Facts and Fiction of the Schumann Resonance

This cavity in our atmosphere resonates radio frequency at 7.83 Hz. But is that all it does?

Filed under Environment, General Science, Health

Skeptoid #352
March 05, 2013
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It's increasingly hard to find a web page dedicated to the sales of alternative medicine products or New Age spirituality that does not cite the Schumann resonances as proof that some product or service is rooted in science. This mysterious number of 7.83 comes up again and again in sales pitches, as a sort of miracle frequency that can bring you health and wellness. Today we're going to see what the Schumann resonances actually are, how they formed and what they do, and see if we can determine whether they are, in fact, related to human health.

In a nutshell, the Schumann resonances are the name given to the resonant frequency of the Earth's atmosphere, between the surface and the densest part of the ionosphere. They're named for the German physicist Winfried Otto Schumann (1888-1974) who worked briefly in the United States after WWII, and predicted that the Earth's atmosphere would resonate certain electromagnetic frequencies. The closed space inside a bottle has a resonant frequency which becomes audible when you blow across it:

This particular bottle has a resonant frequency of about 196 Hz. That's the frequency of sound waves that most efficiently bounce back and forth between the sides of the bottle, at the speed of sound, propagating via the air molecules. Electromagnetic radiation is similar, except the waves travel at the speed of light, and do not require a medium like air molecules. The speed of light is a lot faster than the speed of sound, but the electromagnetic waves have a lot further to go between the ground and the ionosphere than do the sound waves between the sides of the bottle. This atmospheric electromagnetic resonant frequency is 7.83 Hz, which is near the bottom of the ELF frequency range, or Extremely Low Frequency. The atmosphere has its own radio equivalent of someone blowing across the top of the bottle: lightning. Lightning is constantly flashing all around the world, many times per second; and each bolt is a radio source. This means our atmosphere is continuously resonating with a radio frequency of 7.83 Hz, along with progressively weaker harmonics at 14.3, 20.8, 27.3 and 33.8 Hz. These are the Schumann resonances. It's nothing to do with the Earth itself, or with life, or with any spiritual phenomenon; it's merely an artifact of the physical dimensions of the space between the surface of the Earth and the ionosphere. Every planet and moon that has an ionosphere has its own set of Schumann resonances defined by the planet's size.

The amount of resonance fluctuates as the ionosphere becomes more or less dense, which depends largely on the amount of solar radiation striking it. At night, that part of the ionosphere that's in the Earth's shadow thins out. Another influence is that the world's three lightning hotspots — Asia, Africa, and South America — also follow a day/night cycle, and are seasonal as well. Thus, the peaks of radio signal strength at the Schumann resonance follow a constantly shifting, but reasonably predictable, schedule.

A very important point to be aware of is that this resonated radio from lightning is a vanishingly small component of the electromagnetic spectrum to which we're all naturally exposed. The overwhelming source is the sun, blasting the Earth with infrared, visible light, and ultraviolet radiation. All natural sources from outer space, and even radioactive decay of naturally occuring elements on Earth, produce wide-spectrum radio noise. Those resonating in the Schumann cavity are only a tiny, tiny part of the spectrum.

Nevertheless, because the Schumann resonance frequencies are defined by the dimensions of the Earth, many New Age proponents and alternative medicine advocates have come to regard 7.83 Hz as some sort of Mother Earth frequency, asserting the belief that it's related to life on Earth, despite its being so tiny and lost among all the other, stronger parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Often we find that New Age beliefs are often based more on what seems emotionally satisfying than on sound science.

The most pervasive of all the popular fictions surrounding the Schumann resonance is that it is correlated with the health of the human body. There are a huge number of products and services sold to enhance health or mood, citing the Schumann resonance as the foundational science. Before looking at some of these claims in detail, it's noteworthy that neither Schumann resonances, electromagnetic radiation, or the Earth's ionosphere are mentioned in any medical or anatomical textbooks. There is no detectable or theoretically predicted relationship between either ELF radio or the number 7.83 and the health of human body. But let's look at some of the claims.

