London - Having super powers like Clark Kent might sound like the stuff of comic books. However, there are people who really do have astonishing super senses that work at a level far beyond normal human abilities.
From intense colour vision, to heightened powers of taste, or an ability to never forget a face, there are people whose senses are hugely heightened compared with most people’s. Some of these abilities are far more common than you may think – and may have implications for your health.
About one to two percent of the population are believed to be “super recognisers” – with an uncanny memory for faces. They can recognise the faces of people they have met even briefly and recall them over a considerable period of time.
Ordinary people can recognise about 20 percent of faces they have glimpsed before, but super-recognisers can manage 80 percent. Awareness of super-recognisers goes back centuries. Roman emperors employed them to stand behind them at crowded events so that they could learn who was friend or foe.
There are two small specialist regions on each side of the brain, primarily responsible for recognising faces, known collectively as the fusiform face area (FFA). Super-recognisers have significantly more activity in the FFA when shown pictures of faces.
London’s metropolitan police has identified more than 100 known super-recognisers within its ranks. In the wake of the 2011 riots, the force had hundreds of thousands of hours of CCTV to trawl through. One officer, PC (Police Constable) Gary Collins, single-handedly identified 180 rioters.
So incredible is the power of these super-recognisers to see faces in even the most blurred images that they are the subject of a brain study at Greenwich University. Dr Josh Davis, a senior lecturer in psychology there, says the hope is to develop tests to let the police identify super-recognisers and use their talents.
However, Davis adds that super-recognisers don’t remember everything else so well: “Their powers seem to be face-specific. When we tested if they could recognise flowers better than normal people, they couldn’t.”
Do you find the flavours of broccoli, kale, coffee or chocolate disgustingly powerful? You might not be a fusspot, you may instead be a super-taster.
The average person has 10 000 taste buds on their tongue, allowing them to taste sweet, bitter, sour, salty and savoury. However, super-tasters can have up to twice as many taste buds, meaning all taste is magnified.
One in four of us may be a super-taster, according to the National Health Service (NHS). Scientists are unsure why some of us taste flavours more intensely. It may be an evolutionary trait that helped ensure that, as hunter-gatherers, we weren’t wiped out by eating strange or infected foods. Women are more likely to be super-tasters than men.
Being a super-taster can make you healthier – you may be at lower risk of heart disease, according to work by the dietitian Valerie Duffy of the University of Connecticut. Super-tasters also tend to be slimmer. In the Journal of the American Dietetics Association, Duffy suggests this is because they tend not to like sweet and fatty food because they find the flavours overwhelming.
There is evidence to suggest people who are sensitive to bitter flavours drink less alcohol than those who are not, according to the NHS.
Having sensitive taste buds can have its health downside, however. The bitter tastes of many green vegetables are more intense for super-tasters, so they may avoid them, putting them at greater risk of colon cancer.
When Linda Bartoshuk, an experimental psychologist with the University of Florida, examined 200 older men for signs of precancerous colon polyps, she found that the stronger the aversion to bitter taste, the greater the number of polyps.
Thanks to a genetic variation, some women have a condition called tetrachromacy, which means they see more vibrant colours and can detect the difference between subtle shades of colour far better than the rest of us.
Most of us have three types of “cone” cells in our retina, the light-sensitive tissue in the eye. The different types of cones respond to different spectrums of light – and therefore different colours.
Colour-blind people have a faulty cone, meaning they have reduced sensitivity at certain spectrums, and struggle to tell the difference between colours such as reds and greens.
Some women have an extra type of cone cell in their eyes – meaning they see extra detail in shades of colour that most of us cannot detect.
This super trait is solely the preserve of women, as the gene responsible for creating the red and green cone types is located on the X chromosome.
Women have two X chromosomes, so they could carry two different versions of the gene – one on each X chromosome – and would have four cones in total, making them a tetrachromat. (Men have only one X chromosome.)
It’s not known how many women have this. Proving that a woman is a true tetrachromat is scientifically difficult as there’s no way to record what a person is seeing.
However, Dr Gabriele Jordan, a neuroscientist at Newcastle University, has developed a test to determine who has this gift. It involves looking at coloured discs showing very subtly different mixtures of pigment.
The differences in the mixtures are far too subtle for normally sighted people to notice: almost all would see the same olive green no matter which disc they saw. But a tetrachromat would spot the tiny differences in colour mix.
US-based artist Concetta Antico is a known tetrachromat and has been studied extensively by scientists at the University of California. When any normally sighted person looks at a pebble path, they see a dull grey floor. But to Antico, “The little stones jump out at me with oranges, yellows, greens, blues and pinks,” she says. “I’m kind of shocked when I realise what other people aren’t seeing.”
It’s also thought that tetrachromacy may also boost vision in dim lighting.
Most of us would be hard pressed to remember what we were doing at precisely this time last week, let alone what we were doing on this day a decade ago.
Some have total recall of their lives, thanks to a rare phenomenon called hyperthymesia or “highly superior autobiographical memory”.
Aurelien Hayman, 22, an English literature student at Durham University, can remember in precise detail the conversations he had on any particular day of his life, the clothes he was wearing, the TV programmes he watched and the pop songs he heard.
Professor Giuliana Mazzoni, head of psychology at Hull University, has subjected Hayman to a battery of tests. She says: “When we checked the factual information relating to the day of the week, the weather or a television series he said he’d watched, the information was accurate.”
Hayman’s strange ability emerged when he was 11. “There is no method or technique to it. I’m not aware that my memories are being coded,” he says.
Brain scans on Hayman indicated that he stores memories in more areas of the brain than people with normal powers of recall.
His long-term memories appear to be stored in the right frontal lobe of the brain – as is normal – but he also uses the left frontal lobe, which deals with language, and occipital areas at the back of the brain, normally used for storing pictures.
And his computer-like power of recollection can be a curse as well as a blessing because every trauma and humiliation we would prefer to have blurred by time and forgetfulness is preserved in mercilessly clear detail.