By AMELIA MCCARTHY
With the prevalence of superhero mania in our culture, the phrase “human abilities” may bring to mind superpowers: sci-fi dreams absent from reality. But while we have a few years until people can move things with their minds, or transform into hideous beasts, there are still people with impressive abilities within the realm of possibility right in our backyards.
Perfect/absolute pitch: For those familiar with reading music, you’ll know notes are designated with a letter, A through G. If you asked most people to sing an A out of the blue, they might look at you as though you’ve lost your mind. However, individuals with perfect pitch can do this with ease, informing you the note of the car horn that just passed is a C while they’re at it. People with perfect pitch can also let you know when you’re singing the latest song from the radio in the wrong key. Researchers haven’t come to a consensus on whether this ability is genetic or learned from a prolonged exposure to music at crucial developmental stages. It is more common in those who are blind from birth, have William’s Syndrome, or have an autism spectrum disorder.
Hyperthymesia: Imagine remembering the best and worst days of your life with perfect accuracy. For those with Hyperthymesia, or Superior Autobiographical Memory, this is their reality. Only defined in 2006, these people have the ability to remember the events of any given date, usually back to puberty, with incredibly accurate detail. There may be detrimental effects to individuals’ thought processes due to the constant flow of memory during daily activities. A 60 minutes report on hyperthymesia with Leslie Stahl indicated that people with this talent have a difficult time with relationships; perhaps because it’s hard to argue with someone who remembers everything you’ve ever said on the subject.
Super Recognizers: If you’re able to put the name to any face you’ve ever seen, no matter how much they’ve changed or how long it’s been, you might fall into this next category. The skills of these “Super Recognizers” do not seem to be linked with IQ or memory for objects, yet they claim to recognise faces which they have only briefly been seen before, or have changed dramatically. On the other hand, there is a disorder on the other end of the spectrum, where the individuals can no longer recognize faces. Some people acquire this prosopagnosia, or face blindness, following damage to the face recognition areas of the brain. Eye-tracking technology has frequently been used in research on face recognition, and has shown that typical people tend to focus on the eyes, suggesting they carry important information. Some people with prosopagnosia avoided the eye region, and instead looked at the mouth, while super-recognisers spent more time viewing the nose.
Mental Calculators: This one is fairly self-explanatory. “Mental Calculators” can work out math at a much faster rate than the average person. The ability occurs most frequently in autistic savants (individuals with autism that have unusually extraordinary skills), at 10%, as opposed to less than 1% in the non-autistic population. There are many types of savant abilities, the most common being mathematical calculations, memory feats, artistic abilities, and musical abilities. Recent research has suggested one of the factors enabling this feat is a blood flow to the part of the brain responsible for mathematical calculations acting at six to seven times its normal rate. Examples of people with extraordinary calculation skills include Daniel McCartney, Salo Finkelstein, and Alexander Aitken. Daniel Tammet is one of few who are also autistic savants.
Echolocation: You might be surprised to see this entry on a list about humans. Although it is common knowledge how bats fly in the dark, emitting a sound and using the echo to navigate the world around them, fewer know of the limited group of humans who have been able to use the ability for themselves.The individual creates a noise like tapping a cane or making a clicking sound with their tongue, allowing them to determine the distance and density of the objects around them. If one ear receives much louder waves than the other, it shows the sound bounced back faster, and thus took a shorter route—indicating the presence of an object or obstacle on that side. The ability is probably restricted to blind people, as it requires heightened sensitivity to sound. James Holman, Daniel Kish, and Ben Underwood have all been recorded as proficient at echolocation.
Though not quite superpowers, there are people everywhere with fascinating abilities. It could be a party trick or a part of their identity, but regardless, the abilities within humans remain delightfully mystifying.