- Warner Bros.
Compared to most other animals, the average human seems fairly weak. We live in climate-controlled bubbles and eat food that we purchase in stores. Most of us would have a hard time surviving in the wild for even a week.
And yet, Homo sapiens were able to conquer the globe, spreading to the far corners of the planet before the existence of modern technology. Our ancestors traveled the world, traversing deserts like the Sahara and freezing regions like Siberia, scaling mountain ranges like the Alps and Himalayas, and even crossing segments of the ocean to populate new lands.
But the ability to accomplish all that wasn’t due to superpowers that were genetically lost, as Scott Carney, the author of “What Doesn’t Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude, and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength,” recently explained in a TEDx Talk at the University of Colorado in Boulder.
Inside all of us, we have remarkable abilities to resist extreme weather and to endure extreme physical stress. These superpowers are really what Carney calls “human powers,” and they can be developed and learned.
Here are seven of the “superpowers” that can be found in individuals or that can be developed.
Controlling the unconscious: people use breathing and cold exposure to learn to control body temperature and the immune system.
- REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Carney began his investigation into the power of the human body to resist extreme conditions by studying with Dutch fitness guru Wim Hof. Hof claims that training his body through a combination of breathing exercises and exposure to cold temperatures has given him the ability to naturally warm himself, adapt more quickly to altitude, and either activate or suppress his immune system.
While Carney started out skeptical, he was soon convinced. The Hof method had a powerful effect on his physical fitness and he was able to climb icy Mount Kilimanjaro in just over 28 hours, shirtless for much of the way (most climbs take about a week in full weather gear).
Researchers have found that people who learn the Hof method do gain a limited amount of control over their immune system, something previously thought impossible.
We can adapt to survive at the top of the world.
If you’ve ever caught a flight to a high altitude location like Mexico City or Cuzco, Peru, and then tried to go for a job or even just walked up a hill, you know that altitude can be brutal.
And yet after a few days, things become easier. Your body adapts and red blood cells start to change how they react and hold onto oxygen overnight. This causes changes that last for months, making you able to live at the top of the world.
Indigenous people who have lived in these regions for thousands of years have developed even more adaptations that make it possible to thrive with drastically reduced levels of oxygen in the air.
We’re still learning just how deep humans can dive and how long they can hold their breath.
There have always been people who dove deep into the sea. Ancient Greeks dove to wage war and to collect sea sponges, Japanese and Korean women dove to collect shellfish and pearls. But we’ve often thought of the ocean as a hostile place. When Raimondo Bucher set out to dive 30 meters in 1949, scientists thought the pressure would kill him – yet he emerged from the sea alive and began the tradition of modern freediving, which we’re still finding the limits of.
Researchers have found that something about submerging ourselves in water causes heart rate to drop and oxygen consumption to slow. In recent years, divers have continued to push human limits, going down to 700 feet and at least one holding his breath for more than 22 minutes underwater. We don’t know what the limits are, but testing them is dangerous.
A human furnace.
- Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Hof isn’t the only one to show that humans can resist freezing temperatures. Distance swimmer Lewis Pugh has endured kilometer swims in the Arctic and Antarctic. Researchers who have studied him say that his body temperature rises 1.2 degrees Celsius before getting in the water. They attribute this to his body learning to prepare itself for the freezing temperatures to come.
The greatest distance runners on the planet.
- David McNew/Getty Images
There’s one physical competition where we stack up favorably against just about every other creature on the planet: distance running. Humans are capable of sustaining race paces for 20 miles or more, far longer than most other species. We’re able to keep running and stay cool – which helps humans sometimes triumph against horses, our greatest distance competitors, at man vs. horse races in Wales (22 miles) and Prescott, Arizona (50 miles).
The best human distance runners may have some special adaptions. Ultrarunner Dean Karnazes, for example, was able to run 50 marathons in 50 days without breaking down, which is uncommon even among the best runners in the world.
Human sonar machines.
We know that dolphins and bats can navigate the world by sending out a flash of sound that then bounces back to them, but they aren’t the only ones with this capability.
Much of the world learned of human echolocation due to Daniel Kish, a blind man who makes a clicking sound that he uses as sonar to ride bikes and hike through the wilderness.
Researchers have realized this wasn’t something unique to Kish or the few other people who have made headlines – others can learn to clicks to “see” in the dark with a few weeks training.
A human compass.
- Agence France-Presse/Torsten Blackwood
Some of us can’t navigate from our homes to a friend’s apartment without the aid of a digital device. As we’ve started to outsource our brains to our phones, many of us have lost our sense of direction.
But it doesn’t have to be that way for humans. As Carney writes in his book, throughout history explorers have encountered people who are able to point in cardinal directions, no matter what. Some, like the Tahitian chief Tupaia, who sailed with Captain Cook around New Zealand, could navigate the sea in choppy waters on a dark night.
There’s some research that indicates that the more we build up our internal maps, the more parts of the brain that conceive of space grow. Perhaps we all have the natural wayfarer capabilities inside us – we’ve just stopped using them.
But be careful.
- REUTERS/Mark Blinch
Many of these abilities can be developed – but caution is necessary.
Trying to develop some of these abilities on your own and pushing human limits can be dangerous. Without proper supervision, people have died trying to swim under ice while emulating figures like Wim Hof. Freediving is inherently dangerous.
Be aware of the risks you are taking.