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:
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:
|Dr Jason Watson|
|Dr David Strayer|
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.
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.
Tomorrow we meet a Super-ager – a woman whose brain does not show the usual signs of ageing.
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:
Previously on the Digest: What is it like to be face-blind?
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 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”.
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.