A frequently-mentioned example was homing pigeon experiments. In these studies, researchers looked at homing success after release from a considerable distance, direction of vanishing point, i.e. the last observed position of the pigeon after release, and the pigeons’ directional preferences in an orientation cage. Experimental manipulations included altering the magnetic field surrounding the animal by means of coils and bar magnets attached to the head. Disruption in homing ability by means of magnets demonstrated that homing pigeons and other animals can perceive and utilize the geomagnetic field to navigate.

Since pigeons can find their way home after being displaced tens of kilometers, why not see if humans can do the same? Since a pigeon’s ability to find its way home is disrupted if a bar magnet is attached to its head, wouldn’t the same hold for a human? That’s the logic that motivated Baker, whose background is zoology, to apply to humans what researchers up to his time had only studied in animals.

How can you prove that humans use a “sixth sense,” i.e. a magnetic sense, to navigate? The simplest and most cost-effective way to transport people from home to the release point is by bus or van. People can make note of landscape details and roads traveled as they are driven around. If they are familiar with the area, they can make educated guesses about where they are based on what they observe.

To get around this problem, Baker decided to blindfold his subjects. Blindfolded subjects wouldn’t be able to observe landscape details. Unless they had an ability to navigate by feeling the twists and turns of the bus (i.e. an “inertial sense”), they would quickly get lost. By suppressing their visual sense, he believed, their magnetic sense would become activated.

Baker drove his blindfolded subjects between 6 and 52 km from the university, which was the “home” reference point. Some experiments involved transporting subjects in a van, and others a motor coach. Along the way, and after reaching the destination (the “release point”), subjects were asked to write down or say their estimate of direction of home and air-line distance from home, and to point to home. They had to do this while still blindfolded.

To summarize the results, Baker found that blindfolded subjects possessed a weak but statistically significant navigational ability. Bar magnets or helmets with electromagnetic coils disrupted this navigational ability. Baker concluded from these results that the blindfolded subjects’ weak navigational ability was due to a “compass in the head”, i.e. a magnetic sense.

Baker made frequent use of charts and diagrams in the book to present his results. Despite these visual aids, I found it hard to understand what was going on. Some of the results could have been more thoroughly explained. The biggest problem, however, was trying to connect the results to a coherent theory. On this conceptual level I found the book lacking.

Reading this book three decades after it was published, I have the advantage of knowing the subsequent bizarre history of the project. I was beginning high school the year the book was published, and don’t remember hearing anything about Baker’s human magnetoreception claims. I think it was publicized more in Great Britain than in the United States.

To summarize the history, after publishing this book and some articles, Baker continued his research project, trying additional types of experiments such as a spinning chair. In the spinning chair experiments, after being blindfolded and spun around, a subject indicated what compass direction he was facing. While Baker was continuing his research in the 1980’s, other scientists in Great Britain and the United States tried to replicate his results. They focused on his claim that blindfolded humans driven in a bus have a weak navigational ability to locate home. They didn’t use the bar magnets or electromagnets, but simply tried to replicate the “control” condition in which the purported magnetic sense was supposed to function. The majority of attempted replications failed. To add to the confusion, Baker claimed that the supposedly failed replications actually succeeded, but that the researchers drew the wrong conclusions from the data.

After Baker published Human Navigation and Magnetoreception in 1989, which was both an answer to critics and a summary of his completed research, he changed gears entirely. He moved on to popular science books on the evolutionary biology of sex, such as Sperm Wars. His latest book is a novel.

Once Baker left the human magnetoreception research field, no one else picked it up. It disappeared, as if it fell into a black hole. Unlike the animal magnetoreception field, which developed into a prolific research specialty, the human magnetoreception field went into a long-term coma after Baker left it.

There were fundamental problems with Baker’s experimental methodology that led to his failure to scientifically establish the existence of a human magnetic sense. One problem was that he blindfolded subjects. We now know the magnetic compass that birds and some other animals use for navigation is part of the visual system, and requires light. This is known as the “radical pair” mechanism. Blindfolding subjects will block such a compass, assuming that humans have one. To be fair to Baker, when he began these experiments over 30 years ago there was little evidence in favor of the radical pair mechanism.

