Top Ten Superhumans

These people have real-life superpowers.

By William Tung from USA (SDCC13 - The original X-Men Uploaded by daisydeee) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In comics and movies, human superpowers are limited by only our imagination. But in real life, there are some talented individuals with skills beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Myths and legends abound of people with abilities ranging from the supernatural to superhuman, but these 10 people have had their unique powers verified by science. Behold, the top ten real-life X-men!

1. The Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson's Disease

This is a sad story, but one with a happy legacy. One night I was up late writing (or messing around on Facebook, to tell the truth), and I had the BBC 24-hour news channel on TV in the background. They ran a feature on this woman, Joy Milne, who can tell if somebody has Parkinson’s by the way they smell. I was initially sceptical, as it sounds extraordinary — but it is also true. The programme detailed the tests she had undergone to prove that she does possess this special ability.

The story began with her own husband developing Parkinson’s disease in his 40s. This is a horrible condition for anyone to get, but at such a young age is devastating. One day, many years prior to his diagnosis, Joy noticed that her husband smelled nasty, and she asked if he’d showered. I’m guessing he wasn’t too impressed, but apparently he stank, and he just couldn’t smell it. Some time after, Joy and her husband attended a Parkinson’s support group together and Joy was hit by a wave of the stench. All of these people with Parkinson’s absolutely reeked to Joy’s sensitive nose. She discreetly told her husband what she had noticed, and he was intrigued. Joy noticed when she was out and about that she could detect this smell coming from other people — although she didn’t let on, and her ability has posed some difficult ethical dilemmas for her. Her husband, who had been a doctor before he had to quit because of the illness, made Joy promise that she would somehow put her skill to good use.

Joy was tested for her sensitivity to various odours and the results showed that her olfactory system is somewhere between “average human” and “dog.”  Some ordinary-strength odours can seem overwhelming to her, and she can detect scents that most of us cannot. This meant that there was a scientific basis for Joy’s claim, and even better, it could be translated into a diagnostic test. Joy could also smell the “Parkinson’s smell” on people who did not yet have symptoms, so it’s possible that we will be able to use the information from Joy’s incredible ability to diagnose and treat the disease much sooner — perhaps even before any symptoms are noticed. The current stage of work involves figuring out which chemical compounds it is that cause the smell, so that these can be built into an electronic “sniffer” that will be used as the first line test for the disease.

The Woman Who Can Smell Parkinson's Disease - BBC News

2. The Man Who Can See Using Echolocation

This is a really cool ability, and one that any of us could potentially learn.  Daniel Kish is completely blind, yet he is the organiser of a hiking and cycling club, of which all its members are visually-impaired. You might think that such pursuits are unsafe and difficult for those with limited or no sight, but this team navigates like bats and whales, by emitting a sound (like a clicking noise) with the tongue and using the echoes to judge the terrain and landscape. It sounds incredible (because it is), but it is something that we can teach ourselves, with patience and concentration. Here Daniel is, demonstrating this skill in the video below:

When I cross the road, I use my ears prior to turning to look at the traffic.  I can judge where a car is and how fast it's travelling by its sound alone, and I was taught to drive using the sounds from the engine as a cue to gear changes rather than the visual rev counter — so perhaps I'm halfway to learning this?

3. The Man Who Can Draw Whole Cities from Memory

Stephen Wiltshire can go to a place once, and draw a complete and accurate panorama based on the memories he developed during this one showing. His talent for art was noticed as a child, when in his younger years he used drawing as a means of communication — Stephen is autistic, and experienced delays in speaking. His work is extremely detailed and realistic, all the more remarkable given the short preparation time he needs to create a masterpiece. To give an idea of the scale of his genius, he drew a complete landscape drawing of New York City based on a 20-minute helicopter ride taken around its streets.

Stephen has produced drawings of many major cities, which have sold for thousands of dollars. He has been awarded a Ph.D, an MBE, and has his own gallery on Pall Mall.

