What can we learn from the real superhumans among us?S

Humans are a genetically diverse bunch. Some of us are born with extraordinary perceptual powers — neurological gifts that biologists might eventually be able to provide for the rest of us. But do we really want to have some of these 'superhuman' quirks?

Most of us are familiar with savants and their remarkable cognitive abilities, or people with seemingly preternatural memorization skills. But there are a handful of other neurological endowments that are somewhat lesser known.

Writing in Aeon Magazine, psychologist Michael Banissy describes several of these "conditions," including mirror touch synesthesia (in which people literally feel the way others experience touch), super-recognizers (an uncanny ability to remember faces), and supertasters (which is exactly what it sounds like).

On the surface, some of these might sound like a neat thing to have. Who wouldn't want to be a supertaster, for example? But like most things in life, too much can often be a bad thing. As Banissy points out, many female supertasters are thin, likely the result of being overwhelmed by their sensations. It's also been said that people with perfect recall have difficulty distinguishing the present from past experiences. And high intelligence is often accompanied by adverse psychological conditions (e.g. obsessive pattern recognition a la John Nash).

On the other hand, some of these neurological quirks can lead to a change in psychology — and not always for the worse.

On the topic of mirror touch synesthesia, Banissy writes:

It is possible that, in people who experience mirror-touch sensations, the levels of excitability of the neural networks governing the ability to distinguish oneself from others leads to a change in normal mirroring mechanisms. Simply put, the brain of an individual who experiences mirror-touch sensations effectively treats the body of another person as though it were her own.

Mirror-touch synaesthetes might be viewed as society’s natural empathisers — people wired to excel at putting themselves in another person’s shoes. This can be a delight, or a burden. Or a peculiarly human, if amplified, mix of the two.

In studies I’ve undertaken with Jamie Ward, professor of psychology at the University of Sussex, we’ve found that people who experience mirror-touch show heightened levels of emotional reactive empathy — that is, the ability to understand and share the affective states or feelings of others. Another study I’ve been involved in, published in the Journal of Neuroscience (2011), indicates that individuals with mirror-touch are significantly better than the rest of us at recognising the facial emotions of others, though not necessarily better at recognising who those people are. Mirror-touch synaesthetes outperform control subjects when tasked with naming the facial emotions of people photographed smiling, fretting, frowning, puzzling, gurning and so forth. We were able to rule out any suggestion that their better scores were the result of greater effort, or that they were better with faces generally, because when tested on their ability to name the people in the photographs, those with mirror-touch performed no better than those without.

Which is quite fascinating, especially as far as moral enhancement is concerned. Perhaps the best way to help people empathize with others is to biologically enhance their ability to put themselves in another person's shoes.

Read Banissy's entire article.

Image: 95792620/Shutterstock.