7 Extraordinary Feats Your Brain Can Perform
From enhancing memory to reading people, the ordinary brain can do some amazing things. Here's how to access your superpowers.
By November 6, 2018 - last reviewed on November 7, 2018published
Two days after Thanksgiving in 2016, 19-year-old Charlotte Heffelmire was at home in Vienna, Virginia, on a holiday break from college, when she went to check on her father who was working underneath his giant pickup truck, fixing the brake lines.
When she entered the garage, she immediately saw that a gasoline fire had erupted under the truck, engulfing one of the tires. Worse, the jack that held up the truck had collapsed, pinned her father, and overturned the can of gasoline that had started the fire.
Newspapers and publications reported that the 5' 6", 120-pound teenager grabbed the truck's fender and began to elevate it off of her father. She later recalled that when she lifted the truck the first time, she almost freed her father, and when she tried a second time, he crawled out. Charlotte then hopped in the burning truck and drove it clear of the house, found a garden hose and extinguished the flames.
Charlotte's amazing feat—lifting many times her own body weight—is an example of "hysterical strength," documented in at least a half dozen other cases, in which people of ordinary physical capabilities momentarily exhibit extraordinary strength in life-or-death emergencies.
Although some experts speculate that hysterical strength arises from an enormous jolt of adrenaline released from the adrenal glands in dire situations, exactly how it functions in the muscles remains a mystery. But the phenomenon does attest that, under just the right conditions, we can get astonishing performance out of our bodies.
Is the same true of our minds? Can we perform superhuman mental feats every bit as awesome as picking up a pickup truck? To answer that question, let's consider what actually happened to Charlotte Heffelmire. The remarkable activity in her muscles and adrenal glands had to have started inside her brain, which somehow found a way to command her muscles, along with her adrenal glands, to put forth maximum effort. So in a very real sense, her life-saving feat was a potent example of what the mind can do when it wants to.
The mind's desire—conscious or unconscious—is critical, because in Heffelmire's case it was how she felt, rather than what she thought, that galvanized her response. Often, the most important factor in transforming an ordinary brain into an extraordinary one is the level of emotional investment.
Your emotional investment in supercharging your brain is critical because the techniques you're about to learn will require you to change deeply ingrained thinking and problem-solving habits, including many that you probably don't even realize you have.
The brain is composed of about 100 billion neurons and up to a quadrillion (1,000 trillion) connections among those neurons. The key to increasing your brain's performance: Use those 100 billion neurons and 1,000 trillion connections more efficiently. Increase the number of neurons that focus on a problem. Inhibit the neurons that limit your performance.
Here's a good example of using your brain efficiently: Memorizing the Fibonacci sequence—0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144,233—would require a lot of rote repetition.
Instead of brute force memorization, try a simple rule: To get the next number in the sequence, add the preceding two numbers. This will allow you to reconstruct the series instantly—and forever. Remembering this easy rule requires far less memory, and less memory retrieval time, than storing the number sequence itself.
Such efficient shortcuts are known as heuristics—from the Greek word meaning "discovery"—fast and frugal ways to access information and to make decisions in complex situations.
For instance, German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer's research revealed that the best way to predict winners in the field of 128 players at the Wimbledon tennis tournament is to simply identify the players whose names are most well known. For predicting winners, this method proved superior to the complex formulas the Association of Tennis Professionals uses to rank players.
In some cases, your brain already performs amazing feats; you are simply unaware of them (but with awareness, can deploy them at will). In other cases, nudging your brain into performing new mental feats is possible. To understand what your brain is capable of, you will want to engage techniques that accomplish one or more of the the following: They make the unfamiliar familiar, the expected unexpected, and the unconscious conscious. To help you get there, let's illustrate a few straightforward and painless techniques. Anyone can deploy these methods to increase the odds of extraordinary performance.
1. [Shortcuts] The Familiar <> Unfamiliar Transformation
Childhood rhymes STICK with us forever: One, two, buckle my shoe. Three, four, shut the door. If you want to commit random information to memory, rhyming is a great familiar method; plus, it puts heuristics to work. Normally, memorizing a list of random words—such as bun, shoe, tree, door, hive, sticks, heaven, gate, vine, and hen—would require loads of repetition, and, after a few days, you'd likely recall only a few words.
This simple rule may help: Rhyme the words with a deeply ingrained memory, then imagine that memory. You will remember each word instantly and probably never forget it.
