In recent years it seems that super heroes are all the rage, with these larger than life heroes displaying bombastic powers beyond comprehension and the imagination. For many this may all be purely within the realm of movies and comic books, with these abilities obviously purely fictional. Yet, this is not always the case. Throughout history there have been unique individuals who have come forward with abilities and powers that are in many cases just as amazing as anything captured in comic books, and here we will look at some remarkable people with powers that have transcended understanding and which certainly qualify them as superhero material.
One distinct area of super powers is that of sensory abilities far beyond the normal. A super sense that has seen amazing prowess in a very select few is that of vision, and one German woman has eyes that have thoroughly baffled the medical community with their incredible capabilities. Born in West Germany in 1951, Veronica Seider first came to the public consciousness when she was a student at the University of Stuttgart in 1972, when she began to claim that she could see details from up to a mile away. This was met with much skepticism, since the normal 20/20 scale of human vision is based on seeing details just 20 feet away, but further investigation would prove that she was the real deal, and that her vision was more like 20/2.
It was found through vision tests that not only could she pick up details at such distances and distinguish people’s faces up to a mile away and pick out the most minute of details in images, but that she could also even make out the separate colors in the picture of a TV set, such was her visual acuity to break down images into their constituent primary colors. Her vision is estimated as being around 20 times better than normal, and it is thought that this incredible super vision is caused by some unknown genetic mutation, although it must be exceedingly rare as there are no other known cases of this happening to this extreme extent.
Others have abilities more related to the sense of hearing. Ben Underwood was diagnosed with retinal cancer at the age of 2, which necessitated the surgical removal of both eyes. As he grew up, he discovered a rather amazing ability. He found at the age of 5 that he was able to click his tongue and gather information on his surroundings based on the echo he heard, similar to the way dolphins use echolocation. In this way, he was able to assimilate a rough picture of his surroundings in his head and find his way around through hearing alone.
At first, Ben was only able to discern basic information in this manner, such as the location of walls or large stationary objects, but over the years he gradually honed his skills to quite frankly superhuman levels. By his teens, Ben was able to get around just as well as anyone with sight, even navigating moving objects such as cars or other people. He had an uncanny ability to reach out to pick up whatever he wanted and could even accurately discern the shape of objects without touching them. With this unique ability, Ben could also do other activities such as climb trees, ride a bike, go skating, and even do martial arts, all with a competence comparable to someone with full sight. Sadly, Ben died in 2009 at the age of 16, yet he remains the only known human being to have ever used echolocation to “see.”
One individual who has a very peculiar sensory ability is a woman named Joy Milne, who demonstrates a unique olfactory power. She became aware of her special power when she was in her 30s and began to notice an overpowering, slightly unpleasant woody, musky scent coming from her husband at the time. The strange thing was that no one else seemed to notice it, and although he applied deodorants and scents to try and mask the perceived odors, nothing seemed to help. This went on for a decade, with the mysterious smell a constant sore spot on their marriage and always pervading the air, until Milne’s husband was finally diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which is a degenerative neurological disease that leads to trembling, tremors, shaking, rigidity, slowness of movement, seizures, lack of coordination, difficulty with walking, and eventually death, and this is when things would get strange indeed.
One day Joy was at a lecture on awareness of Parkinson’s disease when she was suddenly overwhelmed by that same distinctive musky odor she had long smelled on her husband, even though he wasn’t with her at the time. She was overcome with the sudden realization that she somehow possessed the strange ability to actually smell Parkinson’s disease, and she would go on to have this ability tested and observed. Biochemists and Parkinson’s researchers at Edinburgh University subjected Milne to a blind test in which she sniffed six sweaty t-shirts from patients suffering from the disease and six from normal, healthy individuals. Milne was able to identify the ones from those suffering from Parkinson’s disease in almost every case. There was only one incorrectly identified from the control group, but eerily it would turn out that this person would go on to develop the disease 8 months later, giving Milne a 100% success rate.
Milne’s ability and how she does it or what processes are involved are little understood, but the idea behind it is sound. There has long been thought to be a link between certain diseases and a smell that can be potentially identified, such as the theory that a particular odor can be linked to schizophrenia or other conditions, but such research has remained inconclusive. Considering that Parkinson’s disease is notoriously difficult to diagnose in its early stages it is thought that Milne holds the key to discovering the exact biochemical processes that lead to the capability of literally smelling the disease in advance, and thus paving the way to more effective early diagnosis based on her special power.
