5 Incredible Sensory Superpowers You Didn't Know You Have
Fiction loves to explore the crazy idea of humans having some kind of magical "sixth sense" (like in that Bruce Willis movie, The Fifth Element) but that's kind of silly, considering how we barely use the senses we have.
We've mentioned before that your body is chock full of "extra" senses that you don't even realize you're using -- amazing tools granted to us by evolution that we now largely ignore. Science is just now beginning to uncover the human brain's almost supernatural ability to gather information about the world, and has found ...
You Can Sense Whether a Smile Is Fake ... Before It Even Happens
Warning: Knowing the following may ruin every future social interaction.
You've probably heard statistics about how more than 90 percent of communication is nonverbal, and you've heard stories about people who can detect lies with perfect accuracy, due to microscopic twitches in the other person's face. All of it points to the fact that the brain's facial recognition skills are way more amazing than what you give it credit for.
Which is why "avoid eye contact" remains the gold standard for dodging fart-blame.
With that in mind, researchers from Bangor University did an experiment that discovered two things: One, there is a distinct difference between a genuine smile and a fake one, and two, your brain can spot the difference ... before you even see it.
The researchers took pairs of strangers and glued a bunch of electrical sensors all over their faces, then had the newly wired participants talk each other up. What they found is that, when a smile is genuine, we engage a completely different set of facial muscles than we do when we force our faces to contort into what the researchers called a "polite smile," or what we like to refer to as our "fuck off smile." And though these subtle muscle movements around our eyes are supposedly imperceptible without plugging our faces into complicated science machines, percept them we damn well do. When we detect that a genuine smile is imminent, we begin to return said genuine smile before the person we're interacting with even so much as manages to flash a single pearly white. So, basically, each and every one of us is a smile psychic. But only when the forthcoming smile is genuine.
Just try not to overthink it.
That's right -- subjects were unable to anticipate a fake smile. Also, when one subject gave a genuine smile, they got a genuine one in return. When their smile was fake, so was the responding smile. In other words, a genuine smile and a fake smile -- though identical on the surface -- are treated as completely different expressions by the brain. Likewise, a separate study found that we're not actually fooled by fake laughter, either -- on some level your uncle knows his racist jokes are only getting polite fake laughs, but he just doesn't care.
"We've never showed genuine emotion at Thanksgiving so far. I figured, why start now?"
You might find yourself wondering why we bother faking smiles at all. Why maintain this fiction that pleasant feelings can be faked? Why not just be up front and let our expressions reflect what we're feeling inside? It's because once you start asking questions like that, all of the rules of polite society will come crashing down. A sudden wave of total honesty would be the one disaster our civilization could not endure.
Women Can Smell When Other Women Are Ovulating (and They Want to Fight Them)
As we've mentioned before, a man is able to sense when a woman is ovulating -- and thus at her most fertile -- and will unconsciously adjust his behavior accordingly, usually by sidling up to the bar and saying something to the effect of, "Is Heaven missing an angel? Because I couldn't help but notice that my penis is huge." But women, it turns out, are also able to use their noses to detect when each other are in prime mating form. And knowing that another woman is ovulating makes them want to throw down in a completely different way.
Obviously, there was no non-creepy way to do this experiment, so researchers just went for broke. Scientists at Florida State University had female participants sniff the T-shirts of other women ("Slower," said the researcher. "Sniff it slower.") -- some of them worn by women during the high fertility phase of their monthly cycle, others during their low fertility phase.
"OK, now science needs to know how much of a beaker you can fit in your mouth."
Researchers then measured the testosterone levels of the shirt snufflers and found that these women reacted exactly the way the men did -- smelling ovulation kicked up testosterone levels, smelling low fertility shirts made them drop. And as anyone who's ever watched a professional football player brutally annihilate someone from the opposing team (or a middle school boy vigorously dry hump an anime pillow) can tell you, testosterone is a powerful thing. In women, just like men, testosterone drives up the desire to compete and/or fight, depending on the circumstances.
"Does it smell like a bitch about to get stabbed in here, or is it just you?"
Now put a bunch of men and women together in close quarters, and the guys start showing off for the ovulating women and get aggressive with each other, and the other women start trying to compete ... yeah we're thinking the deodorant industry was all a secret project intended to prevent wars.
Women May Be Able to Spot a Cheater Just by Looking ... and Smell His STDs
So as you can already see, when it comes to sex, there is a whole range of invisible signals being sent along back channels that you didn't even know existed. Evolution has granted us all sorts of tools for filtering mates that don't register at all on the conscious mind -- sometimes you just get an icky feeling about somebody.
Other times you need to have a look at their browser history first.
For example, researchers at the University of Western Australia did an experiment where they polled some subjects about how faithful they were in their last relationship. Once they had a group of faithful and non-faithful partners, they took their photos and showed them to a different group and asked them to play a game of "spot the cheater." Remember, they knew nothing else about the person in the photo -- they couldn't talk to them, or smell them, or observe their mannerisms to see if they were walking funny or something. The result: From a photo alone, women could correctly guess whether a man was a cheater 62 percent of the time. You might think that's just slightly better than flipping a coin, but note that the males could only do it with a 23 percent success rate. And while it was just one small study, this falls in line with what we already know about how many snap judgments we make based on things like the shape of someone's face. It kind of makes you wonder how often we get an accurate subconscious feeling about someone, but then talk ourselves out of it.