Here's how: One is a bun, two is a shoe, three is a tree. [See Figure 1.] This rhyming method works because it not only requires less memory to store rules than raw information but also links unfamiliar information to already-stored, or familiar, information (numbers one to three). Rhyming reduces the effort to recall that information.
Transforming the unfamiliar into the familiar is useful for overcoming many cognitive challenges other than memorization. When trying to grasp a novel concept or explain a complex idea, just ask: "What well-known concept or phenomenon comes closest to this new thing?"
Just as making the unfamiliar familiar works in some instances, including finding simple rules to better understand data, there are many cases where, paradoxically, the exact opposite is true: introducing novelty—that which is unfamiliar—can better encode memories. This is because the brain automatically casts aside everyday occurrences but holds onto the unusual ones. Common events rarely cause you problems, because you can predict and prepare for them—rush-hour traffic, winter weather. You know that these things happen. However, your brain has evolved to retain memories of out-of-the-ordinary events, because they help keep you out of trouble.
Your brain is alert when unexpected things happen since such occurrences may threaten your well-being—a mugging in a "safe" part of town, a sudden rainstorm on a sunny day. You're just not prepared for these things. So it makes perfect sense for your brain to remove normal memories so that they don't interfere with unexpected information that could help you deal with nasty surprises.
You recall details surrounding births, marriages, deaths, and major news stories precisely for the same reason: They represent major departures from the normal flow of life.
The implication for learning or communicating new information is that people remember unexpected information far better than what is expected and that the more surprising we make the information, the easier it will be for everyone to remember it. For example:
Nrmlly u wldn't rcll ths prticlr sntnc, excpt tht t hs almst n vwls, bt u cn ndrstnd bcs u prcv engh thts fmlr 2 rcgnz th wrds. Vry strng !
If you can improve recall by framing new information as either highly familiar or highly unfamiliar, when should you choose one method over the other? The answer goes back to the role of emotion in your brain's performance: If you are most comfortable with the familiar, stay with things you like to stay with; but if you constantly crave novelty, make the abnormal your new normal.
2. [Memory] The Tricks of Timing
How do you make learning stick? Most of us remember pulling caffeine-fueled, all-night study sessions. But this tactic limits efficiency and will certainly not lead to extraordinary powers of recall.
When learning new information, your neurons have a limit; in a fixed period of time they can grow only a certain number of new connections, or synapses, to encode new memories. Accordingly, if you cram for that exam, you will quickly reach a ceiling on new information that your brain can retain because you will have exhausted the ability of your neurons to synthesize the proteins necessary to grow or strengthen synapses.
Neuroscientist Paul Smolen and colleagues, in a 2016 article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, called this limit on growing neuronal connections through protein synthesis a learning refractory period. Smolen cites data from animal studies showing that development of synaptic dendrites (cell extensions) associated with learning does indeed progress when exposure to novel stimuli is spaced out over time.
With learning, the appearance of a new synaptic dendrite [see Figure 2B] and the growth of that spine with added experience [see Figure 2C], are achieved through synthesis of new proteins. The research on synaptic development with learning suggests, correctly, that spacing out studying for an exam is superior to cramming.
The ANKI flash card memory system—anki is Japanese for memory—for instance, has enjoyed great success because it spaces out learning over an extended period, allowing neurons that encode memories to recover their protein synthesis ability between exposures and to form new connections.
An ANKI flash card displays a question on one side and an answer on the other, and each card is presented over a period of days, weeks, months, or even years to establish and maintain learning, according to the user's needs.
ANKI strengthens the brain the same way that lifting weights over several weeks or months strengthens muscles: by waiting out momentary fatigue—and diminished ability to synthesize new proteins—before continuing training.
3. [Plasticity] Tap Your "Many Worlds" Mind
You lose your keys because you put them in a certain place, then you forget that one and only place. But imagine that you inhabit a quantum universe where objects can occupy multiple places at the same time; you could put your keys in many different locations all at once; you need stumble onto only one of those places to retrieve them.
We cannot occupy many worlds in the universe, but we can in a sense create "many worlds" conditions in our mind by encoding memories in both verbal and visual parts of the brain.
