These people really have superpowers

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Spiderman swinging his way through a labyrinth of skyscrapers or Black Panther with unprecedented speed, agility and strength: superheroes appeal to the imagination. It is not without reason that they are popular protagonists in films, games and comic books.

But superpowers aren’t just reserved for superheroes. Even in the real world, people achieve unprecedented mental and physical feats – superpowers that science is eager to unravel. Four examples.

JIMMY CHIN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Without any aid or protection, Alex Honnald climbs Half Dome, a 1444 meter high rock formation in the American Yosemite Park.

1. Unprecedented fearlessness: Alex Honnold

Just looking at a photo of Alex Honnold merely dangling by his fingers over an abyss is enough to make most people’s heads spin. How different is that for Honnold himself. When scientists subjected the climber’s brain to an MRI scan in 2016, they were astonished. The 38-year-old Hannold is shown a series of horrifying photos. But a normally obvious response from the amygdala, the brain area that regulates fear, is remarkably absent from Hannold.

How is that possible? Jane Joseph does have a well-founded suspicion. In 2018, the neuroscientist published about it in a professional journal PopularScience. Joseph writes that Hannold likely conditioned himself to suppress certain brain activity by focusing on each climbing movement.

2. Breathtaking go-getters: Sherpas

“Humans are still evolving,” says Tatum Simonson, who conducts research at the University of California into the genetics and physiology of people who have managed to adapt to high altitudes. According to him, the Sherpas from Nepal, who guide mountain climbers through the Himalayas, are the example of the development of human superpowers.

For at least six thousand years, this ethnic group has lived on average at an altitude of 4,200 meters above sea level – an altitude with about forty percent less oxygen in the air. “So evolution has had more than enough time to adapt the Sherpas to such an oxygen-poor environment,” says Simonson.

If the oxygen level drops, the human body normally pumps more red blood cells – responsible for oxygen transport. Disadvantage: your blood becomes thicker, and altitude sickness (or worse) lurks. The Sherpas, on the other hand, have developed a solution for this thanks to various genetic mutations: their body keeps the number of red blood cells low, while the mitochondria in their cells know how to use oxygen more efficiently.

Photo: Aaron Huey, National Geographic

Descending Sherpas on Mount Everest in the Himalayas.

3. Extraordinary swimmers: the Bajau

There’s a reason why we’re such fans of Superman flying high through the sky, or Aquaman venturing into the great depths of the sea: superheroes go to places none of us can.

Except for the Bajau, a maritime people who live in parts of the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia and whose name translates as ‘man of the sea’. Without any aids, the Bajau, who live from underwater hunting, are able to stay underwater for thirteen minutes at – mind you – depths of up to seventy meters.

Like the Sherpas, the Bajau have developed a genetic advantage to use oxygen more efficiently. With one big difference: underwater there is not so much a long-term, but an acute lack of oxygen lurking. And to cope with this respiratory distress, the Bajau’s body has adapted a ‘faster’ mechanism over the centuries: a larger spleen packed with oxygen-rich red blood cells. During diving, the spleen contracts, pushing the ‘reserve charge’ into the bloodstream.

examples of people with superpowers
MATTHIEU PALEY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Bajau during underwater hunting.

4. Super agile: samurai Isao Machii

In action films we regularly see mythical creatures excelling in otherworldly agility in terms of balance, coordination and reflexes. But scientists suspect that a combination of genetics and training allows some people to display this super agility in real life.

Take Isao Machii. Fire a bullet at the Japanese samurai, and he cuts it in half in mid-air with one swing of his sword. Or the legendary marksman Bob Munden, who is able to draw and fire his pistol in less than a tenth of a second – much faster than the reaction time of the average human brain.

Scientists are still trying to figure out how our central nervous system allows people to plan and execute such complex movements in such an extremely short time frame.

example of a human with superpowers
IRA BLOCK

The Japanese samurai Isao Machii.

Headshot of Christian de Bruijn

Christian (1990) writes stories for the National Geographic website as a Digital Editor. Studied history and journalism. Made light-hearted television for the Inspection Service of Value and serious radio for the foreign editorial staff of the NOS. Working on a book about the Amsterdam working-class district of Tuindorp-Nieuwendam. Self-proclaimed climate nut and slow traveler. Big fan of Latin America. Grows his own vegetables in the neighborhood vegetable garden, likes to roam around in his green camper van – preferably to destinations without coverage.

The article is in Dutch

Tags: people superpowers

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