Hidden talent: What's your superpower?

New Scientist8 May 2013

 Image: Sam Falconer

Image: Sam Falconer

"GOSH, you're good, you're really good." Finally, the words I've been hoping to hear for months. I look down at my fingers, still doubtful of my own abilities. Perhaps it was a fluke. I move on to the next test, and when I'm done the researcher is equally agitated. "My God, it's a record," she says, "how are you that good?"

By the time we reach adulthood, we think we know where our strengths and weaknesses lie, but if you are anything like me, you will probably have wondered whether you possess a hitherto undiscovered talent. Pursuing my urge to find out has taken several months and batteries of tests exploring my mental, physical, emotional and sensory abilities. And now, finally, I've found what I've been searching for.

This is not just a personal victory. It also validates the idea that science can help reveal talents we didn't know we had, allowing us to make better career and leisure choices and increasing our confidence in our abilities. You don't even need a lab or specialist equipment to tap into much of this knowledge: on my journey I have found a whole range of tests that anyone can do. Try them (see "Discover your hidden superpowers"), and you could discover untapped abilities in a range of areas, from sporting prowess and leadership potential to risk assessment and, my own personal strength, the mysterious "interoception".

Prodigious talent

My quest was inspired by a recent study by psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz of Ohio State University at Mansfield, and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach. To investigate the biology of prodigiousness, they tested the cognitive and developmental profiles of eight children whose exceptional talents included music, cooking, art and language. There has been much debate about what underpins prodigy. Some argue that high general intelligence is the key, others emphasise environmental factors such as practice, or a combination of both. But Ruthsatz and Urbach found that just one trait connected all eight children – exceptional working memory (Intelligence, vol 40, p 419).

Working memory is the ability to retain information and manipulate it at the same time – you use it when multiplying two double-digit numbers in your head, for instance. People with a good working memory have more "space" to carry out such mental manipulations, which might help explain its abundance in child prodigies. But what about the rest of us? Might some ordinary people unknowingly possess this talent of talents? Might I?

There is a fast-and-dirty way to see how your working memory measures up, says cognitive psychologist Susan Gathercole at the University of Cambridge. Ask a friend to read out a list of random numerals, one every second. Start with a string of three. Remember the numbers, then repeat them back in reverse order. If you can manage three, try four, then five and so on. An average 30-year-old should be able to achieve five or six, a 40-year-old about five, and a 50-year-old about four. Gathercole also pointed me towards a series of working memory tests devised by Cambridge Brain Sciences.

My results are disappointingly mediocre. But I also discover there are things I can do to improve. Despite a strong genetic component, evidence is mounting that working memory can be increased using computerised training programs and some mainstream computer games. Even upping my intake of omega-3 fish oils could help (PLoS One, vol 7, p e46832). So perhaps I still have a chance of becoming a concert pianist or world-class chef.


In the next phase of my quest I find myself sitting in a sterile white room at a table covered with a daunting array of jars and cups. I have come here curious to know whether I might have what it takes to do one of my fantasy jobs – food critic. Food and flavour research company MMR, based at the University of Reading, has agreed to put me through the tests it uses to select food tasters for R&D of new products. According to Christine Barnagaud, one of its lead flavour scientists, only about a tenth of the population would make it through the screening process. Am I one of them?

A good sense of smell is a vital part of being a professional taster, so first I sniff my way through a series of jars stuffed with odour-infused cotton wool, and say what I think they are. Next, I am instructed to take sips from a set of cups and write down the flavours they contain. In other tests, I try to distinguish between the basic tastes: bitter, sweet, salty, sour and umami. A quarter of the population would fail this test because they have a variation in their PTC gene that impairs their ability to taste bitter food. If a strong espresso tastes bland to you, chances are you are "bitter blind". The hardest test involves identifying several tastes in the same liquid. (Go online for instructions on how to try all of these tests yourself.) Overall, Barnagaud is impressed with my performance: I got 65 per cent of the answers right, around the benchmark for being taken on for further training.

"Very generally, there is a correlation that the more taste buds you have, the more sensitive you are," Barnagaud says. You can find out how you measure up by swabbing your tongue with blue food dye and counting the pink bumps. The average person has about 20 in an area the size of a hole-puncher circle, though the number varies widely: so-called "supertasters" have 50 or more. Paradoxically, they would be disqualified from becoming professional food tasters as they may find foods such as rocket, broccoli and chilli taste overwhelmingly strong. Whatever your starting point, you can tune your taste buds simply by exposing them to more flavours. Smelling different products, such as herbs, and putting names to them even for just a few minutes a day, can help improve your sense of taste. I will need these techniques if I am going to cultivate my palate for that dream job.

