We have all thought about the possibilities of having a sixth sense. Maybe it is telepathy or being able to see heat signatures or sense future events. Or, and I’m sure you saw this coming, being able to ‘see dead people’. How about being able to sense magnetism – you know, like having a built-in compass? Well, in the 1770 a man named Franz Mesmer suggested that a sixth sense exists – he called it animal magnetism. He believed that it could be used to heal people if their ailments. Now, a recently published article in Scientific American explains that researchers are building on evidence published in Science that such a sense does, in fact, exist. Except, it is not used to heal people; it is used to find magnetic north for navigation.
Now, before you go outside and try to align yourself with magnetic north you should know that even current evidence is inconclusive and it mainly applies to migratory animals. Current leading hypotheses follow two lines of research – magnetic particles within animals or chemical reactions caused by magnetism. The former follows research that found microstructure magnetic particles in the beaks of homing pigeons. It is hypothesized homing pigeons could use sensory input from the particles to align with magnetic north and thus aid in bird’s legendary navigation skills. The latter follows research from the early 2000’s that suggests a protein, cryptochrome, in retinal cones is the mechanism for magnetic sense. This hypothesized that as photons bombard the protein, a lone pair of electrons is kicked out of antiparallel alignment and flip flops between antiparallel and parallel alignment until one of two things happens. If the bird goes back to magnetic north the antiparallel state prevails and the lone pair reunites spin. If the bird continues off magnetic north the parallel state prevails, a chemical reaction occurs and free-radical is produced – thus, alerting the animals that it is off course.
This is amazing to me for two reasons. First of all, how amazing is the scientific process? Decades of evidence piling up to potentially uncover a new sense! A new sense – get out! Secondly, this research may be able to explain a bunch of unknowns about how animals migrate and sense the world around them. This, once understood, could help support or refute research on whether human-source magnetism and radiation is having a significant impact on declining populations of animals such as bees, butterflies and birds.
The breadth of the unknown in science is staggering as evident by the possibility of a sixth sense. Maybe more senses exist in other animals. Maybe there are grasshoppers that can see into the future (although if that were true the ones who get caught by predators must be suicidal) or tuna that can see dead tuna. Sure Mesmer was far off on his interpretation of the sixth sense – but was he farther off than Nostradamus who believed he could read the future? It is amazing how often ‘crazy ideas’ have a shred of truth to them.
Posted by William Mohn