Category: Super

Super Week round-up

We hope you enjoyed our Super Week special feature that ran all last week to complement the Super-themed special issue of The Psychologist magazine. Each day we met a person with an extreme ability or a researcher investigating such an ability. Here’s the complete list:

Day 7 of Digest Super Week: Meet the woman who remembers most of her life in extraordinary detail

For most of us, the remembrance of days and weeks gone by is rapidly obscured by the clouds of forgetting. Not so for people with what’s known as hyperthymesia or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. These unusual individuals can recall most of their past with exquisite vividness and detail. For the final day of Digest Super Week, meet hyperthymesic Becky Sharrock:

I have highly superior autobiographical memory

My name is Rebecca Sharrock and I have Hyperthymesia (commonly known as HSAM, or Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory). Until the age of 21 nobody (including myself) had any idea about why distant memories kept invading my thoughts. When memories flash through they are involuntary, very vivid and make me relive past events. In other words, I’m brought back to the same emotional and psychological age I was at the time it happened. I have no control over what memories will flash through my mind, as they are an endless and random stream.
On the 23rd of January, 2011 I found out about HSAM. My Mum and I watched a television show called The View in which the first few people found to have HSAM were being interviewed. After I saw this segment, so many questions had been answered for me. Mum sent an email to the University of California, Irvine (who are studying this newly discovered memory syndrome) stating that she believed I had this condition. The UCI then sent us a reply, saying that they wanted to test me.
I did my first quiz over the phone on the 14th of April, 2011. I was very nervous to begin with, but once I started doing the test I felt relieved and found it easy to do. I was given random dates and asked to recall the day of the week it fell on; and any personal and public events I could remember.
I was told I did very well on the quiz, and I was retested by them on the 9th of April, 2013 when I was old enough to participate in their research study. I am pleased I can now help them with their research. For further HSAM information, please visit my Facebook page Superior Autobiographical Memory Australia
Ms Rebecca Sharrock lives near Brisbane in Australia. Some of her hobbies include writing, doing Taekwondo (she was awarded her black belt in 2010), reading about foreign countries and science. Harry Potter though, has been her favourite thing since she was nine. About to turn 24 in December, her favourite animals are pigs (“as you may guess from my picture,” she says).
–Further reading and watching–

Total recall: The man who can remember every day of his life in detail – Research Digest report from last year about a case of hyperthymesia. 
Is superior memory a blessing or a curse? Memory researcher Catriona Morrison (University of Leeds) talks to mnemonists, people with HSAM and researchers.
-Channel 4 documentary: The Boy Who Can’t Forget
Endless Memory documentary from CBS news. 

Day 6 of Digest Super Week: Meet the Supertaskers

We study SuperTaskers

Dr Jason Watson
My collaborator Dr. David Strayer and I began looking for individual differences in multitasking ability in 2006-2007. We were looking for any attentional control variables that might predict who shows more or less dual-task cost associated with a real-world form of multitasking: use of a mobile phone while driving. In our first 30 subjects tested in this experiment, we were surprised to find one subject who did not show the expected pattern of dual-task costs (i.e. they drove just the same whether using a phone at the same time or not, and vice versa). After ruling out alternative explanations for this subject’s results (e.g., miscoding, sandbagging), we wondered if we might find more individuals who performed this way, and ultimately identified four more out of the original set of 200 subjects that we had tested.
We thought other cognitive scientists might be interested in these 2.5 per cent of individuals (5 out of 200) who violated cognitive theory with regard to limited-capacity attention, began referring to them as the “Supertaskers,” and wrote a paper about them that is now published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. We’ve been searching for and studying Supertaskers ever since, having identified over a dozen in the context of our research, while also learning more about what cognitive factor(s) may contribute to their extraordinary multitasking ability.
Digest: How might their multitasking skills affect their everyday lives?
Dr David Strayer
As we noted in a recent issue of Scientific American Mind we suspect certain occupations may have a higher percentage of Supertaskers. For example, high-end chefs, ER doctors, fighter pilots, air traffic controllers, or elite NFL quarterbacks may be particularly adept at managing multiple task goals and streams of information, and hence, be more likely to be Supertaskers. Regardless, all else being equal, we would expect the Supertaskers in our midst to rise to the top of their respective professions, particularly when the cognitive demands of their occupation require them to juggle multiple task goals at the same time.
Digest: Could we train ourselves to reach their level of multitasking ability?
Though our Supertaskers were identified based on their behavioral performance in cognitive tasks with which they had little if any prior training, it is a question for future research as to whether it might be possible to train others to reach their level of superior multitasking ability. Our current thinking is that Supertaskers’ level of multitasking ability is indeed innate. However, as we conduct more inter-disciplinary research with Supertaskers, and hopefully gain a greater understanding of what factor(s) might distinguish Supertaskers from the rest of us, it may be possible to use Supertaskers’ overall profile of performance as a guide for designing training regimes to help others be more effective at multitasking.
Digest: What studies of Supertaskers are you planning next?