Born to run?

Discovering that working memory is not my forte only makes me want to find out more, so I turn my attention from mental gymnastics to something more physical. In the London 2012 Olympics, Helen Glover brought home Great Britain's first-ever gold medal in women's rowing. Just four years earlier, she was a schoolteacher, and had never set foot in a rowing boat. If Glover can do it, what about the rest of us?

To find out whether I have a latent sporting talent, I visit sports physiologistChris Easton at Kingston University in London. I am training for a half-marathon, so I want to know whether I have an aptitude for endurance running. He identifies muscle composition as the key. Type two, or fast-twitch, muscles are powerful but tire easily, perfect for power sports like sprinting or weightlifting, whereas type one, slow-twitch, are better for endurance running. "The evidence is quite strong that you cannot change muscle fibre type," says Easton. "If you have 90 per cent type-two muscle fibres, you can train hard but you are unlikely to ever get a sub-3-hours marathon."

Muscle composition is normally assessed using invasive biopsies, but there are simple alternatives that anyone can try. A good test of fast-twitch muscle fibres is the vertical jump test, which entails jumping as high as you can from a standing position and then measuring the difference between your jump reach and your reach at full standing stretch. A very good score is 65 centimetres for a man and 50 centimetres for a woman. To test for slow-twitch fibres, simply get into a sitting squat position with your back resting against a wall and hold it for as long as you can. "If you can maintain that contraction for longer than 30 seconds, then the chances are you have a high percentage of those fatigue-resistant type-one fibres," says Easton. It's a crude prediction, but for me, the tests are unequivocal: my jump height is pathetic, but when it comes to holding the squat position, I am still going strong after several minutes. That's good news for my half-marathon.

Next comes the classic of the sports-science laboratory – the VO2 max test. This measures the maximum volume of oxygen the body can use in a minute, which is a predictor of endurance potential. It can be improved somewhat with training, but we all have a genetically predetermined ceiling. The test is particularly unpleasant. It involves wearing a mask, which analyses my breath composition while I run on a treadmill at ever-increasing speeds. Looking at my score, Easton suggests I didn't push myself hard enough. However, my body fat percentage and BMI indicate a good level of fitness for long-distance running. But just as I'm starting to feel smug, I receive a decisive blow. A simple blood test reveals that I have below-average levels of red blood cells and haemoglobin, affecting the amount of oxygen my blood can carry. Despite all the positive signs, train as I may, I will never be a top-class marathoner.

Natural-born leader

In my everyday life I don't have many opportunities to take a leadership role, but I've always thought I would make a rather good boss. To discover whether I am deluding myself, I visit Mark van Vugt and his team at VU University in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. He takes an evolutionary perspective on leadership, arguing that our early ancestors, who lived in small groups and faced high threat levels, would have needed effective leaders to survive. As a result, he says, we are evolved to look for certain characteristics in leaders, and his group is identifying these.

Some leadership traits are physical, the most important being height. Team member Nancy Blaker has found that for both sexes, taller individuals are considered more "leader-like". Why? Because we associate stature with various qualities a good leader should have. "Tall males are seen as more dominant, more healthy and vigorous and also more intelligent," she says. "For females the only thing is that they are seen as more intelligent." To qualify as "tall" you must be at least 10 centimetres above the average for your same-sex peers, which unfortunately means that at 170 centimetres I don't make the grade (Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, vol 16, p 17).

My youthful looks, on the other hand, may be a boon – in certain situations. Two other team members, Allen Grabo and Brian Spisak, have found that we prefer younger-looking leaders to see us through change and more mature faces during times of stability. Their studies also show that when cooperation is needed, we pick leaders from both sexes with more feminine features, but during conflict we prefer leaders with more masculine faces (PLoS One, vol 7, p e30399). "Someone who has a much more masculine-looking face is more likely to behave aggressively," says Grabo, "and is probably going to do better at defending the group."

How masculine or feminine you look partly depends on how much testosterone you were exposed to in the womb. A 2003 study by John Manning, now at Swansea University, UK, suggested that you could assess this exposure by calculating the ratio of lengths of your index and ring fingers, a low ratio indicating high testosterone exposure. This conclusion has been called into question recently, but a mass of studies show that the ratio is stably linked to a variety of traits. Leander van der Meij found, for example, that men with a low ratio had more aggressive, dominant personalities (Aggressive Behavior, vol 38, p 208). He suspects their leadership style would tend to be more autocratic and less participatory than those of leaders with a higher ratio. My own digit ratio is extremely low – off the scale for "normal" women – which he suggests could contribute to my having a "male, competitive brain". It might also steer my leadership style towards the unappealingly autocratic.