Here's an example: If you want to memorize a list of unrelated words—comb, egg, wrench, lettuce, key, pillow, cup, ball, pencil, and chocolate—create a mental image of the object that each word represents, then form 10 composite images that combine each object with an image from the "one is a bun, two is a shoe" sequence [see Figure 1]. The idea is to link an unfamiliar verbal sequence to a familiar one, then visually link those now-familiar images to newer unfamiliar information (a comb stuck in a bun is not easily forgotten).
By doing this, you transform a list of random words into images. Now the list of words resides in both the verbal and visual parts of the brain. This creates many more places to "stumble" onto information. The technique also illustrates how a simple tweak on what is familiar versus unfamiliar allows the brain to perform better, in this case in the realm of memory.
If memory is improved simply by recruiting new brain regions to the task (therefore using more brain cells overall), then adding even more brain cells should be better still. Right?
In a 2017 Ph.D. thesis titled "On the Mnemonic Benefits of Drawing," Jeffrey Wammes, at the University of Waterloo, demonstrated that people have superior memory recall when asked to illustrate the words presented to them. Drawing improves memory not only by harnessing visual neurons to store new information but also by using neurons in the motor cortex, where drawing commands originate.
In Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Smolen observes that memories are stored in the parts of the brain where the information was received or created in the first place—the sensory or motor cerebral cortex—so the more brain regions engaged in creating and sensing information, the greater the neural storage capacity available for that information.
These findings suggest that if you really want to retain information you are reading or listening to, instead of only taking written notes, sketch out the information as well.
4. [Creativity] Dropping the Cognitive Censors
Just as creating a sense of novelty through image juxtapositions helps encode memories, an eye for novel juxtapositions in every corner of life, no matter how seemingly mundane, can enhance creativity itself. Indeed, many cognitive scientists argue that "everyday creativity," simply defined, is the intersection of the novel and the useful. And how you define novelty is half the battle. You have last-minute house guests and you want to whip up a stack of blueberry pancakes, but you don't have a blender. You do, however, have a pair of scissors and a drill. Most of us would overlook the possibility of attaching a pair of scissors to a drill because parts of our brain have "fixed the functions" of these two tools.
A lot of people have deeply ingrained expectations of how things are supposed to work, and that often gets in the way of solving problems. This functional fixedness blinds us to creative possibilities. Quieting the parts of the brain that know what power drills and scissors are supposed to do produces a quick solution to the problem.
The greatest advances almost always come not from new inventions, per se, but from novel combinations of already existing inventions—making the familiar unfamiliar. One place to start is to list as many uses of, for example, a brick, that depart from that object's normal function. Grind the brick up to make red pigment for paint, break it apart to make a fashion accessory, or maybe use it as a paper weight.
You can increase the chance of experiencing such a breakthrough by quieting perceptions that are unconsciously distracting, so as to tune into information you may be missing. This is illustrated in the case of drawing. You can dramatically improve your drawing ability just by turning off the part of your brain that ascribes meaning to what you are looking at.
When you try to draw a face, for example, a part of your brain—the left anterior temporal lobe (LATL), which perceives meaning in visual imagery—alerts you. It shouts, That's a three-dimensional human face. The inexperienced illustrator might try, but normally fails, to reconstruct three-dimensional figures when drawing on two-dimensional paper. You can shut off the meddling LATL with a little trick: Turn the image upside down so it loses its meaning.
5. [Echolocation] Steering With Different Senses
Imagine if you could be like Black Panther—just a little. His preternatural sensory perceptions are always on high alert. Without even looking, he can feel his way around and navigate in the dark by listening with his super senses. His enhanced perception wards off danger.
You may not realize this, but you have an inner superhero, too. Like him, you can feel your way around—physically. Sometimes you can sense that an object might be in your path, and you know this before you even look. How? If you're like most people, you just know when you are walking too close to a wall or large object—without knowing exactly how you know. This knowing without knowing is an example of implicit learning from the countless times you have unconsciously registered the change in the sound of your footsteps as you near an object.
You can test this by using a long stick with a hard tip; close your eyes and tap the stick in front of you, as sight-impaired people do (a hard surface is best). Observe that you can get a rough sense of the presence of large nearby objects, as well as their distance, just by listening to the clicks.
The clicks made from tapping the floor a few feet from a wall will have a full, hollow quality, from the slight echoes that immediately follow the original click of contact between the floor and the stick. If you tap the stick within a few inches of a wall or large object, the click will sound crisper and have a slightly higher pitch.
