What Are The Chances A Superhuman Is Among Us? Here’s What The Science Says
We can't fly or bend metal, but we can do some amazing stuff.
'Glass' is in cinemas now.
Before cinemas were flooded with comic book films, M Night Shyamalan, the writer/director of Glass, took a slightly more realistic approach to superheroes with Unbreakable.
In Glass, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), an ordinary-but-indestructible guy, and his villainous opposite, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a genius with a rare condition that means his bones break with the lightest touch, meet Kevin Wendell Crumb, whose mind contains 24 different personalities, all jostling for control. The most powerful is ‘The Beast’, an ultra-strong, flesh-eating, wall crawling personality that makes Dunn a deadly foe.
Shyamalan continues his real-world approach to superhero stories in Glass, which got us thinking, could there be super-powered people walking among us?
Nature Vs. Nurture
Are certain people genetically predisposed to crazy feats of strength or can you train for it? Why can some people keep their cool in challenging situations while others come totally undone? These are the questions scientists ponder when examining why certain people can push themselves to extremes.
We know for sure that people can’t fly or bend metal with their minds; those skills can stay in the comic books. The reality is people can become exceptional at different skills within the limitations of the human body and physics.
In the end, it comes down to two factors: nature verses nurture. Can you be born with skills that make you better at climbing or can you train hard to be the best climber? It’s a bit of both.
French risk-taker, Alain Robert, is famous for free-climbing tall buildings with the most basic of equipment. Robert has climbed some of the biggest structures in the world, including The Eiffel Tower and the tallest of them all: The Burj Dubai in Dubai – which stands a whopping 828m tall and boasts more than 160 stories. He began climbing as a teenager to conquer his fear of heights and discovered a natural talent.
Physically, Alain’s body is built to climb – he has strong, small hands that can grip tiny crevices, for example – and he weighs just over 50 kilograms. But on top of natural ability, Alain trains every single day, focusing on strength and stamina. A climbing wall surrounds his bedroom and he dangles from the ceiling twice a day.
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Robert nudges into superhuman territory because he’s both physically capable and has overcome extreme fear. He’s also proven he’s the best by scaling hundreds of buildings safely.
According to the evolutionary biologist, Rowan Hooper, author of Superhuman: Life at Extremes of our Capacity, pitting nature and nurture against each other ain’t great because nothing happens in isolation.
“It’s always both things working together,” Hooper said during an interview with National Geographic.
“Over the years, people have, rather hopefully, suggested you can get by on nurture … that’s a lovely idea and I wish it were true! But to be the best in the world, not just get really good at something, it turns out you do need a leg-up genetically, as well as having to work really hard and have all this environmental, nurture side of things.”
We’ve all heard stories about regular people who’ve shown mind-blowing strength and agility in stressful situations. Researchers call it the “stress response”, but it’s more commonly known as “fight-or-flight”, where your body releases hormones that cause slight physical changes in your body when your brain senses danger.
In 2012, an American university student lifted a car off her dad after he became trapped while trying to fix a flat tyre. In 2006, a man lifted a car off a downed cyclist so they could be rescued after an accident. Each time, the fight-or-flight response was credited with giving these people the strength to lift an extremely heavy vehicle on their own.
According to researchers at the Harvard Medical School, the fight-or-flight mechanism evolved as a way for humans to survive living in the wild for thousands of years. It’s what gave us the edge over the lions trying to eat us when we still lived in caves or on vast, open planes.
So, how does it work?
If you see or hear something dangerous, your brain triggers the fight-or-flight response by giving you a burst of energy that makes your heart beat faster and allow your lungs to take in larger amounts of oxygen. At the same time, more blood and oxygen is pumped to your vital organs and muscles, which in turn makes your senses sharper. That’s why, when you get into a little scrape, you feel like you’ve had eight coffees.
Certain people, like Wim Hof, a Dutchman who’s known as “the Iceman” and who can endure sub-zero temperatures and survive (he even climbed Mount Everest in shorts!) can control their fight-or-flight response. In a bid to understand how he does it, scientists conducted a study and found he could turn his stress response on and off like a switch whenever he encountered extreme temperatures. Hof claims he honed the body hack by using a form of meditation that helps him ignore freezing conditions, but scientists are still trying to figure out how he resists the physical effects of extreme weather, which we reckon makes him at least a little super.
There are incredible people among us who make the impossible, possible, by honing their natural abilities to perfection. It may not make them superheroes, but their stories are often equally inspiring, proving that, through practice and some good luck, we can all be a bit super human.
(All images: Buena Vista International)
See James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, and Samuel L. Jackson’s super human clash in M. Night Shyamalan’s explosive comic book thriller Glass, in cinemas now.