Throughout history, humans have been obsessed with the idea that some of us have superpowers. Fairy tales and legends are all about witchcraft, people who can fly, see through solid walls or turn into animals. More recently, the cinemas have been full of films featuring Batman, Spiderman or the Avengers, all of which pull in huge audiences. But are superpowers really just something which belong in the movies?
Batman can not only fly but he can use his bat-like powers to detect wrongdoing. Bats are well-known for their powers of echo-location, which uses a system of clicks and high frequency noises to detect solid objects, and helps them to navigate and to hunt. Some blind people are using the same echo-location techniques with incredible results, and when taught to use clicks and to listen for echoes, can determine where they are in relation to open spaces, smooth surfaces such as a building, or irregular shapes such as vegetation or trees. Many of them instinctively start making noises as an aid for navigation without realising why they are doing it and what effect it is having. Experts in echo-location now offer classes to people who have suddenly become blind, or who have been blind since childhood. Listening for the way the clicks sound in the air, along with information from other ambient sounds and using their knowledge to navigate and create a mental map of an environment is truly a superpower.
Spiderman uses his arachnid abilities to effortlessly scale buildings and shoots webs from his
wrists to help him swing though the city streets. Shooting webs is most definitely a fictional impossibility but there are expert climbers out there who can climb the most challenging of buildings. Alain Robert markets himself as “The French Spiderman” and regularly hits the headlines when he climbs up skyscrapers without using ropes or other safety equipment. In March 2016, Robert climbed 187 metres of a Paris skyscraper in 45 minutes, and he has also previously climbed the Sydney Opera House, Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Eiffel Tower. Could anyone do what Alain Robert does? Possibly, if they have years of practice behind them, a complete lack of fear and have a level of physical fitness most of us can only dream of. This alone makes him superhuman.
The Human Calculator
If you’ve ever struggled through a mental math test, then you’ll certainly believe that Scott Flansburg’s abilities are truly superpowers. Scott’s aptitude for performing super-quick mental calculations were noticed in childhood. He has built a career on performing addition, multiplication and finding the square root, or cube, of numbers in his head as quickly as others can do the problem with a calculator. He was featured on a TV show called “Superhumans”, and holds world records for speedy calculations. How does he manage to do math problems so quickly? An MRI scan performed as part of the “Superhumans” show found that when he was performing calculations, unusual brain activity was detected. It seems as if Flansburg really is biologically different to the rest of us, which explains his mathematical superpowers.
We are used to seeing dogs trained to sniff out everything from explosives to money, but can
humans really detect smells to the same level? The experience of Joy Milne from Scotland seems to suggest that certain people are “super sniffers”, and can detect smells the rest of us would not. Joy noticed subtle changes in her husband’s smell, a full six years before his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease, and at support groups realised that she detected the same scent from other people suffering from the disease. Her abilities were put to scientific scrutiny by a team at Edinburgh University, who discovered that in a scientific test she correctly detected Parkinson’s with 100% accuracy, even picking it up in a test subject who had not been medically diagnosed. The UK’s leading Parkinson’s charity is now undertaking research to identify the skin changes which cause the odour, with the aim of developing a simple and effecting swab test to diagnose the condition accurately.
If you could have any superpower, which one would you choose?