What does it mean to be superhuman

Are “superhuman” abilities genetic?

The word "Übermensch" and especially its English counterpart "Superhuman" creates images of comic heroes in the minds of many people who fly around in capes and fight evil. But the people that evolutionary biologist Rowan Hooper describes in his new book "Superhuman: Life at The Extremes of Mental and Physical Ability" are people like us.  Almost. These ordinary people have done extraordinary things, whether they found happiness despite a terrible illness or were known for their outstanding talent in basketball.

National Geographic spoke to Hooper about his book in London. He explained why a woman with locked-in syndrome inspired him with her optimism, why LeBron James sleeps so much and why people in “blue zones” have such a long life expectancy.

In researching your new book, you spent time with many extraordinary people, from a bomb disposal expert to a patient Locked-in syndrome. Tell us about these people and the similarities that bind us together.

Shirley Parsons has locked-in syndrome. She was completely paralyzed after a stroke, but her mind works. I first found out about her through her surgeon because he was so impressed by her character, cheerfulness and optimism in the face of a terrible trauma. I got to know her a bit through email and arranged a meeting because she said in a message that she was a happier person - even happier than before her stroke. That was something so extraordinary that I wanted to understand. I wanted to find out how it was possible to not only be happy with your life after such a terrible thing, but also to be happier! So I went to see her. I've also spoken to psychologists who work with people who have experienced such things.

If you ask these people how they are doing, the majority have made their peace with it and found a way to happiness. It was exciting, and contrary to my expectations, to find people who you would think would not be happy due to terrible circumstances - but actually are. It was incredibly exciting to deal with it.

The bottom line, I guess, is that we often feel we have to pursue happiness in a commercial sense by buying things, finding a better paying job, or moving to a nicer house and neighborhood. If you look at the people who are unable to do so because of their locked-in syndrome, you understand that there are other, possibly more profound, ways to happiness. For me the bottom line after meeting these people is that nothing traumatic has to happen to you to change little things that can improve your life.

Thomas Jefferson made the "pursuit of happiness" a human right. But how can you define happiness? Is it material, spiritual - or even genetic? 

There is a whole academic field in which people spend their careers arguing about what happiness is. But we all know when we are happy. That’s a feeling. I'm talking about happiness right now, not something that you project into the future and think you will be happy when you buy a new house or new car. It is an immediate feeling of happiness.

There may be a genetic component in the basic emotional state of one's own personality, i.e. the day-to-day satisfaction with life. A New Zealand study looked at a variant of the gene that appears to be associated with lower or higher levels of depression, and thus higher or lower levels of day-to-day satisfaction.

With a trait as subjective and difficult to define as happiness, it is difficult to determine the influence of genes. A lot of research is being done on this, but nothing is clear yet. We can say that there appears to be a genetic component to many physical and behavioral traits. But we cannot say that there is a specific gene for it.

When you talk about extraordinary people, the question always arises whether this is due to their genes or their environment - so "nature versus nurture“. You don't particularly like this expression, do you? 

Absolutely! It is completely wrong to pit these two factors against each other. No geneticist would say that anything is determined either by genes or by the environment because nothing works in isolation. All the genes we have appear in some environment. It's never just one or the other: it's always both factors that work together.

So the question is which of the two is more important and can either overwrite the other or compensate for its deficits. Over the years, some people have held the hopeful view that even the environment and upbringing can be coped with. That you can become the best if you just practice enough. It's a wonderful idea and I wish it were! [Laughs] But to be the best in the world at anything, and not just really good, you need a genetic advantage and then you have to work hard on it as well.

It is said that a key factor in basketball star LeBron James' exceptional talent is that he sleeps eleven to twelve hours each night. Can that be explained scientifically? 

There is now a lot of research that shows the importance of sleep. In the eighties there was this whole Gordon Gekko philosophy of "sleep is for wimps" that is still persistent, especially among urban workers and in the macho business culture. Donald Trump brags about getting little sleep. Margaret Thatcher didn't necessarily brag about it, but she was known for not sleeping very long. But she died of Alzheimer's disease, and there is increasing evidence of a causal relationship between chronic sleep deprivation and the onset of Alzheimer's disease in old age. There is a ton of data showing that memory and cognitive skills improve massively when you have slept well. This is why elite athletes pay great attention to sleep and that is why LeBron James values ​​it so much.

"Blue Zones”Or“ Blue Zones ”is a term established by National Geographic writer Dan Buettner. He uses it to describe places where people live exceptionally long. Take us to one of these places and describe why they are so conducive to a long life expectancy. 

Places in blue zones are often nice and warm. They have a great climate, a good community support network, and lots of healthy vegetables and fish to eat. Especially in Okinawa, people have one of the highest life expectancies in all of Japan, and Japanese people in general have the highest life expectancy in the world. So many people in Okinawa are among the oldest in the world. We're trying to replicate these factors to see if that will help other people live long as well. Again, that's a nice idea, but geneticists now suspect that there's more to it than that. These places have all of these factors that are conducive to long life, but you also need good genes for longevity. So it looks like these blue zones are not just areas with a beneficial climate and good diet, but also with good genes. These populations are relatively closed and have high levels of genes associated with longevity.