Another fundamental problem was that Baker assumed that the magnetic sense was unconscious. Since we can’t ask animals what they feel or perceive, we don’t know if their magnetic sense is conscious. But the five “basic” senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch) are conscious, so it’s difficult to accept the existence of an unconscious sense. It’s even more difficult to prove it, as Baker found out after publishing this book. Baker compares the magnetic sense to a sense of time, which is unconscious. But time isn’t an environmental stimulus that is sensed by a specific organ, as the geomagnetic field is believed to be sensed by the magnetic sense organ.

Baker made a crucial error in assuming that possessing the magnetic sense was normal and functional. According to Baker, “[I]f a sense normally exists, absence of that sense may have clinical side effects” (p. 123). He studied normal people, usually college students. He made no effort to isolate or identify people who had special abilities. As a result, the group composite navigational abilities he studied were weak, masked by considerable statistical noise, and difficult to replicate.

Another problem with Baker’s research is that he assumed that humans could utilize their magnetic sense to point toward home, or write down or say the distance from and direction toward home. It’s not clear that even animals that are known to possess the magnetic sense could do such things, if they had the brain capacity to do them. Animals are tested by measuring in what direction they move toward home. Moving toward home is not the same thing as pointing toward home, or telling what direction home is.

Baker assumed that magnetic home and the university were one and the same. But what if magnetic home was located far away from the university? How could the subjects’ magnetic sense guide them back to the university, if their magnetic home was located hundreds of kilometers away?

Based on my own research, I have come to the conclusion that the magnetic sense is a conscious sense, based on feelings, dysfunctional, and possessed by a minority of people. These magnetically perceptive people feel differently if they are north or south of magnetic home. Magnetic home is not the same as actual home. The location of magnetic home, which is a north-south transition, is based on where and when a person grew up.

While for pigeons and migratory birds the magnetic sense is normal and functional, for modern humans in developed countries it isn’t. Feeling depressed if we’re north of home, or manic if we’re south of home, provides no navigational benefit. Familiarity with the area, maps and GPS devices can tell us where we are relative to home with much more precision than our magnetic sense does. Also, the fact that we travel so much and live much longer than our primitive ancestors did makes it likely that magnetic home and actual home will be separated by a considerable distance. Our magnetoreceptive feelings interfere with our ability to function in the modern world. In fact, they interfere to such an extent that most people with these feelings are diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and prescribed medications.

Baker’s research paradigm of driving subjects around in a bus can be modified to test these human navigational abilities that I assert are based on a magnetic sense. I talk about experimental methods in depth in my research paper, but I’ll summarize them here. Instead of blindfolding subjects, which blocks their visual-based magnetoreceptor, the bus windows should be covered. The internal bus lights will provide subjects with the light they need to activate their magnetoreceptor. Since the magnetoreceptive feeling of being north or south of home is greatly enhanced by looking directly at the early afternoon sky, a sunroof should be installed that is usually kept closed. When opened, subjects will be able to look at the sky without seeing landscape details. Subjects should then be driven to areas close to their magnetic home. Since magnetic home is different for each person, only one person at a time should be driven around in the bus. By looking at the sky through the open sunroof, the subject can then indicate where he is relative to his magnetic home. Since he’ll have no knowledge of what direction north or south is, he won’t be able to point to home, as in Baker’s experiments. He also won’t be able to estimate distance to home, since the feelings aren’t capable of being converted to distance. All that his magnetic sense can tell him is whether he is north of, south of, or in his magnetic home.

This experimental methodology is more a series of in-depth case studies than a group experiment. While labor-intensive, the only equipment needed is the bus. Although case studies provide limited generalizability, the navigational ability should be strong and reliable enough that it can be replicated.

For any scientist contemplating doing these above-mentioned bus experiments, an important question is: how do I select individuals with this ability? I mention some tests that can be done in my Are You Sensitive page, but I admit that I don’t know how this magnetic sense functions in other people. As with any new research area, the initial experiments will require adaptability and persistence, along with the willingness to take risks and accept failure.

Robin Baker was a pioneer, but most pioneers fail. Human magnetoreception has always been a controversial subject, one that few researchers dared to touch. Several centuries ago, Mesmer became a famous fraud by claiming that humans possess a magnetic sense, and today we call a hypnotized person “mesmerized”. I give Baker credit for jeopardizing his career by being the first person to systematically study the human magnetic sense. The world (especially the magnetoreceptive psychiatric population) now desperately needs a scientist with the courage to follow in Baker’s footsteps and restart human magnetoreception research. With the improved knowledge of animal magnetoreception that we possess today, along with my human magnetoreception hypothesis, this new research could lead to the breakthrough that Baker was denied.

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