Are ‘superhumans’ real? Science weighs in.

People with extreme talents or accomplishments seem to have superhuman abilities, but do they, really?

The word “superhuman” tends to conjure images of Marvel comic characters zooming about in capes, battling evil. But the people that evolutionary biologist Rowan Hooper describes in his new book, Superhuman: Life at The Extremes of Mental and Physical Ability, are just like you and me. Well, almost. These ordinary people have somehow managed to do extraordinary things, whether finding happiness despite suffering from a horrible disease or shooting three pointers in basketball.

When National Geographic caught up with Hooper at New Scientist magazine in London, where he is the managing editor, he explained how a woman with locked-in syndrome inspired him with her optimism, why Lebron James loves to sleep, and why “Blue Zones,” where people enjoy exceptional longevity, may also have a genetic component.

You spent time with many exceptional people to research your book, from a bomb-disposal expert to someone with locked-in syndrome. Tell us about some of these people, and the common thread that connects them to us.

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Shirley Parsons is a woman who suffers from locked-in syndrome. She’s completely paralyzed after a brain stem stroke, but her mind is intact. It was her surgeon who first told me about her because she impressed upon him her character, sense of happiness, and optimism in the face of a horrific trauma. I got to know her a bit on email and I arranged to meet up because, in one of our exchanges, she said she was a happy person and, in fact, happier now than before she’d had her stroke and became locked in. That was such an extraordinary thing for me to process. I thought, wow, I want to meet her, and find out how it can be possible to be not only happy with your life when something so horrendous has happened, but happier! So I went down to see her. I also spoke with psychologists who work with people who’ve had things like this happen to them.

It turns out that, despite what we may think looking in, when you ask them how they’re doing, the majority of these people have made peace and find a route to happiness. It was interesting and counterintuitive to find people who, you would think, would not be happy because of an awful thing that happened but, in fact, are. That was extraordinarily interesting to investigate.

The common take-home message is that we often feel we have to strive for happiness in a commercial way, by buying things, getting a job that will pay us more money or moving to a bigger house in a better place. But if you look at people who are denied these things because they’re locked in, you realize that there are other, perhaps deeper ways to find happiness. The take-home message for me, meeting these people, was that you don’t have to have something so traumatic happen to make small tweaks that will help you improve your life a little bit.

Thomas Jefferson declared that “the pursuit of happiness” was a universal right. But how can you define happiness? Is it material or spiritual—or genetic?

There is a whole academic field where people spend their careers arguing about what happiness is. But we all know when we’re happy. It’s a feeling. In this, I’m talking about momentary happiness, not something that you project into the future and think, I will be happy if I buy this new house or car. It’s a momentary feeling of being happy.

There’s possibly a genetic component to your baseline personality and that means your day-to-day happiness with life. A study in New Zealand looked at a gene variant that seems to be linked with higher or lower levels of depression or, conversely, higher or lower levels of day-to-day contentment.

With a trait that’s so subjective and hard to define as happiness, it’s difficult to get to the bottom of how genetics may relate to it. There’s been a huge amount of work done on it but the jury is still out. We can say that there does seem to be a genetic component to many behavioral and physiological traits. But we can’t say that there’s a particular gene.

When talking about exceptional people, the question that always arises is whether it’s genes or environment—nature or nurture. It’s a phrase that you don’t like, isn’t it?

It is! Setting the two against each other is completely false. No geneticist would argue that something is either nature or nurture because nothing works in isolation. Any genes you might have are expressed in an environment. It’s never one or the other; it’s always both things working together.

The question is, then, which one is more important and can one override the other or make up for its deficit in the other? Over the years people have rather hopefully suggested that you can get by on nurture. And that, if you try and practice hard enough at something, you can become the best. That’s a lovely idea and I wish it were true! [laughs] But to be the best in the world, not just get really good at something, it turns out that you do need a leg up genetically, as well as having to work really hard and have all this environmental, nurture side of things.

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It is said that one of the keys to basketball star Lebron James’s exceptional talent is that he sleeps 11 to 12 hours per night. Is there any scientific truth to that?