Most recently, our primary research focus has been to identify what might be unique about Supertaskers: whether in terms of genetics, underlying brain activity/structure, behaviour, or a host of other variables. Our initial brain imaging results have been especially promising, revealing that Supertaskers may be more effective in recruiting key aspects of prefrontal cortex. That is, relative to matched control subjects, the Supertaskers are more efficient, achieving greater levels of behavioural performance in dual-task paradigms with less associated neural activity. Supertaskers keep their brains “cool” under demanding cognitive loads, perhaps making them less susceptible to the behavioural interference that often accompanies multitasking. Notably, such neural efficiency seems to also be associated with expertise in different domains. Our future neuroimaging research is examining both activation of the resting state or default mode network and the integrity of white matter pathways in the brains of Supertaskers, as well as the notion that certain occupations, such as fighter pilots and air traffic controllers, may show similar multitasking ability and patterns of neural efficiency.
Drs Jason Watson and David Strayer are at the Department of Psychology & The Brain Institute, University of Utah
Tomorrow, on the final day of Digest Super Week, we meet a person with hyperthymesia, the ability to remember every day of their life in detail. 

Day 5 of Digest Super Week: Meet a SuperAger

Last year, a group of researchers at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University reported that they’d identified a small group of elderly people whose brains appeared relatively immune to the physical effects of ageing. These 12 “SuperAgers” – average age 83 – matched the performance of middle-aged people on memory tests, task switching and attention. Unlike their peers’ brains, the physical state of the SuperAgers’ brains was also comparable to the brains of the middle aged, in terms of cortical thickness and overall volume. In fact one brain area – the left anterior cingulate – was larger in the SuperAgers than in middle-aged controls.

In a follow-up study published this January, the researchers further reported that the brains of SuperAgers had unusually low densities of age-related Alzheimer pathology, unusually high numbers of von Economo neurons in the anterior cingulate gyrus, and a lower than usual frequency of the ɛ4 allele of apolipoprotein E – a genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s Disease.
For Day 5 of the Digest Super Week, allow me to introduce you to Custis Wright, SuperAger:
I am a SuperAger