Stick or twist?

Half a century of research on judgement and decision-making has shown that most people, most of the time, are pretty hopeless at weighing up risky choices. However, a few individuals are able to overcome their subconscious biases and make good decisions in difficult circumstances. I have no ambitions to be a gambler, test pilot or explorer, but this would be a very useful talent to possess in everyday life. It turns out there are a couple of ways to find out whether I do.

The Berlin numeracy test comprises a series of probability-based puzzles that assess "risk literacy", the ability to accurately interpret and act on information about risk. I find it tough, but my results are surprisingly good. "Relative to the general population, you are among the most statistically literate in the world," says the online results page. It's a good start, but this feels like a mathematics test rather than an exploration of whether or not I should trust my instincts. Even the man who devised it, Edward Cokely at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, agrees that risk literacy is not just about calculating the odds – as often as not, we lack enough information to do that – so a key related skill is knowing how confident we should be in our judgements.

This is where the second test comes in. It asks me to decide whether various statements are true or false, and to rate my confidence in my answers. My score does not depend on being right or wrong, but on my ability to understand my limitations – or as the test's inventor, Dylan Evans, would put it, how "risk intelligent" I am. Evans, author of Risk Intelligence: How to live with uncertainty, says it measures how good people are at predicting whether an uncertain outcome is likely to happen.

If, like mine, your results are not stellar, you can still work on your risk intelligence. Evans reckons the reason some people are particularly good at assessing risk is because they get the right kind of feedback each time they take a chance on something. "A bit like adjusting your aim with each throw to get a dart in the bullseye, getting feedback about your accuracy can help to improve your risk intelligence," he says. Provided you learn from your mistakes, that is.

Sixth sense

Still in search of a superpower I didn't know I had, I decide to explore a potential talent that has intrigued me since I first read about it in New Scientist(15 October 2011, p 34). Interoception is the ability to tune in to signals from your own body, and is measured by how accurately you can count your heartbeat without taking a pulse.

This might sound like a strange skill to have, but it is increasingly being linked to a range of useful cognitive and behavioural traits. For example, people with high interoceptive sensitivity are more intuitive, suggesting that "gut feelings" stem from subconscious body signals. Such people can sense dangers that are "masked" from consciousness. They are also better at remembering emotional information and have richer emotional lives, which may stem from the fact that internal body signals are detected in the brain's insular cortex, a region also responsible for emotional processing. In addition, these people are more emotionally sensitive and empathic, and have been shown to get less anxious when speaking in public.

Keen to explore my own interoceptive abilities, I visit the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex, UK, to meet Hugo Critchley and Sarah Garfinkel. First, Garfinkel asks me to assess how many times my heart has beaten in a given period, while monitoring my actual heart rate. I do well. Only about a quarter of the population can assess their heart rate with an accuracy of 80 per cent or more, which is what I have achieved.

Individual differences in interoceptive sensitivity seem to be fairly fixed, although sensitivity declines with age. However, Garfinkel and Critchley believe training can lead to improvement. Associating heartbeats or other internal bodily signals with external sensations seems to be a useful intermediate step. Garfinkel suggests concentrating your awareness on one area of the body at a time to find out where you are most sensitive to your pulse. For me, it's my fingertips. Garfinkel, after some practice, can feel her heartbeat pulsing in her head. There is potential therapeutic value in training people to be more aware of their internal body states, not least because low interoceptive sensitivity has been linked with depression.

One of the methods they use at the Sackler Centre to help increase interoception is autonomic biofeedback. Soon I am wired up to a device that measures skin conductance, and challenged to manipulate an on-screen cartoon caterpillar using an unusual controller – my bodily state. With the hardware reading my physiological arousal levels, the more relaxation I achieve, the more the caterpillar will move to the right, towards the finishing line. If I am anxious, it will move towards the left. To complete the game you need to be in tune with your body, but even if your interoceptive sensitivity is low, the game itself helps you. "People who are not very good at knowing what body state is a relaxed state can use the external cue of the caterpillar to help them understand their body better," says Garfinkel. As a result, the game can actually help people learn to relax.

As for me, my performance suggests I'm a natural. "I can't believe it. That was amazing," Garfield says as my grub crosses the finishing line in 20 seconds flat. Some people fail to complete the task in the maximum 3 minutes allowed. "It's very unusual to be that good," she adds. "You've found a new skill." At last! I have discovered my hidden talent – I'm a world-class caterpillar herder.