Many marketers of jewelry that claims to provide health or sports performance benefits cite the Schumann resonance as the science behind their claim. A notable example is the Power Balance bracelets. Tom O'Dowd, formerly the Australian distributor, said that the mylar hologram resonated at 7.83 Hz. When the bracelet was placed within the body's natural energy field, the resonance would "reset" your energy field to that frequency. Well, there were a lot of problems with that claim. First of all, 7.83 Hz has a wavelength of about 38,000 kilometers. This is about the circumference of the Earth, which is why its atmospheric cavity resonates at that frequency. 38,000 kilometers is just a little bit bigger than a 1 or 2cm hologram; there's no way that something that tiny could resonate such an enormous wavelength. O'Dowd's sales pitch was implausible, by a factor of billions, to anyone who understood resonance.

This same fact also applies to the human body. Human beings are so small, relative to a radio wavelength of 38,000 kilometers, that there's no way our anatomy could detect or interact with such a radio signal in any way.

Proponents of binaural beats cite the Schumann frequency as well. These are audio recordings which combine two slightly offset frequencies to produce a third phantom beat frequency that is perceived from the interference of the two. Here is a common binaural beat recording that produces a beat frequency of 7.83 Hz:

Claims for how this benefits the body are diverse, but most either say something generally similar to what O'Dowd said, or they would claim to change your brain's encephalogram, which they say is a beneficial thing to do. Brain waves, the fluctuations of current in the brain as measured at the scalp by an electroencephalogram, can range from near zero up to about 100 Hz during normal activity, with a typical reading near the lower end of the scale. This happens to overlap 7.83 — suggesting the aforementioned pseudoscientific connection between humans and the Schumann resonance — but with a critical difference. An audio recording is audio, not radio. It's the physical oscillation of air molecules, not the propagation of electromagnetic waves. The two have virtually nothing to do with each other. Audio waves do not affect radio waves, and vice versa. So by no science that's understood would we expect an audio tone to cause a brain's activity to change its frequency to match.

There's a complete Skeptoid episode on binaural beats that addresses the claims in greater detail, and examines some of the research done.

I found one website, EarthCalm.ca (just as one example among many), that says:

Scientific research has recently determined how the human body receives and uses the important information from the Earth's field: 7 billion crystalline magnetites in the human brain, in addition to DNA and the pineal gland are meant to receive guiding information from the band of electromagnetic frequencies that extends from the Earth's crust to the ionosphere (Schumann Resonances). Today, the Earth's field is polluted with man-made frequencies, so the human body instead receives "junk" produced by AC electricity and wireless technology.

Variations on this specific claim are fairly ubiquitous, that our bodies' energy fields need to interact with the Schumann resonance but can't because of all the interference from modern society. It's all complete and utter nonsense. Human bodies do not have an energy field, in fact there's not even any such thing as an energy field. Fields are constructs in which some direction or intensity is measured at every point: gravity, wind, magnetism, some expression of energy. Energy is just a measurement; it doesn't exist on its own as a cloud or a field or some other entity. The notion that frequencies can interact with the body's energy field is, as the saying goes, so wrong it's not even wrong.

Another really common New Age misconception about the Schumann resonance is that it is the resonant frequency of the Earth. This is also completely wrong. Take another listen to blowing across the bottle:

The space inside the bottle resonates at 196 Hz, a G on the musical scale. But listen when I tap the bottle itself:

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

The resonant frequency of the glass bottle itself is about 3520 Hz, which is an A on the musical scale. Two completely different notes. That's because the bottle and the space inside are two different things, with not necessarily any relationship between them. Similarly, there's no reason to expect the Earth's electromagnetic resonant frequency to bear any similarity to the Schumann resonance. But, furthermore, the Earth probably doesn't even have a resonant electromagnetic frequency. Each of the Earth's many layers is a very poor conductor of radio; combined all together, the Earth easily absorbs just about every frequency it's exposed to. If you've ever noticed that your car radio cuts out when you drive through a tunnel, you've seen an example of this.

