Why can’t humans feel or detect the Earth’s magnetic field like birds (might) do?

It’s likely most creatures do not sense it due to either sensory habituation, lack of survival utility, or a biophysical incapability. Since it’s always present and relatively not changing drastically or frequently it’s evolutionarily unlikely to have reason to be sensed, and likewise it may be imperceivable due to the physical state of the organism. If biophysically it is somehow sensed, then it’ll be tuned out as it’s perception would be too vague to be useful. The main idea here is that the magnetic field is consistent enough – and benign enough – that it’s perception by the organism is irrelevant for survival. Note: It may be sensed to some degree but not perceived, and so not behaviorally affective. Further note: Organism survival does depend on the presence of the Earth’s magnetic field for it’s shielding of cosmic rays (i.e. high-velocity-charged-particles-of-death) but it’s acknowledgment is otherwise useless to survival and reproduction.
Birds may be able to sense it by elevation and velocity changes. They move quickly enough horizontally and high enough vertically that their brains may not only be capable of sensing the field but also find survival use from sensing it. Note: This is inferred from the fact that charged particles in motion produce a magnetic field, neurons contain ions and hold voltage, birds move very quickly and other non-magnetically influenced animals are relatively slow, and birds are prominent migrators for reproductive (bioevolutionarily-driven) reasons.

18 Comments

    1. I am one of those people and I feel it has more to do with a sort of cognitive map. Whether explicitly or unconsciously, I check the cardinal direction then note my orientation to it mentally in a visual sense, maintaining it cognitively rather than perceiving it outright. I think it’s something like this that people “sense” direction with rather than the magnetic field, it’s just not usually consciously salient that’s where the knowledge of direction is coming from.

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  1. I am completely directionally-challenged, so I have zero magnetic field sensitivity or awareness cognitively. I admire birds for many reasons; their reading of the magnetic fields may be top on my list.

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  2. More seriously, I think one’s answer to this could depend in part on one’s cosmology. Believers in astrology for instance say the celestial bodies influence them. Religious people speak of higher powers that transcend and surpass astrological forces (e.g. The Holy Spirit). I think this kind of thing could be applied to direction. We may be guided. But by what? And how sensitive are we to that guidance?

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    1. I think it might be prolonged exposure to electric fields (e.g. living near high voltage power lines or substations) that may be the popular claim. It probably isn’t good but the effects would be subtle and likely acting on ions in the body. Can’t say for sure what research might be out there but probably could cause cellular dysfunction or damage DNA.

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