My name is Custis Wright, 88 years old, and I am lucky to be able to test and qualify as a “SuperAger.” My life has been a very fortunate one, in comfortable circumstances; my health has been good and any difficulties have been taken care of. I graduated from Vassar and leaving Baltimore where I grew up, I moved with my first husband to Minneapolis. In the 1950s, I married again and moved to Texas, ending up with a blended family. After running around after five children (though with help), at age 50 I decided to be more physically active. I had walked during golf, before carts, but nothing else. Thus, I decided to take up jogging for two miles, very slowly. I continued for 25 years, after which I was forced by hip tendonitis to slow to a fast walk. Meanwhile, remaining an active golfer, I also worked on a Nordic Track, and then an elliptical trainer. These exercises have continued to this day.
I felt I was fairly intelligent but always had to contend with my husband’s 180 IQ. I do find that I read more, and more widely, than most people. It was fun to take the tests at Northwestern Medical School, but I am still considering going to a memory clinic. Both of my siblings died young, but I am confident that my mother, who died at 88, would have been considered a SuperAger. Unfortunately, I was not around her sister or my father at the end (both died at 83 years old), but it is possible that they might have qualified as well.
Maintaining my good health has always been important and all my adult life I have strictly limited intake of fats and sugars, with occasional indulgences; I love red wine. I have Celiac disease, so grains are difficult, but gluten-free options can be found. My life includes a number of small, unorganised groups, some members of which have views directly opposed to mine; in most of these I am definitely the oldest person. So with my family (including two daughters living nearby) and friends, I have wonderful social contacts. 
I appreciate this opportunity to give my point of view on my life.
Ms Custis Wright lives in Austin Texas. Contact her on custisw [at] mailbug.com (plain text only, no attachments).

–Further reading–
Tomorrow we hear from a researcher studying SuperTaskers – people who can multitask without loss of performance. 

Day 4 of Digest Super Week: The supertaster who researches supertasting

Professor Charles Spence
By Charles Spence

Everyone would like to be a supertaster, right? “Supertaster” is the name given to those individuals (roughly a quarter of the population) who are more sensitive than the rest to tastes, especially to the bitter taste in foods such as Brussels sprouts, endive salad, and coffee. It is worth noting that not everyone who you might imagine being a supertaster, is. Jeffrey Steingarten, for example, the famous North American food critic turned out to be a non-taster when I gave him a tasting strip (the simplest way to assess taster status in the lab). It turns out that some supertasters may have as many as 16 times more papillae on their tongues than some other non-tasters.

Recently, researchers have shown that supertasters not only have an advantage when it comes to tasting (literally) the food. All those extra taste buds also give the supertaster an enhanced ability to experience the oral-somatosensory texture of foods as well. What is more, work from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory here in Oxford together with Unilever Research has also demonstrated that supertasters are also less likely than non-tasters to be misled when a food is coloured inappropriately. All of these findings kind of make sense, but the latest observation that has got the scientists really scratching their heads is why it should be that supertasters also appear to have enhanced olfactory abilities as well – this work from Gary Pickering and his group in Canada.

That said, while supertasters may have an enhanced ability to detect certain food-related stimuli it’s not so obvious that we would really all want to be a supertaster. In my family at least, it turns out that my father, who would force the rest of the family to finish the vegetables on the plate (and that includes those Brussels sprouts) lives in a different taste world than the rest of us who all hated the taste of this most bitter vegetable. When I gave my family the tasting strips recently, it turned out that my father was a non-taster while the rest of the family were tasters. Indeed, given the fact that taster status tends to run in families, early researchers (and here we are talking back in the 1930s) even considered using a person’s response to one of the tasting strips as a cheap paternity test.

Charles Spence is professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford.

–Further reading–

Find out if you’re a supertaster courtesy of Dara O Briain’s Science Club on the BBC.

The multi-sensory perception of flavour – Charles Spence on his mouth-watering research.

Tomorrow we meet a Super-ager – a woman whose brain does not show the usual signs of ageing.

