Mighty magnet, the soul-eraser

There’s a scene in Stanislaw Lem’s novel “Invincible” where an electromagnetic surge “of at least billion Gauss” render an exposed astronaut into a new-born baby, mentally, effectively “formatting” all the memories from his brain. I know this is a SF novel, but Lem was always a hard-liner. So, is this possible, in theory? Could a magnet a size of a planet affect neural connections?

I tried googling the answer, but the results are inconclusive.

A magnet that strong would have ripped all ferrous minerals from his body, which I imagine might have a slight effect.

About 70% of the iron in the human body is in the red blood cells. I imagine exposure to a magnet that strong might turn out to be a bloody mess.

Aside from it ripping somebody to shreds or destroying their ability to carry and process oxygen, from a pure memory perspective, I believe most long-term memories are chemical-based rather than electricity-based. So unless you were somehow induced to troll through ALL your long term memories while under the field, I don’t see any particular reason a magnet would wipe long-term memories.

It might be able to impair or wipe short-term memories, but as Czarcasm points out, having all your hemoglobin rip it’s way through all your cells flying towards the magnet would probably do a lot more on that front than the magnetic field itself.

Is hemoglobin ferromagnetic? Iron is, and iron oxide happens to be, too, but not all compounds of a ferromagnetic element will be ferromagnetic.

That said, the diamagnetic effects on water would, by themselves, be enough to hammer this guy into chunky salsa.

Yes and no. The electrons in hemoglobin are unpaired when it’s deoxygenated but pair up while oxygen is bound. (Also, the notion that iron is the only candidate for ferromagnetism in the human body is not correct…)

You’d have to worry about paramagnetism as well as ferromagentism and diamagnetism. The O[sub]2[/sub] in the lungs, for example.

Though, I guess it’d be one way to get rid of all those nasty free radicals in your system…

Never meant to imply that it was, sorry. I was just using it as the main example because it is the largest source of ferromagnetic material in the human body.

Also “formatting” someone’s brain is probably entirely achievable. All you need to do is develop some type of chemical agent that causes the neurons to make permanent long term potentiation changes to that synapse type. Then do this a few hundred more times. So the “lethe” drug would be several hundred small molecules that apply to all synapse types.

Problems : you might disrupt the neural circuits allowing someone to breathe.

I’m not sure if someone with an erased mind like this could recover, without the neural plasticity of a baby it might not be possible.

The drug might kill them directly from side effects.

Thinking about it, the real problem is that the goal here is to someone erase someone without killing them. This seems contradictory.

Magnets absolutely affect computations in the brain, researchers do studies and control aspects of the brain with magnets, it’s a non-invasive method.

But neural connections are maintained physically and chemically. The neurons DNA undergoes epigenetic changes that causes the synapse to be maintained at a particular strength.

Sure, but our knowledge of the brain was a lot worse in 1964, when The Invincible was published, so that may have been reasonably “hard” at the time.

Come to think of it, I think I should have said just no on hemoglobin paramagnetism. The unpaired electrons in deoxygenated hemoglobin are surrounded by paired electrons for some distance-there aren’t any nearby unpaired electrons attached rigidly in one orientation to spin correlate with. Plus, they periodically pair up whenever they bond an oxygen, clearing any correlation. I expect deoxygenated hemoglobin would just be paramagnetic, not ferromagnetic.

Unless you’re in a comic book, where magnetism is usually a euphemism for magic.

I mentioned it in another thread on autism but there is a medical treatment called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation used for pain, depression, OCD, etc. It does mention some side effects including “transient impairment of working memory” but doesn’t get too specific. I’d think there is some way to tinker with magnets and erase memories if this is really possible. Would probably have to target specific regions of the brain.


You don’t need a powerful magnet to erase memory/soul.

Whatever you do, don’t click on this link.

The Invincible was published in 1964. Lem had a medical background, but I don’t think the mechanism of long-term memory was well understood at that time.

Fascinating novel, by the way. Especially considering how long ago it was written.

In his 1971 novel The Futurological Congress, alterations of mood & perception is done by chemicals, not magnetic fields.

I vaguely recall some science show that demonstrated that blood does slightly respond to magnetic fields. But given that it’s safe for people to undergo MRI’s that can yank heavy steel weights across a room, it can’t be a very strong effect.