6. [Sound Shadowing] How to "See" Behind You
Sometimes you can feel that someone is standing right behind you, even if the person has not said or done a single thing to indicate his presence. How do you feel that individual's proximity? Once again, sound is key. This is another way to gain important information about your environment. When practiced, this is also an example of your spectacular superhuman-ness and the ability of knowing without knowing.
In addition, we can also pick up—without consciously being aware that we're picking up—breathing, rustling clothes, and subtle sound reflections (as opposed to sound absorption) off of the person behind us.
An acoustic or sound shadow is an area where sound waves are blocked by an object and must travel around the object to reach the ear. A change in volume and a deadening of echoes can be used to judge proximity if you know or suspect a sound shadow is being cast. You can train yourself to find such shadows.
For background noise, place a radio or other sound source some 10 feet in back of you and ask a friend to sneak up behind you (carpet will hide the sound of her footsteps). Even though you can't see or hear the friend, you should be able to feel her proximity by the sound shadow, or sound block, that she casts. If you pay close attention to the sound shadow, you'll perceive two parts to it: a slight lowering of volume as well as a deadening of echoes from the radio noise off of surfaces behind you. These two effects become increasingly obvious as your friend comes closer.
If you are highly attuned to your environment and have practiced detecting these shadows, you will be able to note a new presence just by tracking surrounding change. All of this falls in the category of implicit learning, where over many exposures the brain unconsciously learns that certain cues that we are not paying attention to nonetheless correlate with certain phenomena.
7. [People Reading] Read Yourself to Read Others
If only we could read other people's minds like Professor X of X-Men. That would be superhuman. Yet, we are able to read people more than we realize. Intuition tells us that by paying close attention to another person's facial expressions, tone of voice, posture, eye movements, and gestures we can glean his unspoken thoughts and feelings. Yet recent research shows that turning off parts of the brain that perform exteroception (perception of the outside world) and tuning in to interoception (perception of sensations inside the body) is the best way to read people.
A big smile and lively eyes are hard to fake. When you look at a happy person, your own facial muscles make subtle contractions that mimic that person, and feedback from those muscles to your limbic system (the emotional center of your brain) generates your own emotional response.
Sebastian Korb and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin reliably predicted whether study subjects were viewing fake or authentic smiles just by reading the EMG data of the subjects' own facial muscles.
You can do that, too. When looking at a smile that you know is genuine, pay close attention to your inner feelings. A happy face generates lighter, more pleasing emotions in you than does a face with a forced smile. Emotions come about because of reactions inside our bodies. Your facial muscles don't contract because you feel happier looking at a genuine smile; it's just the reverse. The mimicking muscle contractions happen first, triggering your pleasant feelings.
Research on so-called mirror neurons in the motor cortex of primates, along with studies of subjects who are observing the behavior of others, suggest that minute muscle contractions associated with unconscious mimicry routinely occur when we watch other people's behavior, including facial expressions, gestures, gait, and even manipulation of objects.
We have an extraordinary ability to accurately assess others when presented with characteristics that are relevant to our own survival. A recent study by Jordan Raine of the University of Sussex found that men and women are highly accurate in determining someone's strength and height relative to their own—and with no visual cues whatsoever. Subjects heard only aggressive speech or an aggressive vocalization, or "roar." When listening to roars, men accurately identified stronger males in 88 percent of the study trials.
On the surface, elevating your brain from ordinary to extraordinary requires only a few transformations: from storing data to storing rules, from changing the unfamiliar to the familiar, the expected to the unexpected, and the unconscious to the conscious.
As in the case of Charlotte Heffelmire, sometimes the key to unlocking the potential of these transformations lies not in the domain of cognition, but in that of emotion. And, apart from motivation, the most important emotion is confidence: confidence that you can supercharge your brain.
Most people go through life learning what they can do, and by implication, what they cannot do.
The adult elephant with colossal strength stays meekly tethered to the wooden stake, one that he could pull up like a twig if he chose to—but he doesn't because as a baby elephant he learned that he couldn't pull free. Similarly, many of us learn early in life what's "impossible" and never question it.
But your brain is packed with hidden potential. And, like a full-grown elephant, you can, with certain techniques, break free from expectations that make the impossible seem possible.
Submit your response to this story to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like us to consider your letter for publication, please include your name, city, and state. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.
Pick up a copy of Psychology Today on newsstands now or subscribe to read the the rest of the latest issue.
Facebook image: El Nariz/Shutterstock