Besides sensory powers there are those of the mind, such as those exhibited by a man named Kim Peek, who was an American savant from the state of Utah with the exceptional ability to remember virtually everything he ever saw or did. Over the course of his life Peek purportedly completely and perfectly memorized word for word around 12,000 books, which he could recall on demand and even tell you the page number, and he displayed the ability to read two pages simultaneously, one with his left eye and one with his right. He could also finish even vast texts in a fraction of the time of a regular person, and could also remember down to every last detail around 98% of everything he had ever seen, read, or did, including even the most minuscule or minor details, numbers, dates, figures, and statistics throughout the course of his life. He could recall maps in perfect detail, tell any event that happened on any random date in history, and was essentially a walking, talking encyclopedia.
This incredible memory was found to be not the result of being merely autistic, but rather is thought to have its origins in a congenital birth defect he suffered from called “agenesis of the corpus callosum,” in which he totally lacked the bundle of nerves that connected the two hemispheres of the brain. It is thought that this spurred his brain into making unique neuron connections that facilitated this super memory. Of course, this all came at a price, as he lacked coordination and motor control throughout his life, as well as displaying various social difficulties. Peek would tour around demonstrating his abilities until his death in 2009, and he was the inspiration for the character Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rain Man.
Also tied to the mysteries of the mind is the man without sleep. No matter who who are or what you are, we all need to sleep. It is an inescapable biological imperative that is little understood but it is agreed that we all must do it. Or do we? In 2016, a young man entered the Hôpital Neurologique, in France, complaining of recurring muscular fasciculations, profound insomnia, distal pain, and diarrhea. And boy, do we mean insomnia, as the doctors were shocked to learn that the 27-year-old man had not slept a wink in over 4 months! In addition to seemingly a complete lack for the need to sleep, the man even went as far as to claim that he never even felt tired or sleepy though it all, nor did he have any of the normal physical symptoms of extreme sleep deprivation such as moodiness, irritability, loss of coordination and concentration, memory loss, and anxiety, and other than his occasional physical ailments he felt fine.
Medical tests were carried out and it was determined that he was not so much suffering from insomnia, but rather that of a rare neurological condition called “Morvan’s fibrillary chorea,” which affects the thymus gland, which is what regulates sleep. People with extreme cases of this unusual condition can completely lose the urge or need to sleep, for days, weeks, or even months at a time, but there is a certain price to pay. In the case of this young man, every evening he would go into an intense state of extreme auditory and visual hallucinations, as if he were tripping on hallucinogenic drugs, as well as delirium and seizures, with the episodes lasting anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. It was during these surreal incidents that he would experience his negative physical ailments, but they would eventually pass and he would be fine again.
It seemed to be a small price to pay for being able to stay awake and alert 24 hours a day, but whereas many cases of this condition go away on their own his did not, and the condition is considered almost always ultimately fatal if not countered. During the duration of the study on this individual some treatment was able to instill very short bouts of sleep, but it was insignificant, lasting only 20 to 40 minutes at a time, and it was all stubbornly resistant to typical drugs used to treat insomnia. The individual was observed to go a total of 11 months with nearly nonexistent sleep, all the while exhibiting nearly zero detrimental physical or psychological side effects, before finally passing away to leave mystery behind. He remains one of the most extreme and mysterious examples of sleeplessness ever witnessed in a human being.
Besides lack of sleep, what about lack of fear? One thing that has long held humans back has been fear. It makes us hesitate, clouds our judgement, and taxes our confidence, at times proving to be a hurdle to our true potential. But what if you could completely eliminate fear? Wouldn’t that be sort of like a superpower? Well, for some people this is a reality. Take the 44-year old woman known only as SM, who suffers from a condition known as Urbach-Wiethe, which results in a hardening of an almond-shaped region of the brain called the amygdala. This area of the brain is believed to control a variety of functions such as aggression, predatory response, motor control, memory, decision-making, and emotional responses, including fear.
In SM’s case, the condition has resulted in a complete lack of a fear response to external stimuli. As the affliction progressed she seemed to be simply unable to be frightened, picking up large poisonous spiders or snakes without hesitation, and showing remarkable composure and cool in situations when most people would experience profound panic. In one dramatic incident, SM was allegedly held up at knife-point, and her complete lack of any fear was reportedly so unnerving that the mugger let her go. This lack of fear response was so remarkable that SM was the focus of a study led by neurologist John Wemmie, of the University of Iowa, and she indeed proved to show no measurable response to stimuli that would normally trigger fear. However, there was one thing that did seem to have a frightening effect on SM and which did trigger fear, her kryptonite so to speak.
