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From extreme longevity to photographic memory, unusual individuals push the boundaries of human ability

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity

Rowan Hooper
Simon & Schuster
2018
352 pp.
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Daniel Tammet dreams in pi. Familiar to most of us, at least in an abstract sort of way, pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It’s an infinitely long number, starting with the digits three-point-one-four and continuing forever. Tammet, an autistic savant, has memorized it to more than 22,000 digits. He also learned to speak Icelandic in a week.

What makes Tammet different from the rest of us? In Superhuman, Rowan Hooper sets out to explore the extremes of human ability, traveling the world and meeting a colorful cast of superlative subjects along the way. He meets centenarians, opera singers with extraordinary range, people who don’t seem to experience fear, and people with HSAM—highly superior autobiographical memory—who can recall every mundane detail about their life going back decades. Give them a date and they will tell you the weather, what they were wearing, and what they ate that day. He meets chess grandmasters and people who have taught themselves dozens of languages.

An editor for New Scientist, Hooper trained as an evolutionary biologist and is an open-minded and able guide, lucidly explaining the genetic and environmental factors that allow rare individuals to run for days on end, or sleep 3 hours a night long-term, or learn dozens of languages fluently.

Jeanne Calment lived to be 122. In the case of longevity, Hooper notes, the science is incredibly complicated and still mostly unresolved. Hoping to find the specific genes responsible for long life, researchers have screened the genomes of inhabitants of Blue Zones—discrete regions such as Okinawa in Japan and Sardinia, near Italy, where inhabitants live longer on average than elsewhere. They have found thousands of candidate genes that might contribute a benefit but not in one’s early life. Environmental factors decide whether an individual gets to 80, but complex genetics decide whether that person hits 100.

By contrast, for Alex Mullen, a World Memory Champion, who can memorize the order of a shuffled deck of cards in less than 20 s, the secret lies in specific memory-training regimens that anyone can learn. It’s all environmental, all the time.

ROB CROES/ANEFO/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Accepted at Oxford University at age 15, polymath John Nunn became a chess grandmaster at age 23.

At times, one feels a little bound by Hooper’s prejudices. In his chapter on intelligence, for example, I was waiting for him to address the neuroanatomical abnormalities of Einstein’s brain. The physicist’s corpus callosum—the nerve fibers that connect the two hemispheres of the brain—was enormously oversized. For decades, neuroscientists have pondered whether those and other structural brain differences allowed Einstein to process information differently from the rest of us. But Hooper doesn’t mention it. Instead, he speaks with author Hilary Mantel, who has an innate ability—learned in childhood, she says—to write immersive historical narratives.

In a chapter on singing, I was certain Hooper would explore the fascinating mysteries of overtone singing. Practiced in Mongolia, Tibet, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere, overtone singers can manipulate the resonance of air in their throat to sing two distinctly different notes at once. But instead, he profiles opera singer Matthew Rose. From numerous twin studies, Hooper writes, genetic traits have been shown to have a profound effect on musical skills, determining both how much an individual practices and the subsequent effects of the practice.

In total, Hooper examines 11 different human traits, which are organized into three parts: thinking (including traits such as intelligence, memory, and language); doing (bravery, singing, or running, for example); and being (which includes longevity and happiness). I wouldn’t expect a project such as this to be exhaustive by any means. But there are substantial gaps in the human experience.

Why, for instance, is there no chapter on pain, a fascinating and still poorly understood part of life for everyone, except for the rare people who congenitally cannot feel it? This, in particular, seems like an oversight.

Despite this, Superhuman is an incredibly readable and endlessly interesting book. Perhaps most importantly, it is an inspiring book. I am clearly not a superhuman. I might be worth a chapter in a book titled Okay Human. But Hooper has shown me a multitude of other goals that I could still strive toward—such as altruism through charity or profound happiness in the face of adversity—and for that I am superlatively thankful.

About the author

The reviewer is the author of The Lost Species: Great Expeditions in the Collections of Natural History Museums (University of Chicago Press, 2017).