Super senses exist, we're just too distracted to notice them

Technically, we all have the capability for what could be described as "superhuman" hearing, sight, and smell. A healthy young adult can see a candle flame from 30 miles away. We can detect a smell when just 30 molecules of certain substances are present. So why don't we feel like our senses are super strong? According to neuroscientist Bradley Voytek, it's because we aren't paying enough attention. Basically, what we can sense under optimal conditions doesn't reflect what we do sense in the busy, distracting, real world.


    1. @Joe

      Whoah, you have a lot of shiny colorful
      things. You must be high quality.
      Wanna fuck?

  1. Um… I’m pretty sure that “all humans have the capability for superhuman senses” isn’t actually a “technical” statement. More a paradoxical one.

    1. I have to agree. Ants, by virtue of their ability to lift 10 times their own body weight (or whatever) don’t have “super-ant strength”, either.

  2. This makes perfect sense if you think about the fact that…. oh hey, what is that shiny thing, is that a slinky, oh hey neat a slinky

  3. There is a fascinating example of this in one of Temple Grandin’s books – I think it is Animals in Translation – about a medical student who briefly is able to smell as keenly as a dog.

  4. This is something that we sometimes practice as part of meditation. Using that level of concentration on one thing, one sense… I also when concentrating have a really sensitive sense of smell. I am not able to parse all the scents properly like some dog but if I concentrate enough I can pick out subtle queues in the air. If certain people I know have passed… sometimes hours after the fact.

    I remember in the late 70’s and early 80’s all the studies into adrenaline power feats. Then I wondered why we haven’t seen much study on optimum muscle placement for highest strength. There are some people who even though they appear smaller and aren’t corded like Jet Li who have an amazing aptitude for physical strength.

  5. I have always thought I have a superhuman sense of smell. I smell things constantly that no one else smells. Case in point: I smelled a smell. Like something rotting or spoiling. I was on the 2nd floor of my house. I sniffed and sniffed. My wife thought I was nuts. I kept sniffing as the scent got stronger and stronger. Went downstairs. Went into the garage. Sniff sniff. Open wife’s car door. Smell is a little stronger. Sniff around. Under passenger side seat is one of my toddler son’s sippy cups. I open it. Bam! Spoiled milk inside.

    I can also hear really high frequencies and I’m just about 31 years old. I thought I was supposed to lose that ability at like 25 or something.

    1. jakemg:

      You would expect sensory sensitivity to vary just like height, coloration, intelligence. Though given how optimized senses are, and how important, they might vary less than say ear-shape.

      Interesting whether hypersmell is good, if you (like ancestors) ate borderline-spoilt (but ok) stuff sometimes. Then again, there’s always ketchup (joke; but spices do have a taste (and antibacterial) role, but this digresses…)

      There are recognized hyper-sensitive folks. Look up super-tasters. Its well known that eg olfactory sensitivity of women varies with menstrual phase.

      Re meditation: yep. Also a kind of self-healing where you listen to your body intentionally, instead of when it reminds you by hurting or tickling or itching.

      Its your body, brain, play with them. Or don’t, but stay out of my way.

  6. We don’t normally need to detect N photons, its often bright enough nowadays, and not
    many cougars trying to snag a kid in

    Ask an autistic or schizo about filtering, adaption, and gain-control, though. The *physical sensitivity of the receptor systems* isn’t the problem in sensory-overload disorders.

  7. What Major Variola says!

    Being able to filter out stimuli is what makes it possible for us to function. That is a large part of what autistic people (and to a lesser degree, those with Asperger’s) have a problem with.
    Getting the stimuli in full force means a constant barrage of multi-modal information. Just getting this problem in one channel, hearing, means that it becomes impossible to pick out one discussion when in a large group. It becomes just a mass of audio frequencies and oscillations.

    We do this filtering automatically and all the time. We focus on what we need to, and attenuate unimportant or repetitive (steady repetitive) signals.

  8. I have long conjectured that the “super-senses” some people experience when they take certain drugs are the result of this phenomenon. (For example, some people report a dramatically enhanced sense of smell when they take LSD, to the point where they can track scents through the air like a dog.) It’s not that the drug is “enhancing” your senses so much as that it is disabling the part of your brain that filters out the sensations.

    1. Oliver Sacks wrote about a med student
      who took a MDA-class pharm and thought he was a dog for a few weeks. Complete with
      odor enhancement.

      LSD seems to impair
      sensory “constancies”. Its doing a lot of things because the circuits it tweaks are deep and wide so limiting it to sensory mods is vast oversimplification.

      It has been long understood that LSD tweaks the (5HT and related circuits in the) raphe nucleus which is a brainstem structure in charge of awakeness.
      Note that tweaking one system explicitly can tweak others via stimulator or inhibitory connections. Eg, put down your 5HT autoreceptors here and maybe your dopa or norephinephrine goes wacky elsewhere.