Day 3 of Digest Super Week: meet the super-humane professor

I am super humane
Gandhi once said, “All humanity is one undivided and indivisible family.” Studies of those who risked their lives to rescue Jews during the Holocaust found they shared Gandhi’s deep sense of the “oneness with all humanity.” That oneness transcended their sense of oneness with members of one’s nationality, race, or religion.
 For reasons my self-examination does not reveal, I have agreed with Gandhi’s sentiment, both intellectually and emotionally, since late childhood. Reared in luxury, I am certainly not a Gandhi, and can only guess whether I would have had the courage of the rescuers.
Still, I think my life has shown this “oneness with all humanity.” At age 14, my parents sent me to a military school, where I quickly declared myself a conscientious objector. I somehow knew it morally wrong to let your nation decide for you if and when it is right to kill fellow human beings. I was hazed for that unpopular view, but also gained the respect of more thoughtful faculty and students. Although living in the South, I was a firm supporter of desegregation in the 50s and a frequent civil rights marcher and anti-war activist in the 60s. In all of these, my sense of our common humanity anchored my decisions and actions.
Today my causes are humanitarian and human rights. I have long supported Amnesty International, and give lots of money to Oxfam, Human Rights Watch and similar organisations. These organisations are the main recipients in my will. Also, I now co-chair the Education Committee for Human Rights Coalition of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

As a professor, I developed a course on human rights, which I still teach in retirement, and am now writing a textbook on human rights. My research has focused on understanding racism and war, and their opposite, “identification with all humanity,” which I wrote a questionnaire to measure. Two questions read, “How often do you use the word ‘we’ to refer to people all over the world?” and “When they are in need, how much do you want to help people all over the world?” If asked these questions, my answers would be “very often” to the first and “very much” to the second, the highest response options.
Sam McFarland is Professor Emeritus at Western Kentucky University, where he still teaches and writes on human rights. He has served as president of the International Society of Political Psychology.
–Further reading–

In 2012, Professor McFarland and his colleagues devised a scale for measuring people’s identification with all of humanity – a development we covered here on the Digest blog. Among their findings, high scorers on the scale tended to value Afghan and American lives more equally, and tended to know more about humanitarian issues.
Also in this month’s Psychologist, Tom Farsides investigates super-altruism – whether there is such a thing, and its potential costs. 
Tomorrow we hear from a researcher studying “super-tasters”. 

Day 2 of Digest Super Week: meet a super-recogniser

For many years psychologists have studied people whose brain damage has impaired their ability to recognise faces. More recently it became clear that there is another group of individuals who are born with this deficit, or develop it early in childhood. Media coverage of this “developmental prosopagnosia” (also known as face-blindness) prompted yet another group of unusual individuals to come forward – they told researchers they didn’t have trouble recognising faces, rather they were unusually skilled at it. These are the super-recognisers. Let me introduce you to one of them, Moira Jones:

I am a super-recogniser 
I have always known that I have the “never forgetting a face thing,” but never for a second thought it had a name, or that when I took one of the recognition tests, I would score the highest ever recorded. It was then, that I thought:  I really want, if possible, to do something with this thing that I had sometimes thought of as an affliction. 
Every week I instantly and effortlessly identify people I know I have met a long time ago in a situation of which they have no recollection. I will usually remember instantly where I have seen them before and I often freak them out with this. I’ve had to learn to keep my recognitions to myself at times or risk coming across as odd.
I worked in retail for many years and knew throughout that my ability to remember faces could certainly benefit me in my work. Customers greatly appreciated being recognised and I built up a rapport with many customers who would be served only by me. I not only knew each customer’s face, but would recall what they had purchased and many other details about them.
In one place of work, a robbery had taken place and the detectives involved in the case showed me a book of maybe two hundred photos of possible suspects. I recognised the two people concerned immediately and they were subsequently arrested.
I am now a couple counsellor and so far, in my client work, have not come across anyone whom I have met previously. I am sure at some point this will happen. Having said that, I was recently introduced to a colleague’s partner, whom I instantly recognised: I had served him in a store around 2002. I recounted this to him and what he had been looking at in the shop and he was astounded. Does super-recognition help me in my current field? I am not sure: maybe I just haven’t recognised it yet ..?
If anyone reading this has any thoughts on how, or where I might apply this skill, please do let me know. Now I know I have a very specific talent, I am eager to put it to good use.
Moira Jones, aged 44, is a couple counsellor based in Edinburgh. Email her on mojocharlie [at] yahoo.co.uk

