A new study, published online in eNeuro, determined that through studying brain waves, humans can potentially have magnetoreception abilities. This “sixth sense” was previously only known to occur in certain animal species, such as birds and fish, who use the magnetism for navigation.

What is Magnetoreception?

While it sounds complicated, magnetoreception is, at its fundamental level, the perception of a geomagnetic field. It is found in all major groups of vertebrates and some invertebrates. Its presence in humans, however, has rarely been tested in the past.

The Basics of the Study

A team comprised of researchers from the United States and Japan exposed people to a magnetic field -- 26 participants sat in a dark, quiet chamber lined with electrical coils. The coils would then change the magnetic field within the chamber in order to equal the strength of Earth’s natural field, while at the same time being shifted in various directions. The recording of the electrical activity of each participant was possible from  EEG caps.

Their findings showed distinct brain wave patterns occurred when participants went through magnetic field rotation. By studying the alpha waves, which ended up indeed changing, they were able to determine, to some degree, that the brain reacts to the changes in the direction of a magnetic field, which was expected. Previous tests on human magnetoreception were inconclusive, but this study brings scientists one step closer to understanding the intricacies of the human magnetic sense.

What This Means for the Future of Human Magnetoreception Abilities

There’s still a mystery about a human’s application for this magnetoreception ability, as well as how our brains exactly detect Earth’s magnetic field. According to the study, the brain wave patterns may be due to sensory cells containing magnetite, a magnetic material that has been found in magnetoreceptive trout and the human brain.

For more up-to-date findings on magnetism and how magnetic fields influence our day-to-day lives, visit our Magnets in the News blog or sign up for our monthly newsletter!