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Georgina Woodward: on 10/15/18 at 20:19pm UTC, wrote Zeeya, thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I also listened to...

Zeeya Merali: on 9/10/18 at 20:48pm UTC, wrote In the quantum realm, the act of observing something—a photon, or an...


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FQXi BLOGS
December 2, 2020

CATEGORY: Blog [back]
TOPIC: Superhuman: Book Review and Special Podcast [refresh]
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FQXi Administrator Zeeya Merali wrote on Sep. 10, 2018 @ 20:48 GMT
Simon and Schuster
In the quantum realm, the act of observing something—a photon, or an electron, say—can disturb or change its properties. In a very real, physical sense, we construct reality just by looking it.

This quantum quirk came to mind while I was reading Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity, by evolutionary biologist Rowan Hooper. I learned that biologists can now visualise the physical form of memories in the brain—yes, you should think of the wispy, tendrilous structures that Dumbledore extracts from Harry Potter’s mind, says Hooper—and that the act of remembering degrades the accuracy of our memories each time we try to look back and recall a past event. Hooper also explains that we have evolved a flawed memory as a kind of defence mechanism that allows us to edit out the bad parts of our personal history, subconsciously reconstructing reality to make it more palatable, day by day.

By pointing out this poetic resonance between quantum physics and memory, I do not mean to suggest that we should expect to find that consciousness and intelligence are directly controlled by quantum processes in the brain (although just how these higher-level properties emerge from mindless physical laws are exactly the kinds of issues that FQXi researchers may soon be tackling as part of our Agency in the Physical World program). In fact, Hooper, who joins me on a special edition of the podcast, warns against looking for genetic building blocks for complex traits, in an overly simplistic way. But these are just some of the fascinating facts about the workings of our minds and bodies that I pulled from Hooper’s treasure trove of a book, which skilfully combines conversations with some of the most extraordinary people alive with meticulously researched ideas from the frontiers of genetics, in an effort to unpick what makes the best of us excel.

Free Podcast

Superhuman: In this special edition, evolutionary biologist Rowan Hooper discusses his new book, which examines the extremes of mental and physical ability. He discusses encounters with some of the world's cleverest people, investigates the role of genetics in intelligence, memory, drive and focus, and describes people whose immense resilience has seen them come through terrible adversity. Hooper also describes lessons we can take from human evolution when programming AI.



LISTEN:







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On the podcast, Hooper chats about his hunt for the intangible roots of intelligence. Is it in our genes? Or our upbringing? He’s chosen some pretty smart people to help him examine these questions: math prodigy and chess grandmaster John Nunn, (double) Booker-prize winning author of the historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel, and Nobel laureate and (appropriately enough) geneticist, Paul Nurse. Hooper quickly dismisses the “bogus” nature-v-nurture conflict often promoted in the media, stating that both undoubtedly play a role in fostering intellectual achievement. Nonetheless, the importance of genetics and innate talent is striking and, in the book, Hooper addresses whether we should feel discomfited, or maybe instead empowered, by this.

Our chat only touches on a handful of the traits that Hooper investigated for the book. Beyond intelligence and memory, Hooper met with polyglots who speak dozens of languages, round-the-world sailor Ellen MacArthur—who was apparently focused on her nautical goal from the tender age of four—and people with exceptional singing and sporting talent. If that’s not enough to make you feel inadequate, Hooper brings us lucid dreamers, who practise language and dart-throwing skills, literally in their sleep.

As well as having been a research biologist, Hooper is a seasoned writer. He is the managing editor at New Scientist, and brings some of the magazine’s trademark lightness of touch to his anecdotes. (When meeting a minimalist who has given up all but 100 material possessions in his quest for happiness, Hooper understandably ponders how many pairs of undergarments he must own. Spoiler alert: two pairs of pants.)

Hooper’s storytelling truly shines towards the end of the book, in its most moving, and most humbling, chapters. While we admire many of the people he meets in earlier chapters for the drive and focus that motivated them to pursue excellence from a young age, others had greatness thrust upon them later in life, when they met with profound misfortune. Here we meet survivors of horrific physical assault, war injuries, and diseases that left them near-death. In one of his most mind-blowing encounters, Hooper visits a woman with locked-in syndrome—almost entirely paralysed by a stroke and able to communicate only through eye movements—who earned two degrees following her paralysis, and reports being happier now than before the stroke.

It’s these personal tales of hope and resilience that stay with you long after you finish the book, inviting you to reassess life: What really makes us happy? What hidden strengths might we tap in to, at times of adversity? How can we reconstruct our realities to write the best stories for our lives—harnessing our own superhuman abilities?

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Georgina Woodward wrote on Oct. 15, 2018 @ 20:19 GMT
Zeeya, thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I also listened to the podcast interview. It sounds really interesting and inspiring. Some good questions at the end of the blog.

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