When the subject and two others suffering from the same condition were exposed to certain concentrations of carbon dioxide gas, they all underwent profound panic attacks that were so intense that they would rip the masks from their faces and even try to flee the room in terror. It was thought that the sense of impending suffocation was inducing a potent fear response where no other stimulus could, and indeed producing an even stronger effect than witnessed in those without Urbach-Wiethe, as a group of 12 healthy individuals only had 3 such panic attacks that were not nearly as intense. This was described in relation to SM by Wemmie thus:
To the best of our knowledge, this was the first time patient SM experienced fear in any setting, laboratory or otherwise [since childhood]. [She] started to frantically wave her hand near the mask about 8 seconds after inhalation, and then screamed for help. “It felt like my throat was closing up … I couldn’t breathe,” she told the researchers in an interview afterwards. When asked how it had made her feel, she replied: “Panic, mostly, because I didn’t know what the hell was going on.” She described the feeling as the worst one she’d ever had, and expressed surprise at her reaction, because she couldn’t remember having reacted in that way ever before.
This unusual outcome has actually shed light on the workings of fear and their origins in the human brain, what drives our panic response, showing that in some cases these responses may not always emanate from the amygdala and that there might be different species of fear coming from different places. In this case it is postulated that the fear response for external threats, to which sufferers of Urbach-Wiethe are impervious, is a separate entity from that of the response to internal threats, in this case the sense of danger of suffocation, and that it may reside in a different area of the brain. Considering that those with damaged amygdala are even more prone to this sense of internal fear, it may even be that the damaged region actually usually subdues this particular type of fear. Interestingly, even when subjected to a second round of tests with the gas masks the three subjects showed no sign of fear or anxiety when the masks were being put on, but rather only panicked when the gas was applied, further differentiating between fear of the outer world and fear of the inner.
Moving outside of the realm of the senses and the mind we come to more physical abilities. First up we have an instance of superhuman endurance on an unimaginable level with the runner Dean Karnazes, who is not in any way your usual long distance runner. The prolific marathon runner has performed several inhuman feats of running during his career, the most well-known perhaps being when he ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days without taking any time off to rest. In another instance, the runner ran for 3 days straight without stopping or sleeping, eventually covering 350 miles, and he has also completed a 1,000 mile marathon from San Francisco to New York in just 75 days.
This seemingly superhuman ability to run constantly without ever ,tiring eventually caught the attention of scientists who were curious as to how he managed to do it. A medical study was performed on him that came up with surprising results. It was found that Dean had a unique physiology that allowed him to exhibit such astonishing feats of endurance, and that his muscles had the unusual ability to work far longer than an average person’s while simultaneously accruing far less damage from the work load.
The study also found that he has more blood in his circulatory system than the average person, allowing his muscles to stay hydrated longer and also delivering more oxygen. It was concluded that with such unique physiological gifts, Dean could theoretically run at a continuous 7 to 10 minute-mile pace practically indefinitely as long as he kept himself hydrated and fed. Dean is not alone in his powers. Finnish skiing sensation Eero Mantyranta was found to possess a very rare defect in his erythropoietin receptor, which resulted in his blood having the ability to hold 50% more oxygen than that of a typical human being, allowing him to ski faster for longer.
Endurance is great and all, but how about invulnerability, or at least unbreakable bones? In 1994, an unidentified man only known as John was involved in a serious car accident, yet emerged relatively unscathed except for some bumps and bruises. When the man went to see a doctor to make sure he had no internal bleeding, x-rays showed that he was fine and had not suffered any broken bones whatsoever. In addition, doctors made the remarkable find that not only had the man not broken any bones, but also that his bones were of an abnormal density, a full 8 times denser than those of a normal person. He wasn’t the only one either. In another case, a man needed hip replacement surgery, but was unable to undergo the procedure as no doctor had been able to find a way to screw the hip replacement prosthetics into place. The man had tried on numerous occasions to find a hospital able to perform the surgery, but to the amazement of doctors no one could find a way to get the screws past his dense bones in a practical way.
Eventually, these and similar cases that came to light were connected, and research came to the conclusion that besides insanely powerful bone structures, these people also shared the same lineage. All of them were somehow related to each other. The find was considered a medical miracle, and doctors raced to find the cause of this family’s uniquely indestructible bones. After DNA analysis was done, it was found that the condition was likely linked to a mutation in a gene responsible for osteoporosis and low bone density.
In other assorted physical powers we have one British woman by the name of Jill Drake holds the world’s record for the highest pitched scream in the world, able to lash out with an ear shattering 129 decibels. To put that into perspective that is louder than a crack of thunder or pneumatic drill, and just slightly lower in intensity than the 139 decibels that a jumbo jet produces when taking off, managing to stun those who have no earplugs to protect them. Since her making her world record there have been numerous people who have tried to match the sheer volume of this unassuming mother of two but no one has even come close and Drake has the distinction of having produced the loudest sound ever produced by human vocal chords. It is not clear quite how she is able to produce such a volume in her sonic scream, but it is certainly impressive.