A note from psychologist Dr Ashok Jansari who recruited Moira for his research

I’ve been fascinated by face-recognition ever since hearing of “prosopagnosia” or face-blindness while studying cognitive neuropsychology as an undergrad. Having been lucky enough to work with some people who had the condition following brain damage as well has having a developmental variant, I was intrigued when I heard that research had begun on people at the other end of the spectrum, so-called ‘super-recognisers’. I therefore set up an MSc research project to look for some super-recognisers in 2010 and have been exploring the phenomenon ever since. In 2011, I was given a three-month Wellcome-funded Live Science residency at London’s Science Museum where I ran a large study to look at the Great British public’s face recognition and in 2012, I helped in a Channel 4 “Science meets X-Factor” programme called Hidden Talents where scientific principles were used to find people who had skills that they were largely unaware of. Through these events, I have recruited a set of super-recognisers like Moira; I am conducting research with these special people to see what makes their face-recognition so good. The findings will hopefully inform theoretical models of face-recognition, possibly help refine software and maybe even one day be used to help individuals with prosopagnosia. If you know anyone who thinks they are a super-recogniser or a prosopagnosic, I would very much like to hear from them on A.Jansari [at] uel.ac.uk
–Further reading–
In the current issue of The Psychologist, Drs Jansari, Josh Davis and Karen Lander investigate super-recognisers in the police and the general public in their article “I never forget a face“.
Previously on the Digest: What is it like to be face-blind?
Tomorrow we meet a super-humane professor.

Welcome to Digest Super Week!

Think of super powers and most of us are influenced by the comic book super-heroes – the strength and flight of Superman or the web-slinging skills of Peter Parker. But super powers don’t exist only in fiction. Back in reality, there are people with super abilities who walk among us, albeit that their skills tend to be more subtle than in the comics. What’s more, increasingly these individuals are catching the interest of psychologists. Each day this week, we’ll be posting a contribution from a person with a super ability or a researcher investigating an ability. The Digest’s Super Week accompanies this month’s “Super!” special issue of The Psychologist.

First up, welcome to Marc Umile – a calendar calculator who, with astonishing speed, is able to name the day of the week for any given date. Tomorrow we’ll meet a super-recogniser.

I Am a Calendar Calculator

I have always possessed the gift of eidetic memory for recalling huge amounts of information and a knack for finding structured patterns in seemingly chaotic data.  But such abilities have been instrumental in helping me to discover yet another talent I never knew I had until about three years ago – calendar calculating.

Not too many people on the globe can take any date, regardless of how far back in the past or in the future the date is, and immediately know what day of the week the particular date fell on or would fall on.  But through an extensive period of experimentation, I had soon discovered that I can do this incredible feat myself.

At the present time my ability to perform calendar calculation has become almost second nature, and it has now become something that I do almost on impulse.  Every time I look at a past or future date in a magazine, a newspaper, a history book, or some other line of text containing such a date, I am able to calculate the correct day of the week with the date in question almost instantaneously.  As an example – I wonder how many people really know that the Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776 was in fact signed on a Thursday.

I have even drafted my own structured outline of how this can be mastered by anyone, and have shared it with some influential experts in the field of psychology, including Dr. Darold Treffert, the foremost authority and author on the subject of savant syndrome.  I believe that it is possible that such extraordinary feats of memory and calculating ability – thought to be only within the minds of autistic savants – can be tapped into by any person of otherwise conventional intelligence.

Calendar calculating seems to make me all the more in touch with the passage of time. Am I a savant?  That seems to be the big question.  I seem to fall under the category of what is called “Normal Savant” or “Normal Genius”.

Marc Umile is a 47-year-old aviation fueler and package handler. In 2006 he memorized 15,314 digits of Pi, setting a North American record, in addition to memorizing 5,544 digits of the Square Root of 2 and 905 digits of “e”.

Further reading–
In 2009, we reported on research that compared the calendar calculating skills of autistic savants and neuro-typicals. The results suggested the two groups were using different strategies.