4. The Woman Who Can See Invisible Colours

Concetta Antico is an artist with a serendipitous gift. She is able to see more colours than the average person, even looking at two items that appear identical to regular people and noticing a variation. She didn’t know that she was different from other people until in conversation with others, she realised that people didn’t have a clue what she was talking about when she described the vibrancy of the world she sees. She can look at a grey cobbled street and see a rainbow. Concetta has a condition called tetrachromacy, and it allows her to distinguish colours more finely than most people — seeing hues that the rest of us are unaware of.

Most humans have three types of cone cells in their retinas, which allow us to see things in the red, blue and green spectrums of light. Some women (and it is always women that possess this trait) have a fourth type of cone cell that allows them to see colour in another peak on the spectrum. Women that have the genetic mutation that allows this describe seeing a wider array of hues and shades than the rest of us.

Why does it only affect women? The gene responsible for colour vision is found on the X chromosome. More men than women are colourblind because they only have one copy of this gene, and if it’s faulty there is no “backup” for them to rely on. Women have two copies, one for each of their X chromosomes, and so long as at least one of them works properly, they will not be colourblind. A woman must have two faulty copies of the gene, one from each parent, to be colourblind — which is why colourblindness is more common in men. But the same gene also gives rise to tetrachromacy, the condition of having four types of cone cell.

If the colour-vision genes on the two X chromosomes are both functional, but different (so that a mutation has occurred, but not a harmful one), a fourth type of cone with a sensitivity to a fourth part of the visible spectrum is generated. In order to produce four cone types, two X chromosomes are necessary — which is why only women have this condition. While about 12 percent of women have four cone types, most are not blessed with seeing superpowers — only a handful can see the world in a richer colour profile. The mutated cones need to be significantly different from the regular three to produce a noticeable difference. If the fourth cone type closely overlaps with what any of the others can detect, the woman will not be tetrachromic. But if it picks up on light in a part of the spectrum away from the peaks of the primary colours of light (red, blue, green), then the woman will possess tetrachromacy.

5. Those Who Never Forget a Face

Super-recognisers have an extreme ability to remember and recognise faces. They have the opposite condition to prosopagnosia (face-blindness). I have some experience with both of these extremes: I have a friend with prosopagnosia who doesn’t recognise her own parents. She has to use different cues to figure out who somebody is — because the facial recognition part of her brain doesn’t work adequately. She uses people’s voices, mannerisms, gait, etc. to recognise who somebody is. At the other end of the scale, I remember people I’ve seen in passing from decades ago (pointing this out scares the shit out of people, I have discovered), and I also associate faces with other faces in my mind — certain faces may look like a celebrity or someone from my life, but only in my head. Other people can’t see this, but something in my brain triggers connections between a new person and an old face, including any emotions and experiences associated with the original face. I quite enjoy the experience, and I never forget faces (names, yes, I forget all the time). Other people think I’m weird, and I don’t care.

The Metropolitan Police have a special super-recogniser unit made up of officers that can identify suspects from grainy CCTV footage, from partial images (e.g. with face covered), or in a crowd. They have an extremely high success rate, and they’ve been able to intervene to prevent crimes rather than just cleaning up after a crime has occurred (for example, by preventing known thieves from entering a festival). And there’s not yet an AI as good as this human superpower.

Take a quick test to see if YOU are a super-recogniser!

6. The Man Who Can Consciously Regulate His Body Temperature

Wim Hof is an extreme sports enthusiast, and has taken things to such an extreme that he has developed the ability to mentally control his internal body temperature, allowing him to experience conditions that would kill an ordinary human. It seems that it might be possible for other people to train and acclimatise themselves in a similar way, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Wim has climbed Mount Everest wearing nothing but shorts, run a marathon in the Namib Desert with no food or water, and submerged himself in an ice bath for one hour and 52 minutes without his core body temperature changing. He claims to be able to do this through meditation and breathing exercises — which shows one hell of a lot of focus. However he does it, it’s certainly a unique talent (I can’t even stand a lukewarm shower; the mere thought of an ice bath makes me shiver).