"Nah, he probably just works for Cutco."
Wait, it gets weirder!
Russian researchers collected the armpit sweat from 34 men, some of whom had gonorrhea, some of whom didn't, and some who'd had gonorrhea in the past but had recovered. They then asked healthy women to sniff the different vials of sweat, and to rate them on a 10-point scale, along with descriptors like "putrid" and "floral." The gonorrhea sufferers, sure enough, consistently smelled worse to the women. Again, this was one small study, but it would make sense -- the species would have needed a way to try to steer clear of sexually transmitted diseases long before anyone invented condoms or high school health classes.
This would also explain why, despite the fact that evolution has created all sorts of natural scents intended to attract the opposite sex, we still prefer artificial colognes, deodorants, and Axe Body Sprays: It's because our natural scents contain all sorts of other information we don't want getting out there. Better cover that shit up!
You Can Smell Which Food Is Fattier, Even if the Difference Is Minute
There's no denying that fatty food is goddamn near irresistible. And while today this might be largely seen as a weakness that's causing humans to gradually evolve into a race of helpless rolling blob-monsters, for much of the human timeline it made perfect sense: When food is scarce, fattier food means more calories, and more calories means a better chance of preventing nature from starving your hunting, gathering ass to death.
You've come a long way, baby!
While the obvious way to detect whether or not a food has a high fat content is to taste it and then wait patiently in front of a mirror for its waist-embiggening effects to kick in, scientists have recently discovered that we possess another, much more subtle ability to detect which foods have a higher calorie count. Researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center conducted several experiments in which they had participants -- some from Philadelphia, others from the Netherlands -- smell glasses of milk, each of which had a small variance in its fat content. Sure enough, participants were able to detect which milk was fattier just by its smell.
We typically just go by color.
To make sure this was an innate ability, researchers compared the results of the Americans versus the Dutch (whose diets contain way more milk than ours) and also analyzed the results against the BMIs of the participants to see if the fatter participants (read "the Americans") were better equipped to smell the fattiness of their foods. What they found was that, regardless of national dietary preferences or waist size, participants were equally equipped to smell fat content across the board.
Researchers are hopeful that this discovery will lead to further study into how people can use their built-in fat-sensing sixth sense to improve their diet by regulating their fat intake. Unfortunately, that will presumably also require the invention of some type of A Clockwork Orange-style brainwashing device to rewire that pesky "fat = delicious" connection that evolution has soldered somewhere deep within our grey matter.
Your Sense of Touch Could Feel a Pimple on a Gnat's Ass
Imagine you were bitten by a radioactive animal of some kind and the only superpower you wound up with was a superhuman sense of touch. Imagine your nerves became so sensitive that you could feel something as tiny as a virus. Sure, you wouldn't be able to fight crime with it, unless it was committed by evil nanobots or something, but it'd still be amazing, right? Well, congratulations -- you can already do it.
Might we suggest "No crime is too small!" as your heroic battle cry?
It turns out that our sense of touch -- mainly in our fingers -- is so well adapted to feeling the teensiest nuances that we can detect bumps on the surface of an object at a nano-level. Researchers at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology conducted an experiment in which blindfolded participants were asked to get all touchy-feely with 16 different polymer surfaces, ranging from silky smooth to somewhat wrinkly. But here's the catch: These "wrinkles" were minuscule -- they could be measured only in terms of nanometers and micrometers.
What they found was that the participants "could distinguish a surface which had a 13-nanometer average amplitude from a smooth surface." Thirteen freaking nanometers. A single rhinovirus, that microscopic asshole that causes the common cold, is bigger than that.
Though by virus standards, it's a bit of a chunker.
So what does this mean to you? Well, it means how things feel in your hand has way more impact than what anyone thought -- two different surfaces manufactured to be "smooth" but with different tiny imperfections, feel nothing alike to your fingers. This discovery will lead to manufacturers being better equipped to sell you stuff. Yay!
See, when faced with two seemingly identical products, you're going to choose the smoother one -- even if it's only smoother on a nearly subconscious level. So while the ability to feel, say, the creeping heat of an approaching fire or the teensy tickle of poisonous ants crawling up your ass crack may have gotten us humans to where we are today, the ability for Apple to sell you a smoother iPhone is what's going to take us into the future.
The third part of XJ's epic science-fiction novel is out now on Amazon. The first $0.99 novella can be found here, with Part 2 out here. Or leave a review and get a free copy! Poke him on Twitter and follow him on Facebook.
Related Reading: What, those aren't enough super powers for you? Click here to learn how to build a memory palace. And hey, did you know your morning coffee was giving you super-powers? This all sounds a lot more awesome when you don't know about these real people with unique powers.