Magnetic Fields May (Just May) Make Us Suicidal

By Melissa Lafsky | April 24, 2008 5:13 pm

earth magnetic fieldGiven that the ability to sense the Earth’s magnetic field comes in pretty handy for pigeons, it’s worth asking: Can humans sense it too? Oleg Shumilov of Russia’s Institute of North Industrial Ecology Problems set out to answer this question, as Catherine Brahic reports in the New Scientist. After examining the planet’s geomagnetic field activity from 1948 to 1997, he found that it peaked consistently three times a year: March through May, July, and October. A little cross-checking on the data revealed that those time periods coincided with the peaks in the number of suicides in Kirovsk, a city of around 30,000 people in the cold depths of northern Russia.

Thanks to the handy rule of correlation vs. causation, Shumilov’s discovery is a long way from providing definitive evidence that human sensitivity to magnetic field activity equals greater numbers of suicides at certain times.

Still, it helps that his theory is backed up by prior research linking very high or low levels of geomagnetic activity to poor cardiovascular health, as well as more extensive psychiatric studies showing a correlation between geomagnetism and suicide. Columbia University psychiatrist Kelly Posner reportedly offered this theory for the reason behind the link (if one does exist):

The most plausible explanation for the association between geomagnetic activity and depression and suicide is that geomagnetic storms can desynchronise circadian rhythms and melatonin production.

Experts admit that the relationship appears substantial enough to warrant further research—though, as one psychiatrist noted, suicide is so rare that you’re “bound to get spurious effects. A study of the causes would have to enroll a country’s entire population.” Plus, it might help if Shumilov tackled a slightly different location for gathering data—like, say, San Diego.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: What’s Inside Your Brain?
  • Ruth Rosin

    It is not at all given that pigeons can sense the Earth’s magnetic field!

    You cans still find in science textbooks the claim that homing pigeons can use the earth’s magnetic field to find their way back home, and various migratory animals can use the Earth’s magnetic field to migrate, even when they migrate alone, over territory they had never visited before. The claim is tone of the worst goofs the whole history of the Behavioral Science, second only to the Nobel winning “discovery” that honeybee-recruits can obtain & use distance & direction information contained in their foragers’-dances to help them find the foragers’ food-source on their own.

    All these science-fiction stories are based on very shoddy, misguided research.

    For instance, the claim concerning homing pigeons is based on studies where homing pigeons , transported to a release site, and released after having very strong magnets attached to their backs, were unable to depart in any specific direction, whereas controls, that were released without magnets, circled overhead, and then departed in the home-direction. The scientists who carried out the study did not have enough “brains’ to realize that when a very strong magnet is attached to a bird, the bird is attached to the magnet. It was not the birds, but the strong magnets, that reacted to the Earth’s magnetic field, aligning themselves with the direction of the magnetic forces, thus causing the birds attached to them, to turn into such an alignment, thus preventing the birds from being free to turn into any desired direction!

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