A new homecoming?Human magnetism: the new sixth sense
A London-based technology company wants to do nothing less than alter in the way we move about the world by harnessing a mysterious, magnetic power – the very sense that guides animals such as migratory birds across vast distances – for humans. Read More
Sitting at a desk for eight hours at a time, fingers clicking over the keyboard, can narrow the gaze down to a tunnel. The murmur of the city in the background, enhanced by the twitter of a bird or too. Few of us can escape from life at a desk, but you can develop strategies for some relaxing distraction. I like to play Eddie Vedder's soundtrack Into the Wild these days, or flip through the headlines of online science magazines. There my eye was recently caught by a report on a new electronic development: a little tool with the beautifully auspicious name the North Sense that claims to function as an artificial sixth sense for humans.
If I hadn't read about North Sense in a respectable popular science magazine, I probably would have immediately dismissed this miniature device as utter nonsense. But now I was fascinated. After all, North Sense's production company, London-based Cyborg Nest, wants to do nothing less than alter in the way we move about the world by harnessing a mysterious, magnetic power – the very sense that guides animals such as migratory birds across vast distances – for humans.
Animals can receive and process information from the earth's geomagnetic field, subtle signals that surround us but are inperceptible to humans. Animals use their magnetic sense for orientation and can estimate their own position and direction of travel. This magnetic sense plays a crucial role in navigation, such as when migratory birds travel hundreds of mile, or sea turtles return to their place of birth to reproduce many years later. But even less well-travelled species seem to orientate themselves along the earth's magnetic field lines, from bacteria and snails to mammals. Dogs, for example, align their bodies north or south when urinating or defecating.
Magnetic effects on organisms have fascinated people since ancient times. The French Mesmerists, named after Franz Anton Mesmer, were particularly well-known for their use of magnetic fields. In the late 18th century, the Mesmerists claimed that they could cure diseases by exposing patients to magnetized objects. They had gained significant popularity when a scientific commission appointed by King Louis XVI, and whose members included Benjamin Franklin, declared the Mesmerists’ methods ineffective. Theories around magnetism were associated with the Mesmerists for a long time after their debunking, and there are still various esoteric teachings and popular concepts around today that resemble Mesmer's doctrine. In the 19th century, it influenced concepts such as Freud's psychoanalysis, suggestion therapy, and hypnosis, and was seen as a possible cause of somnambulism. The ideas behind parapsychological therapies and the Chinese theory of life magnetism, Qì, share elements of the Mesmerists’ work.
In the 1940s, scientific experiments with pigeons suggested geomagnetic fields played a role in navigation for the first time. The scientific community was rather displeased to be stepping into an area formerly occupied by quacks and charlatans, and rejected the theory of a magnetic response for quite a while. Finally, persistent scientific testing and theory building helped move the phenomena from the realm of the fantastic into the language and logic of modern science.
Where the magnetic sense of animals is ultimately located and how it works is a mystery gradually being solved through the multi-disciplinary cooperation of scientists in physics, biophysics, and geophysics who study the structure and function the sensory receptor cells, nerves and associated brain areas in animals.
In 2001, Joseph Kirschvink, a geophysicist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, detected chains of free-flowing iron magnetic crystals in animals. He believes these crystals function as sensors for the earth's magnetic field. The geophysical signal, Kirschvink later discovered, simply passes through the tissue in the body, where the crystals serve as a sensory epithelium. Animals therefore don't need external organs to pick up and process geomagnetic information.
Becoming a Cyborg
Compared to the complex function of the magnetic sense of many animals, North Sense works more simply. It sends a vibration to the wearer’s skin when he or she is facing magnetic north.
Cyborg Nest founders Liviu Babitz and Scott Cohen have personally worn North Sense for several months, the final testing run before it enters the market in March 2017.
A photograph on the company's website depicts a chip coated in body-compatible silicone not much larger than a fingertip anchored to Babitz's chest just below the collarbone. A bit like body jewelry, the North Sense is permanently attached to the body via titanium rods inserted under the skin. The tiny technology might call smartphone apps and tracking systems to mind, but North Sense is not equipped with GPS or data storage, nor is it linked to a network of any kind. Cyborg Nest suggests it is more like an independent organ that allows human beings to feel magnetism.
