How To Get Superpowers

Superheroes in Antwerp. Photo credit: agracier – NO VIEWS

Let’s look at a classic superhuman power: precognition, or the ability to see the future.

A few years ago, I had just sat down at a table in a Mexican restaurant. The waiter placed a glass in front of me and poured ice water into it. I touched the glass and it was unusually hot — it must have just come out of the dishwasher. I withdrew my hand and waited.

A few seconds later, the glass shattered, turning the table into a mess of water, ice cubes, and shards. I got up calmly to wipe the water off my pants, smiling a little. “I figured that might happen,” I said to my surprised date.

It’s true that, upon touching the glass, I had thought to myself that it would probably break, even though that had never happened before in my experience at restaurants. Some people might think this was a supernatural feat. But others would realize that it was because I had a good enough grasp of physics to observe that the extreme temperature difference between the water and the glass would stress the material enough to fracture it.

We love superhero movies and tales of people who, by virtue of birth or some strange accident, develop powers that help them perform miraculous feats. I grew up watching/reading X-Men and idolizing Jean Grey, who was telepathic and telekinetic (able to move things around with her mind). I thought it would be amazing to be able to read people’s minds, or turn invisible, or zoom around with super speed. I knew, though, that the odds of getting bitten by a radioactive spider or a similar catalytic event were slim. Still, the potential benefits seemed really compelling, so I kept thinking about it in the back of my head.

After decades of observation, research, and physical and mental training of various kinds, I’ve discovered that it’s possible to develop “superpowers” in a more ordinary way because of a certain insight. Superpowers are usually portrayed as defying the natural order in some fashion, as though regular humans are biologically limited to a certain range of abilities and anything outside of that is evidence of some alien influence. However, the actual “rules” being violated aren’t really those of nature, but human expectation. If I could consistently do things that other people didn’t expect, like reading their thoughts or actions with some degree of accuracy and reacting in ways they didn’t anticipate, that would basically be equivalent to telepathy and super speed (minus the cool costumes and special effects). You just have to stay one step ahead of the rest.

In an aikido class, I watched as the head instructor demonstrated how to catch an opponent off-guard. He wasn’t necessarily faster or stronger than your average fit 60-year-old Japanese man, but the way he surprised and took down much larger sparring partners seemed superhuman. One key technique was staying totally relaxed until the very moment he acted. It turns out that humans can unconsciously see muscles tensing, which helps us predict when someone is going to run or punch or what have you because tensing muscles is a precursor to physical action; your eyes detect that someone is preparing to move and you have a fraction of a second to react. But if you shave down that split second by intentionally staying relaxed, it feels to your opponent like the action comes out of nowhere. Likewise, if you’re observant enough to see patterns in the way people think and understand enough of the factors that influence them, you can anticipate their ideas in ways that feel supernatural to them — like you read their mind.

I can’t actually fly like Superman or grow huge muscles on a whim like The Incredible Hulk. But if you strip away the flashy CGI and other Hollywood conventions in your imagination, you might realize that “superpowers” are all around us if we care to look, and are easier to come by than we might think. Whether you use them as a party trick, or to save lives, or to perpetrate evil is up to you, but maybe that’s not the best way to approach it. We’re taught that adhering to the norm is the way to survive and succeed, but it can be very useful to think and behave in ways that people don’t expect, to zig where others zag. It would at least make life more interesting, and I prefer to live in a world where “superpowers” prompt me to recalibrate my own expectations. The more I can acknowledge and learn from the stunning breadth of human ability, the better off I think I’ll be.