The ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field—a trait known as magnetoreception—is well documented among many animals, but researchers have struggled to show that humans are also capable of the feat.
These pioneering efforts produced results that were either inconclusive or unreproducible, so scientists largely gave up, figuring magnetoreception is something outside the human realm.
In the years that followed, work on animals increasingly pointed to magnetoreception as the result of complex neurological processing—a possibility that motivated Caltech geophysicist Joseph Kirschvink and neuroscientist Shin Shimojo to revisit the issue.
“Our approach was to focus on brainwave activity alone,” Kirschvink told Gizmodo.
The brain must first perceive something in order to act on it—there is no such thing as ‘extra-sensory perception.’ What we have shown is this is a proper sensory system in humans, just like it is in many animals.”
To test whether the human brain is capable of magnetoreception, and to do so in a reliable, believable manner, Kirschvink and Shimojo set up a rather elaborate experiment involving a chamber specially designed to filter out any extraneous interference that might influence the results.