      Careful with that axe, Eugene.

  9. Long long ago, Boing Boing had an article about the “human front-side bus”. Perhaps we have an upper limit on the amount of sensor signals our brains can handle at any one time?

  10. 30 miles and 30 molecules? Super people can also lift 30 kilotons, they can run 30 meters a second, they can hear the sound of felt rubbing against velvet from 30 blocks away and they can distinguish 30 different shades of red by touch alone. And they can eat 30 Big Macs in 30 seconds and regurgitate it all in another 30 seconds.

  11. one supposed explanation for autism involves not having the usual “noise filters” on the senses, and so getting overwhelmed by sensory input.

    1. Yes, and my point is that if your retinal cells, your cochlea cells, your force-sensing cells were made 1/100th as sensitive then you would still be succeptible to sensory overload.

      “Sensitivity” used here is a real physical quantity, eg
      nerve impulses per pascal or degree C,
      just like an ISO silver-film rating, geiger-counter counts/min per mR/hr, etc.

      Filtering is a relative thing that your brain has to handle. Your brain eats 1/5 of what goes in your mouth, it damn well better be useful information-wise. And
      amusing, too.

      The point is that the gain-control / balancing circuits are out of whack in
      various mental problems, including depression and bipolar. To a Signals and Systems graduate, and engineer, my personal bipolar seems like misadjusted
      gain in a few circuits. Psychopharms are tools. BTW my wife is a shrink, though
      not mine.

      In a hundred years this will be the black
      humours of the ancients. Meanwhile some of us strive to get a computational grip
      on our own minds and emotions.

      Sorry, I’ve digressed into more computational/affective circuits than the
      simple sense-perception-awareness circuits which were the original topic.
      (Albeit, not BB-hostile topic)

      Yes some of you smell more acutely than others. Substitute any verb you like for “smell”. Deal with it.


      1. I’ve long hypothesized that LSD effectively inhibits the filtering action of the Reticular Activating System, or in some way interferes with the error correction downstream of it. Specifically in the visual realm, most of the common disturbances (auras, trails, etc.) can be explained as bits of uncorrected raw signal getting past the filters.

  12. I’m surprised no one has brought up human echolocation. This is something previously thought only possible through other species’ specialized sensory organs, and yet several humans have been quite successful at it. Notable was the tragic case of Ben Underwood, who though without sight could ride bikes, play basketball, skate, whatever, all through echolocation. Certainly our brain reconfigures itself, and perhaps in his case was able to give more input “bandwidth” to hearing to create visual maps of his environment.

    I prefaced it with ‘tragic’ because unfortunately the cancer that claimed his eyes as a boy, claimed his life two years ago.

    I believe animals also have a sixth sense of an awareness of EM fields. We see this in birds; they use it to migrate. But I believe we also exhibit this behavior in able to “feel” when someone or thing is near us. And if you want to go into the weeds, some might claim this sense enables one to feel non-corporeal entities as well.

  13. Completely agree, when I was a child I was fascinated by Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan books, so I set out to train my sense as Tarzan was forced to.

    Now, at 45 and a smoker I still have a far far better sense of smell than anyone I know, and when I gave up cigarettes for 6 months it got even better. (I weakened)

    My “bat ears” are legendary for letting me hear comments in noisy places at a distance, or being able to pin point where sounds have come from.

    There is no physical change in my senses, I just taught myself to pay more attention to them, even at a subliminal level, so although they seem to work better anyone who has no other problem affecting their sense could with work do what I did I’m sure.

  14. Sadly, if there’s one thing I really want, it’s conscious Dynamic Range Adjustment within my Visual Cortex. Man, I can’t wait for that to evolve.

  15. I’ve always had an exceptional sense of smell, even as a smoker. Hearing as well, but mostly in the ability to recognize the direction a sound comes from. I had great sight until puberty, but I can still detect color variations better than most other people seem to be able to. A daily dose of piracetam improves this noticeably (among other things), although interestingly enough aniracetam seems to give me a bit of blur in my left eye.

  16. Great link Maggie!
    I think there must be a general rule with most disability that you do experience the world differently because things that are insignificant to the able-bodied are tantamount to varied disabilities. It certainly changed my perceptions of the world when I had a spinal cord injury 6 years ago. Details are paramount, and it is easy to see now how myths like the blind having super-sensory perceptions become known as fact. We’ve just trained out bodies to experience the world differently as a survival technique.

    and weirdly, on the smell thing, maybe randomly, a medication I take has as an added bonus side effect olfactory hallucinations. I smell things that aren’t there or I perceive them to be stronger or weaker than they are in actuality.

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