Wim Hof breaks the world record for longest ice bath.


7. The Circus Performer Living Life on the Edge

Eskil Ronningsbakken has made a career of balancing on the edge of very tall things. He possesses an extremely good sense of balance, and I’d hope so too, given the nature of the challenges he undertakes. He regularly puts himself in dangerous situations with no safety harness — he’s trusting his skill and instincts to keep him alive while tightrope-walking over Niagara Falls, doing a handstand on a stack of chairs at the edge of a cliff, and balancing on a trapeze suspended from a hot air balloon.

He also uses meditation and yoga to give him the clarity and focus needed to be capable of such extreme balancing acts. I can’t even do a handstand, and I’m shit-scared of heights. This one’s definitely not for me to try.  You might want to hold on to something while watching the below video:

8. The Woman Who Can Fit into a 16” Box

I’m fascinated by contortionists, and I wish that I had the flexibility to perform such visually startling moves with my body. There is a large amount of training as well as aptitude associated with this skill, so it is one that can be learned. But to be this good takes decades of practice and a strict diet and exercise regime, which I really can’t be bothered with. Genetics also play a part, as some people’s bodies just won’t ‘do’ that sort of thing, no matter how much stretching they partake in.

Bendy Em can not only fit into a 16” square box by herself, she can also fit a regulation-size basketball in there with her. She began her career in gymnastics and then went on to create a comedy contortion act (I’ve seen a lot of things in my life, but never one of those). Just watching her twist and turn and condense herself into such a small space is excruciating, but so fascinating.

Here's just a regular Australian daytime TV studio with contortionism:

9. The Man Who Can Draw Fractals By Hand

This is another tale of tragedy with something good to come out of it. In 2002, Jason Padgett was outside on the street when he mugged for his jacket. His assailants beat the living crap out of him and he was taken to hospital to get checked out. He was diagnosed with concussion and a bruised kidney, and discharged a few hours later.

When he woke in the morning, things were a little weird. He was able to see patterns spilling out of the edges of everyday objects, and he could track the movement of an item as if it were being viewed in slow-motion, frame by frame. And then he started drawing what he could see — and it was beautiful. He could see the tiny patterns at the edges of all things, and could get on to paper what he was seeing — fractals. He caught the attention of a physics professor while he was out one day drawing in a mall (that’s not really a thing that happens in the UK, I don’t get it…) and they encouraged him to study mathematics — which he did, and he is now a number theorist and author, as well as a talented artist.

Padgett has Acquired Savant Syndrome, which means he has developed an incredible & specific intellectual ability as the result of a traumatic brain injury. It’s vanishingly rare, as the majority of people experiencing head injuries do not develop amazing superpowers, and a substantial number end up severely handicapped. He is one of around 40 people worldwide to have the condition.

10. The Man Who Can Tell You What Day of the Week It Was for Any Date

This is another case related to brain injuries — potentially any one of us could develop skills like these, subject to serious head injuries (maybe don’t try that at home). In 1979, Orlando Serrell was playing baseball, and got hit on the side of the head by the ball. It knocked him out briefly, but nothing untoward was suspected.  He got up after a few minutes and carried on playing (they would never allow that these days!). He was left with a persistent headache, which he didn’t seek treatment for, but stranger than that, he also developed an incredible ability: he could tell you what day of the week it was for any date since the accident — and what the weather had been like on that day. More recently, he has been able to increase the skill’s power by performing calendrical calculations in his head for dates prior to the baseball incident.

Here’s some video footage of him recalling dates and other details. Note the speed with which he is able to recall this information!

What were YOU doing on March 15, 1992?

Be Super

Be it learned, innate or as a result of a bump on the head, these people are all better than average in some specific way. Will they change the world? Who knows. But we can celebrate their genius and maybe reflect on what makes each of us a little bit special. Anybody might one day find themselves blessed with the abilities that seem locked away until an extreme event occurs, or one might have a unique talent that remained hidden until an opportune moment.... you never know, that dinner party trick might get you into the record books as well!

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