Last week I wrote an "Explainer" column on the subject of human magnetization. A person could never become permanently magnetized, I concluded. But if you're struck by lightning or otherwise shocked, you can act like a weak electromagnet for as long as the current flows. Along with some disdainful and disappointed responses ("[T]here has to be something just a little more intriguing than this?"), I received a barrage of e-mails from readers insisting they were walking magnets. Their assertions were invariably based on a professed inability to wear battery-operated watches—every time they put one on, it would mysteriously stop working. Then, two days after my article went live, the tech blog Engadget posted video footage of a boy living in upstate New York who calls himself "Magneto Man" because every computer he touches goes haywire. Had I been too quick to dismiss the possibility that personal magnetism is more than a metaphor?
Doubtful of my own conclusions, I did some follow-up work. I e-mailed a Harvard physicist, who agreed that permanent magnetization is impossible; I called watch manufacturers and repairmen who assured me that a person's body chemistry could never interfere with clockwork. John Safranek of the BestFix Watch Company recalled a customer who claimed that battery-operated watches stopped working as soon as she put them on. He gave her a watch in perfect condition, asked her to try it out, and wasn't too surprised to find that it kept on ticking. I also talked with Kelly Robinson, an electrical engineer based in Rochester, N.Y., who'd met Magneto Man. Robinson said the kid probably shuffled his feet a lot and generated a bit more static than most.
The experts wouldn't bite, but there's a large community of believers on the Web. Yahoo Answers has a short discussion after the query "Why is it that some people can't wear watches?" One respondent dismisses the issue: "[Y]ou might be a bit clumsy." Another is sympathetic: "My father had the same problem … [He] thought he had some kind of magnetic field around him or something. Some things in nature are very hard to explain." A Google Answers thread on a similar question cites "body magnetism" as a possible cause. I also found several instances online of people who claim their magnetic "auras" disrupt electrical equipment, such as streetlights.
On a Slate reader's recommendation, I checked out a Web site that postulates a mystical explanation for the "watch problem." "Two percent of out-of-body experiencers," the site states, "claim they make watches stop." It also has a lively chat room that would be great fodder for any entrepreneurs looking to bring back the sand dial. Perhaps the saddest comment was from someone named Jon: "Should it interest you, I received a battery operated watch for Christmas. I've been wearing it every day since. At 10:30 a.m. yesterday, it died, as expected." Hardly conclusive. Then there's Emilie, who seems to have ruled out all the obvious possibilities: "I tend not to bang my arms around much so it couldn't be because I crushed them. It wasn't the battery either because we would always change the battery and the watch would still not work."
If there's no such thing as a human watch-stopper, then why is the illusion so vivid for people like Jon and Emilie, Slate readers, and Magneto Man? Back in 1974, two psychology professors from the University of North Carolina, George Windholz and Louis Diamant, asked around 300 college students to fill out a "scale of belief" survey along with a few standard personality tests. They found a strong correlation between belief in the paranormal, impulsivity, and hypochondria. In other words, thinking you're magnetized because your wristwatch keeps breaking is a bit like assuming you have a fatal disease because you sneeze a lot. Both cases suggest a tendency to misinterpret insignificant details as symptoms of a broader problem—as well as a readiness to jump to conclusions.
Windholz and Diamant's findings match up with the work of psychology professor David F. Marks of the City University in London. Those who give credence to paranormal phenomena, Marks argues, tend to assume the existence of deep, hidden relationships between independent, random events, which other people might chalk up to coincidence. They're fantasy-prone and quick to (mis)read neutral evidence as giving support to previously held beliefs.
Perhaps there's someone out there with a genuine "watch problem," as opposed to all the people who just crave a better story than "things break." Whatever the case may be, magnetism is an awfully prevalent fallback theory for unexplained (read difficult to understand, or coincidental) phenomena. In addition to the numerous watch-problem e-mails I received, one reader wrote in to ask if magnetism could shed light on why men don't need maps: "[M]en … generally retain more minerals than women. Perhaps these minerals have some degree of magnetism, which synchs up w/ the earth's magnetism & gives males more of a 'sense' of direction." And, following the logic of the X-Men, others seem eager to believe that some quirk of their biochemistry could lead to magnetization—like a Slate reader who wonders if his high blood-iron level (he suffers from hemochromatosis) has any "magnetic possibilities."
As for why personal magnetism has become a part of the popular imagination, I can hazard a guess: It's both scientific-seeming, since magnetic fields can, after all, interfere with electrical devices, and vaguely magical, since magnetic forces operate invisibly; the best of both worlds for people who aren't entirely satisfied by a materialistic worldview but aren't willing to reject materialism outright.