Now the Earth does, of course, conduct low-frequency waves of other types. Earthquakes are the prime example of this. The Earth's various layers propagate seismic waves differently, but all quite well. Seismic waves are shockwaves, a physical oscillation of the medium. Like audio waves, these are unrelated to electromagnetic radio waves. Each and every major structure within the Earth — such as a mass of rock within a continent, a particular layer of magma, etc. — does have its own resonant frequency for seismic shockwaves, but there is (definitively) no resonant electromagnetic frequency for the Earth as a whole.

So our major point today is that you should be very skeptical of any product, service, article, website, or merchant who uses the Schumann resonance, in any way, as part of a sales pitch. The Earth does not have any particular frequency. Life on Earth is neither dependent upon, nor enhanced by, any specific frequency. Most of these sales pitches are what we in the brotherhood like to call a Word Salad, sciencey-sounding language thrown together in such a way as to sound impressive to the layperson. There's plenty of sciencey goodness in understanding why and what the Schumann resonances actually are, without co-opting them to promote nonsense.

Correction: An earlier version of this incorrectly described 196 Hz as the speed at which the waves bounce back and forth between the sides of the bottle, which is wrong.

Correction: An earlier version also stated that electromagnetic waves propagate via electrons, which was an ill-conceived "journalist's shortcut." Electromagnetic waves do not require that electrons be present.

Follow me on Twitter @BrianDunning.

Brian Dunning

© 2013 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Editors. "How Radio Communication Works." National Radio Astronomy Observatory. National Science Foundation, 17 Aug. 2008. Web. 2 Mar. 2013. <http://www.nrao.edu/index.php/learn/radioastronomy/radiocommunication>

Kruszelnicki, K. "Sceptics, energy fields and busting myths." Dr. Karl on Triple J. ABC, 25 Nov. 2010. Web. 2 Mar. 2013. <http://www.abc.net.au/science/audio/2010/11/25/3076448.htm>

Nickolaenko, A., Hayakawa, M. Resonances in the Earth–ionosphere cavity. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002.

Pechony, O., Price, C. "Schumann resonance parameters calculated with a partially uniform knee model on Earth, Venus, Mars, and Titan." Radio Science. 9 Oct. 2004, Volume 39, Number 5.

Rakov, V. Lightning: Physics and Effects. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Shelikoff, M. "Ask the Experts." Physics and Astronomy Online. PhysLink.com, 15 Nov. 2001. Web. 2 Mar. 2013. <http://www.physlink.com/education/askexperts/ae175.cfm>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Facts and Fiction of the Schumann Resonance." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 5 Mar 2013. Web. 19 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4352>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 100 comments

From myy point of view - the Jury is still out regarding radiation from Powerlines on Human Health . All i can tell you is that when we were commissioning a new Nuclear power plant in South Africa in the 1980's We had to move our Health Physics Lab situated within 100 m of the newly energised outgoing national grid lines ; this because of the radiation from these lines which upset our instruments accuracy. Humans can't detect this but instruments certainly can ..

Ian F, Christchurch New Zealand
January 29, 2014 2:19am

Since the author felt it necessary to cite a source from Wikipedia on alpha waves, cough*joke*cough, I thought it might be amusing for anyone that reads this junk to see wikipedia about his bio, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Dunning_%28author%29. All I can say is anything that comes out of this man's mouth is utter garbage and not to be trusted. At no point did he make any point that can't be refuted by modern science. I think the main point to take away is that people will usually find what they are looking for, regardless of whether it is correct or not, because it is all in how you skew your data. It is important to keep an open mind, and derive your own conclusions based on what makes sense to you. That being said, I would never include data provided by an individual such as this in my own decision making.

Kevin Davis, California
February 08, 2014 6:48pm

I loved the comments here - anyone at this point who's a skeptic of the electrical, magnetic, and harmonic nature of life on this planet and in this universe is, well, a moron. As soon as he started talking about the glass bottle, which contains no charge, was an idiot - which at this point seems to be the standard for "professional" "skeptics".