What article on super powers would be complete without super strength? There are a lot of strongmen in the world, but the French Canadian strongman Louis Cyr (1864-1912) was something else altogether, displaying prodigious strength that could easily be seen as superhuman, and which has led to his reputation as the strongest human being to have ever lived. Cyr discovered his enhanced strength rather early in life, and started his career as a strongman by giving demonstrations such as carrying a calf on his back, which caught the attention of strongman show promoters, and at the age of 17 he easily beat Michaud of Quebec, who was recognized as Canada’s strongest man of the time.
This launched Cyr’s illustrious reputation as a powerhouse and his subsequent career, during which he would rack up a truly impressive record of feats of sheer, brute strength. Some of the more notable ones include lifting a full grown horse placed upon a platform with two iron bars, performing a one finger lift of 534-pounds (242 kg), back lifting 4,337 pounds (1,967 kg), curling a 218-pound (99 kg) barbell with one hand, performing a one-handed deadlift with a dumbbell weighing 525 pounds (238 kg), lifting a a rock from ground up to his shoulder that was officially weighted at 514 pounds, pushing a freight car up an incline, and many, many others, each seemingly more freakish than the last and which would play out in front of awed audiences. One of his more dramatic feats occurred in 1891, when Cyr had two horses tied to each of his arms, after which whips were cracked to send them running yet the strongman managed to hold them back and resist their pull in full view of thousands of spectators.
Throughout his life Cyr beat all challengers who would try and best him, including strongmen and athletes from all over the world, none of whom came close to besting him in contests of strength despite an open challenge and ever increasing rewards offered to anyone who could. He traveled the world putting on his shows and beating all comers, and also tried his hand at being a police officer, a boxer, and a wrestler, at one point beating the giant Édouard Beaupré, who was 7 feet 8.1 inches (2.339 metres) and weighed 365 pounds (166 kilograms), in a wrestling match. Cyr himself was 5 ft 8.5 in (174 cm) tall and fluctuated between 270 and 400 pounds (120 to 180 kg) in weight, yet he was also rumored to be quite a fast runner for his bulk. He was particularly popular in the UK, and he made frequent trips here all the way up to his death in on November 10, 1912 of chronic kidney problems. To this day Louis Cyr is widely regarded as pound for pound the strongest man who has ever lived.
Following in these footsteps is another mutant strongman. Not long after Liam Hoekstra was born, his parents noticed that there was something different abut the boy. At just two days old, Liam was already able to stand with assistance, and by 8 months old he was doing pull-ups and walking up and down stairs. By 3 years old, Liam was lifting up pieces of furniture around the house that some adults would even find difficult, as well as other amazing displays of power. Once during a tantrum as a toddler, Liam’s mother recalls him punching clear through a plaster wall. This power also gave little Liam surprising speed and agility that stunned those around him. In addition to these early feats of strength, Liam displayed almost no body fat and was rippling with far more muscle than was normal for even active adults, let alone a toddler. His concerned parents had him examined and doctors soon learned that the cause of the boy’s super strength and muscularity was a rare genetic condition known as myostatin-related muscle hypertrophy.
The condition was first observed in humans in a German baby born in 2000 with already well developed muscles, and who at 4 years old was considered to be 6 times stronger than a normal child of his age. Myostatin-related muscle hypertrophy causes an abnormally low level of a protein known as myostatin, which is mainly responsible for limiting muscle growth in both humans and animals. When the body’s production of myostatin is inhibited, the body is able to produce muscle unfettered. Individuals with myostatin-related muscle hypertrophy display incredible amounts of raw power and are believed to be able to gain up to 50 percent more skeletal muscle mass than a normal person, with little or no exercise required. Originally found in cattle and mice in the late 1990s, it is extremely rare in humans, with only 100 known cases.
Liam’s unique genetics could be the key to unlocking cures for degenerative diseases of the muscle, such as muscular dystrophy. It also has been the center of attention for body builders and athletes, who see it as the holy grail of gaining powerful, fat free muscle in a short amount of time. Luckily for Liam, the condition is not thought to cause any negative health problems, although the boy has to eat prodigious amounts of food and protein to satiate his body’s enhanced metabolism.
As we have seen here, the human body can be full of endless surprises that serve to baffle and defy attempts to fully understand them. In the cases we have looked at it seems apparent that there is vast potential locked away within us, able to break out and redefine what we think we are capable of. These people demonstrate the untapped potential of the human body and the powers we can possess, and although they have not as of yet formed a super human crime-fighting group, it is exciting stuff indeed.