There’s a huge amount of work now that shows how vital sleep is. In the eighties, there was all this Gordon Gecko, sleep-is-for-wimps philosophy, which still persists, especially in city workers and macho business culture. Donald Trump brags about sleeping very little. Margaret Thatcher didn’t necessarily brag but she was also famous for not sleeping very long. But she died of Alzheimer’s and there’s evidence building up now of a causal link between a persistent lack of sleep and Alzheimer’s later in life. There’s a huge amount of data that shows how your memory and cognitive ability is massively improved if you’ve had a good sleep. That’s why sleep is something that’s very carefully looked after in elite athletes, and why Lebron James values it so much.

Blue Zones” is a term created by National Geographic author Dan Buettner to describe places where people live exceptionally long lives. Teleport us to one of these places, and describe why it’s conducive to enjoying a ripe old age.

Blue Zone places tend to be nice and warm. They’ve got a great climate, good community support network, and lots of lovely healthy vegetables and fish to eat. Okinawa, in particular, has some of the highest longevity in Japan and Japan has the highest longevity in the world. So, many people in Okinawa are the longest-living people in the world. We think, let’s try and replicate the factors you get there and see if that will help everyone else live a long life. Again, it’s a lovely idea but geneticists are now starting to think that there’s more to it. These places do have all these things that are conducive to good health but you also need good longevity genes. So, it looks like Blue Zones are not just pockets of conducive climate and nutrition, but also of genetics. These populations are quite closed and have high concentrations of the genes associated with longevity.

National Geographic recently did a hugely popular feature about how a 21-year-old woman received a face transplant. Carmen Tarleton is another such person. Tell us her story, and about The Resilience Project.

For the chapter on resilience I wanted to find people who have bounced back from extraordinary trauma, and Carmen Tarleton was one person I profiled extensively because she’d undergone a truly horrific attack from her estranged husband. I don’t want to go into the details. But she was in a coma, most of her skin and face was burned off with lye—industrial cleaner—and she was beaten. Her surgeon told me they were the worst injuries and the most brutal attack he’s ever encountered on a human who survived.

She was in a coma for three months but when she woke up she immediately knew that she could make something positive out of what happened. She took control of her life in an extraordinary way by having a face transplant. One wonderful outcome of that is that she then became friends with the daughter of the woman whose face she now wears.

The Resilience Project is something different. It looks for people who have the genes for a condition that normally would kill them, like cystic fibrosis, but for some reason, as yet unknown, are able to tolerate this condition. Almost always, if you have the gene for cystic fibrosis you’re going to get that condition or early-onset Alzheimer’s. But there are some people who scientists are studying who do carry the genes for a horrible disorder and yet do not develop it. These people are fascinating because they have a genetic system that somehow protects against the bad things that could happen from a bad gene they carry.

Malcolm Gladwell coined the term the 10,000 hours rule. Explain what it is, and why practice can’t actually make us perfect.

Malcolm Gladwell was drawing on research by a scientist called Anders Ericsson, who over the years produced a lot of work arguing that practice is the key to expertise. He would be very much on the nurture side of this spurious nature-nurture debate. Malcolm Gladwell took this and popularized it with the idea that if you do 10,000 hours of practice for anything, you will become an expert. The book took off because it’s such an appealing idea that any of us can become an expert if we just put that work in. Unfortunately, it turns out that expertise does have a large genetic component that you can’t get away without. That doesn’t mean that experts just roll out of bed and are expert without practicing. You absolutely have to practice, but you can’t do it alone.

A good example is chess grand master Magnus Carlsen, who is regarded as the greatest chess player of all time. You’d expect that if practice is the thing that makes you the greatest at something, then Magnus Carlsen would have practiced more than the other grand masters in the world top 10 chess players. But in fact he practiced chess less than they did. That immediately makes you think, it can’t be just practice, there must be something else. People who work on chess are very much convinced that there’s a big genetic component to intelligence and chess-playing ability.

What is the most important takeaway from your research? Can we all be superhuman? Or are the rest of us condemned to remain mediocre?

[Laughs] The take-home message is, we can’t all be superhuman, but I don’t find that to be a depressing conclusion because we can learn from the things these people have done and get ourselves a little bit further forward and make ourselves a bit happier in our lives and do a little better. There are ways of doing that without being superhuman, but that will still improve your happiness and day-to-day existence. It was inspiring to hear these people’s stories because, even if we know we’re not going to be superhuman, we can all do a little bit better.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.