Nicholas Donahue, LA, CA
February 16, 2014 1:26pm

Thats great, Nicholas. Especially if you're an electric guitar. So, all non electric guitar life forms are morons. I'm down with that. all praise to the great god Clapton

Marius vanderLubbe, Nullabour Plain, Australia
February 16, 2014 5:49pm

I came across this skeptoid episode after looking for counterarguments for my research paper involving the proposition that SR fluctuations have potential to cause health effects. Unfortunately, I found this extremely lacking in relevant references. I totally agree with the "load of bs" comment about the claims that pseudo medicine can restore balance to the signal. However, the lack of research after Schumann and since the time of LB Hainsworth, W. Ludwig, and Dr. Wever is quite shocking. Especially since many of the publications by these credible people are hardly addressing the correlation in a pseudo scientific way. In 2002, an MIT student was able to manipulate DNA with radio-frequency pulses. So why would the correlation be absurd? The SR resonant frequencies are weak considering spectrum and EM pollution, but what if the body amplifies the signal on its own? There are too many questions and too little research to simply stamp "unlikely" on the correlation and move on.

Roger referenced a good article by Miller & Miller, but bibliotecapleyades is a terrible resource. The original publication can be found in Nexus Magazine, and I believe it be the most time relevant study available - http://nwbotanicals.org/oak/newphysics/SciNews.1003.pdf

In addition, Neil Cherry has interesting studies out regarding S-GMA influence.

Nick B, Richmond, Virginia
February 21, 2014 7:49am

I would also recommend for the author of this article to watch the movie called "Resonance Beings of Frequency", which explains virtually everything that must be known about the Schumann Resonance.

Furthermore, for those willing to find out more about how certain electromagnetic frequencies affects human biology, check the BioInitiative Report 2012 which covers more than 1800 new studies on RF and ELF-EMF bioeffects.

Good health for everyone. :)

Attila-G. K., SM
February 28, 2014 11:27am

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2656447/

Read your heart out.

dre, LT<CA
March 20, 2014 7:57am

Dunning's view, that the body does not have an energy field, is completely wrong. The energy field of the body has been proven - measured and seen - by pure science.

It seems Dunning's name is related to the word dune, as in sand dune, as in sticking one's head in the sand.

Dolev, Israel
March 30, 2014 1:12am

"Often we find that New Age beliefs are often based more on what seems emotionally satisfying than on sound science."

This is where the conversational stalemate resides. It's so crazy that the majority of the fundamental followers of (the faith/religion of) science have absolutely no perspective of how they are disabling their own intuition and power. Science, like other religions, has some absolutely beautiful facets, but to not see it's short comings is a disgrace to the multi-verse : )

Science is strong and immature.

Matt Moorman, Hudson, NY
March 31, 2014 10:05am

The "jury" is still out on so many of these things.. but experientially, so much can be delved into through inner exploration. Real, rationally explainable, valid, reproducible phenomena. Even the so-called pineal gland has crystalline structures that have not yet "really" been studied (and certainly aren't in medical literature) - so? There is SO MUCH that medicine doesn't yet know, but anecdotes and experiences are not inherently imaginary either... in fact, they can suggest for us to 'move in that direction' so that we CAN further elucidate more of what it is that we don't know. This is why "skepticism" is truly not scientific at all... where open-mindedness (accepting that you don't yet know) is.

The lack of evidence doesn't mean the evidence has to be extraordinary (this is not such a realm).

THOUGH it is appreciated when certain new-age claims are 'ruled out' by what we know already (because there IS a lot of mythology and 'tradition' out there and that just isn't going to hold up where our collective, empirically-integrated spirituality is actually going)... but on the other hand, to BLATANTLY STATE that "there is no such thing as an energy field around the body" - is as blase as saying that the emptiness inside atoms is just completely empty and meaningless, period. Open your mind a little bit... don't write stuff like this, because it pollutes thoughts more than the "good" that you think it's doing.

Eugene Sedletsky, Omaha, NE
April 08, 2014 3:33pm

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