Researchers find that ‘superpowers’ are real - they’re just not what we expect

Scientists have found that evolutionary adaptations and mental conditioning in humans may be the closest humans will come to what we consider ‘superpowers’

Olivia Hebert
Los Angeles
Thursday 11 April 2024 15:12 BST
4 Benefits Of Running That Are Backed By Science

Researchers have found that superpowers may be real, but they may not be what we expect.

In research collected for her upcoming book Superpowered, author Erika Engelhaupt revealed that scientists have found what can be considered “superpowers” in humans. Although they may not be endowed with the ability to run faster than the speed of sound or fly high up in the sky, research indicates that some humans possess abilities far beyond the norm that may be considered “super.”

From the Sherpa people in the Himalayas to the Bajau “sea nomads,” research indicates that there are a variety of groups who are born with genetic advantages that are a product of adaptations to the environment they’re from. Tatum Simonson, who’s researched the genetics and physiology of high-altitude adaptation at the University of California at San Diego, explained to National Geographic that these abilities come as no surprise.

“Humans are still evolving,” she said, noting that the Sherpa people are a prime example of an evolutionary adaptation that can be considered a “superpower.” Simonson has studied the ethnic group’s remarkable ability to survive with 40 per cent less oxygen than those who live at sea level, a byproduct of their people having lived at an estimated 14,000 feet above sea level for the past 6,000 years.

“There’s been a lot of time for natural selection to figure out the best way to deal with low oxygen,” Simonson noted. As she has studied the Tibetan tribe’s resilience, she’s found that their ability to withstand such low oxygen levels can be credited to an evolutionary adaptation that impacts the way their body produces red blood cells. Unlike people who live at sea level, the Sherpa people have evolved to maintain low levels of red blood cells, relying on the cell’s mitochondria to process oxygen in a way that doesn’t require as much power or energy.

When an average person experiences a drop in oxygen levels as they climb in altitude, the human body tends to overcompensate by producing more oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Overproducing red blood cells leads the blood to thicken and can potentially cause altitude sickness or in the worst cases, death. Simonson has found that the Sherpa’s ability to produce fewer red blood cells isn’t impacted by their external environment and that their bodies can produce less no matter which altitude they’re at.

Another ethnic group who have evolved to adapt to their environment are the Bajau people of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia, who can notably dive deep into the ocean for longer periods than most humans - no scuba gear necessary. Research indicates that they can stay underwater for 13 minutes diving to depths of up to 230 feet.

According to a study published in the scientific journal, Cell, the Bajau people may have a genetic mutation that gives the Bajau people larger spleens, which can store a reserve of oxygenated red blood cells that can be injected into the bloodstream when the organ contracts as the person dives.

“If there’s something going on at the genetic level, you should have a certain sized spleen. There we saw this hugely significant difference,” lead researcher Melissa Llardo said, explaining that the presence of enlarged spleens in the Bajau is in line with marine mammals, who also possess large spleens.

Beyond evolutionary adaptations, scientists also argue that certain brain responses can either be trained or conditioned One of these “super” traits can be found in rock climber Alex Honnold, who has famously undergone some of the most dangerous free-solo of America’s biggest cliffs.

Honnold’s 2016 MRI scans indicated that his brain may process fear differently than the average person. As he was shown graphic images used to trigger the amygdala - a structure in the temporal lobe responsible for producing reactions to fear - Honnold’s amygdala didn’t respond. It was notably silent.

Neuroscientist Jane Joseph noted that Honnold’s ability to ignore or suppress fear memories may be the result of mental conditioning, indicating that “superpowers” like Honnold’s can be learned, not just inherited.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in