As explanatory models around animals become more and more established, Kirschvink is currently on the brink of proving a far more controversial theory. He had detected the same potential magnetoreceptors in humans he found in animals, and now believes that even humans have a natural magnetic sense. In an experiment, he proved that a protein in the human retina placed into fruit flies reacts to magnetic fields.
Since 2014, Kirschvink has been testing his findings in direct human experiments. In his laboratory in Caltech's basement, Kirschvink had a Farady cage constructed, a box of thin aluminum siding that shields participants from electromagnetic noise that might disturb the experiment. Participants sit motionless in the Faraday cage with a special electrode-studded skullcap that measures their brainwaves as a rotating magnetic field passes through their bodies. Kirschvink’s findings are potentially groundbreaking: certain neurons in the human brain respond as soon as the magnetic field is rotated counterclockwise. The experiment was also reproducible in a similar setting in Japan and is scheduled for testing in New Zealand as soon as funding is secured.
If and how the North Sense influences the wearer is yet undetermined. If we see scientists like Kirschvink as objective experimenters in search of scientific truth, then Cyborg Nest might be considered the subjective experimenter who believes that the magic begins in thus far uncharted fields.
A mind change?
On the company website, two North Sense testers blog about their experience wearing the magnetic signalizer on their chests. Babitz describes his first underground ride with North Sense. Every time the underground car turned north, he sensed a slight vibration on his chest, freeing him for the first time from the illusion that the subway always moves straight ahead. “This is not a physical change – this is a mind change,” he wrote. Babitz believes that the subtle information will allow the creation of a multi-dimensional memory that combines sensory impressions like sounds, smells, and visual images with spatial orientation.
In a second blog entry, Babitz recalls an experience he shared with his son, just before leaving on a trip abroad. In a park near his house in London, he held his son's hand and together they slowly turned north. “My North Sense buzzed in my chest. Click. Memory created.” During his trip, Babitz only had to close his eyes to feel his son's hand in his palm. “My new digital sense created a very real and very emotional memory.”
Cyborg Nest assumes that the information received from North Sense is processed by the human brain. ”Gradually, North Sense will become part of your existence. Your brain will learn how to filter the information, exactly as it is filtering distractions right now as you're reading this sentence.”
Kirschvink is less clear on whether the information from the magnetic field is actually processed by the brain. “The frontier is in the biology – how the brain actually uses this information,” David Dickman, a neurobiologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, also emphasizes. In 2012, Dickman showed that neurons in the inner ears of pigeons played a role in their ability to sense magnetic fields.
While the search for scientific truth must remain impartial, Cyborg Nest has a clear vision of what they want to achieve with the North Sense: to reach a deeper connection to space and geography and thereby transform our very act of being in the world.
Reconnecting to nature – does using the North Sense mean we could regain what we lost over the course of our evolution? Kirschvink and other geophysicists believe that humans lost their magnetic sense over time. “It is part of our evolutionary history,” Kirschvink says. ”Magnetoreception may be the primal sense.” North Sense certainly wants to connect us to something primal, something fundamental and simplistic. Perhaps to whatever notion of nature we have, a nature we feel far removed from in our daily lives. Could this be a homecoming of a kind?
In fact, Cyborg Nest believes in a possible feedback loop between humans and the earth's magnetic field. This is a popular concept in esoteric theories of an energetic interconnectedness of all the planet's species that could, once consciously perceived, help create a better world. Quacks and charlatans? But writing off Cyborg Nest as just another disciple of some secret doctrine would be to sell it short.
I am not one to judge anyone about their desire for alternatives. Sitting at my desk for eight hours, it consoles me to listen to Eddie Vedder's yearning yet determined tunes about traveler Christopher McCandless, who left his place in society to roam the wilds of Alaska. Vedder probably captures that wanderer's feelings accurately when he describes his desire to “rise up and find his direction magnetically.” Yet what enabled Vedder to imagine a stranger's life are those curious qualities that make us human: empathy and phantasy, both abilities that we developed while our magnetic sense slowly faded over the course of evolution.
I do enjoy the idea that some people are experimenting with becoming cyborgs. But the initial lure of sensing north is fading for me. No matter how dull the deskwork, I guess it is enough, and quite beautiful, to be a lucky mortal listening to a fellow human sing of our condition.