Monday, February 01, 2016

Human Magnetoreception experiment: Call me bird brain!

So, follow my logic...

Fact 1. There are animals that have the ability to sense magnetic fields.  Many of which have a protein in their retina called cryptochrome.

Fact 2. One such animal that we don't mind doing experiments on because they aren't that cute is fruit flies.  Turns out, humans and fruit flies have very similar magnetic field sensing protein in our retinas.

Fact 3. If you take a fruit fly that for some non-sinister reason genetically doesn't make it's own protein it doesn't seem to sense magnetic fields.  Now, if you take that same fly without it's own magnetic sensing protein, and substitute the human protein... it can sense magnetic fields again and navigate normally using the human version of this protein instead of it's own.

(I know... the fact that that statement can be made means there are scientists out there that are literally making human-insect hybrids, though probably very mild ones... It seems we are only percentage points away from that Spanish poem where the insect goes for a hike on his human girlfriend and lover. Pablo Neruda's "Insecto")

Fact 4. The human magnetic sensing protein placed in other animals that know how to use it gives the ability to sense magnetic fields and use them for navigation.

Thinking about all this, it should naturally follow that:

Hypothesis 1. Humans have the biological mechanisms in place to use magnetic fields for navigation.

The above picture about animal magnetoreception was stolen from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champlain's website.  What it is showing is how magnetic fields might be seen or sensed using cryptochrome by a bird as it looked around the landscape.  I am not sure that I agree with a lot of their discussion... especially when it gets to electron pairs and spin direction.  I feel like we don't need to get quantum physics involved in a phenomenon that can basically be replicated by a magnatized sewing needle stuck a bobbing cork... but they are the scientists and they have really convincing graphics.

Now... given all those facts and experiments done by other diligent biologists as stated above, it seems there is a pretty strong argument to at least start some experiments or attempt to tap into this possible latent ability for humans to navigate through direct sensing of the earth's magnetic fields. But Wait There's MORE!

Here is where it gets even more awesome!

Supposedly the Guugu Yimithirr Language and Sambal Language don't have words for "in front of" or "behind"... or even "right" or "left of"...  etc.  They only use the cardinal direction words like north, south, etc.  So for example if you were going to tell someone where they lost their screw driver, you would say, "Your screw driver is north of your east hand."  Supposedly that is how they describe all directions whether it is small directions around the room or larger ones around the whole area.

I know what you are thinking!  Nick, isn't the Sambal Language a language of island people?  Where if they grew up on an island and knew the landscape very well of each island, that it might just be easy to give directions that way because nobody ever goes anywhere new? Well maybe.  But also the second language Guugu Yimithirr is from northern Australia where one could imagine that the speakers could walk around a lot farther than the folks on the islands and still they use the cardinal direction words instead of some sort of local orientation like right or left or behind...

So all this has me sort of simmering in the back of my mind...  I am thinking a pacific island people and some northern Australian people whose description of themselves is "of the salt water" use cardinal directions in their language.  That area of the world was the kind of place that ancient Polynesian mariners used to cross the huge pacific with no compass or other known modern navigation tools. Maybe these languages are actually artifacts of the ancient mariner's ability to sense the magnetic fields of the earth... and that those people still have that ability.  Pile that on top of the biology that strongly indicates that we should be able to sense magnetic fields! ...then crown it with this:

I read an article or maybe heard a news story about an anthropologist the that went to study one of the languages mentioned above. At first she said that it was difficult to only use the cardinal directions for everything because she had no mental orientation to describe things.  Like she was some sort of terribly handicapped person in that culture.... then most interestingly after a few weeks of speaking the language all the time, she described how a sort of mental map manifested itself in her head.  It seems it just sort of appeared there.  Then after that, she was able to tell the cardinal directions all the time with no problem at all.  Unfortunately she left a few weeks after that and I haven't heard of any other experiments done along these lines... but the implications are tantalizing!

Unfortunately it isn't in the budget this year to go to the south pacific and ask the tribesmen to wear DeGaussing hats to see if they can still talk.  So I am going to have to do the next best thing, I am going to have to some how reignite or sharpen this sense of magnetic detection in myself.  Assuming it is a magnetic sense, I have started wearing a little magnetic compass around all the time.

You can see the little compass pinned to my shirt in the northern edge of this picture. My stove is at the south edge of my kitchen and I am making pasta in the northwest burner of the stove. I have only been doing this for a few days now, and have no solid conclusions yet but I will say that I have become already much more conscience of when my orientation is changing.  As in, roads that I always just thought of as straight I now am acutely aware of when they make subtle curves.  Mostly I just now have a good excuse to wear a little compass on my shirt all the time.

My plan is that after I feel like I am reliably able to orient myself N. S. E. W., I'll do some control tests on myself to see if that really is the case.  Remind me to update about this if I don't mention it on here later.

One last note... a few people that I have discussed this experiment with have brought up the fact that when we are flying, we have to be totally conscience of our orientation with respect to cardinal direction, so shouldn't have these hours and hours of being tuned into the cardinal direction in the air have developed magnetoreception already?  Well, to be honest, no.  The first thing I do when I get in an aircraft is stick my head in between two huge magnets in the speakers in my helmet... then shortly after, I turn on a million radios and computers... then top it off with a giant radar right in front of my nuts.  I don't feel like the cockpit is a magnetically quiet enough to develop this sense. Kind of like trying to learn perfect pitch while working on an auto assembly line.

If any of you folks can think of a better way to attempt to develop this magnetoreceptive conscienceness, please make comments below.  Or better yet, do your own experiments and let us know what happens.



Jonathan Salter said...

Sorry for the tangent thought, but is that a marble arms compass?

Notorious said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Notorious said...

Good eye!

It is exactly a marble arms compass!

Actually they are pretty terrible compasses... well, initially it was terrible. I was trying to train my mind to pick up magnetic fields, and the compass was pretty much just pointing in random directions. I took it apart and ground up a pencil lead and put the graphite grounds in the cup that the compass card hangs on the pin from. This reduced the friction enough that it actually is reliable as a source of directional information. It works great now, but I would guess that 97.4% of the marble arms compasses out there are pointing in random directions mostly dictated by friction.

Jonathan Salter said...

We use to have a few and my experience with them was about the same. About as accurate as one out of a Cracker Jack box. Marble arms, good at knives and axes, bad at compasses...

Jonathan Salter said...

One for your next experiment:

Notorious said...

Holy shit that's awesome!

i will have to check on this as well! Thanks!