Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D
Magnetic fields are seldom studied by behavior analysts, yet research suggests that they could impact a host of biological setting factors that impact human behavior. In some cases, they have even been shown to directly affect human performance. This work has developed from at least two interrelated angles – magnetoreception, and hypomagnetic fields.
In a recent study published in the journal eNeuro, and discussed by MedicalNewsToday, a team lead by Connie Wang from the California Institute of Technology and others from the United States and Japan found that humans can respond to magnetic fields – an ability known as magnetoreception. Though the ability is well documented in other species from bacteria to birds, it is not as conclusively established in overt human behavior.
Neuroscientists describe magnetoreception as comprised of at least two responses framed, like behavior analytic principles, in metaphorical language – a “compass” response, and a “map” response. While the latter orients the animal to north and south, the latter “uses field intensity and direction to build a picture of where the animal is relative to where it wants to go.”
The authors noted that “although many migrating and homing animals are sensitive to Earth’s magnetic field, most humans are not consciously aware of the geomagnetic stimuli that we encounter in everyday life. Either we have lost a shared, ancestral magnetosensory system, or the system lacks a conscious component with detectable neural activity but no apparent perceptual awareness by us.”
Said behaviorally, if we do have magnetoreception we may not be able to describe our own behavior as being affected by such fields.
The researchers found that participants’ alpha waves, those waves involved in processing external auditory and visual stimuli in the environment, reliably dropped in amplitude when presented with magnetic fields reminiscent of those found specifically in the Northern Hemisphere. The authors noted “this implicates a biological response tuned to the ecology of the local human population, rather than a generic physical effect.”
Related literature on hypomagnetic fields, according to a review by Binhi and Prato published in PLoS One, suggests that “the weak magnetic field (MF) can trigger a variety of biological responses.” In fact, the authors published an exhaustive list of such findings across species, including 21 effects on humans.
Though most of the effects are at the cellular level, one of the studies reported effects of zero magnetic fields on behavior. More specifically, Sarimov, Binhi, and Milyaev (2009) found that “45 min of exposure to zero magnetic field caused statistically significant changes in five out of eight parameters” including number of errors and time to completion of tasks.
If we zoom out and look at the broader findings reported by Binhi and Prato’s review, we find a variety of behavior affected by magnetic fields, such as swarming in honey bees, perch hopping in sparrows, heat responses in snails and mice, memory/learning in flies, birth rate in mice, survival of radiation exposure in flies, rate of aggression in rats, and more.
Among humans, many non-behavioral effects were documented, including cell proliferation, blood composition, sperm activity, gene expression, and more.
The big picture here suggests magnetic fields can be an important component of human biological, and even psychological, functioning. The extent of such effects, particularly on behavior, are still unclear but offer behavioral scientists around the world a relatively untapped area for investigation.
Important questions regarding the effects of magnetic fields on social behavior, language/cognitive skills, motivation, reinforcing functions of various activities, remain to be answered. In looking to the future, the authors of the review noted “during interplanetary flights in the near future, a human organism will be exposed to prolonged periods of a hypomagnetic field that is 10,000 times weaker than that of Earth’s. Attenuation of the geomagnetic field occurs in buildings with steel walls and in buildings with steel reinforcement. It cannot be ruled out also that a zero magnetic field might be interesting in biomedical studies and therapy.”
Anyone looking for a dissertation topic?
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Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is a science writer, social philosopher, behavioral systems analyst, and the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which aims to connect behavioral science to the world in an engaging, non-academic way. Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar. He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues. His publications follow a theme of behavioral systems analysis, organizational performance, theory & philosophy, and language & cognition. He has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas. Dr. Ward can be reached at [email protected]
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