Becoming superhuman: Is it all in your mind?

Everyone loves a good comic book hero, but what if superhuman feats were something you could learn to do in real life?  In this post, we will share some recent scientific evidence that suggests that through mindfulness, people can learn to control their minds, bodies, pain tolerance and emotions in ways that seem almost superhuman.

Superhumans (people with extraordinary and unusual capabilities) have long fascinated people around the world. One of the most popular storylines about superhumans is how they’ve acquired their power. Some are born with superhuman abilities (e.g. Superman, Thor), some are biologically altered  (e.g. Captain America, Spiderman) and a few have used training, technology, and a whole lot of grit to become superhuman (e.g. Batman, Ironman). But superhumans are not confined to the pages of comics. Research scientists are now examining real life people with extraordinary capabilities in order to discover the origins of their abilities.

The Iceman: a real life superhuman

Probably one of the most fascinating examples of this is a man by the name of Wim Hof. They call him “the Iceman” and he has all the trappings of a bonafide superhuman. Hof has shattered several world records for some truly inconceivable feats, including the most time swimming under ice (80 m- about the length of an Olympic swimming pool), remaining nearly naked under ice poured up to his neck, and climbing Everest in shorts. Normally, such stunts would have resulted in frostbite, hysteria, cardiovascular stress and intense pain—but Hof shows none of these responses. The Iceman claims that his superhuman ability is the result of a repeated practice of concentration and meditation techniquesthat he has used to train his body and mind to remain calm and comfortable even with a risk of imminent organ failure (Kox et al., 2012).

If you think the idea of using your mind to control your physical responses sounds ridiculous, you are not alone. However, recent research shows that, crazy as it sounds, it’s actually true. In a medical experiment published earlier this year, Hof trained a group of young men in Poland on his techniques.  At the end of only 10 days, his trainees already demonstrated heightened immune systems compared to a control group, which did not get the training (Kox et al, 2014). These results show that the immune system—something previously thought to be uncontrollable—can actually be influenced through the mind. But what is really happening here? And how? 

Mindfulness: a real life superpower?

Recent psychological and psychosomatic research suggests that mindfulness could be one of the secret ingredients to this superhuman feat. Mindfulness is defined as the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose and nonjudgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment (Kabat-Zinn, 2003).

Mindfulness can affect our pain tolerance because thoughts of pain are perceived as separate events from the actual primary sensations that occur from moment to moment. In essence, pain is viewed through a detached observation and the sensory feelings of pain are uncoupled from the affective evaluative alarm that happens when you hurt (Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth, & Burney, 1985). Studies have shown that continued practice of mindfulness meditation can be used to build up mental and physical resiliency to bad feelings, pain and even the flu!  

In a study completed at the University of Montreal, Grant and Rainville (2009) assessed a group of Zen meditators who had over 1000 hours of meditation training. They looked at the response to pain after being touched by a heated rod and found that compared to untrained age-and- gender-matched control subjects, meditators who attended mindfully felt less pain and required higher temperatures to feel pain at all. It seems that the many years of mental mindfulness training allowed the Zen meditators to moderate their own pain. Sounds like a superpower to us.

Another study looked at whether a mindfulness meditation intervention could actually alter brain and immune function (Davidson et al, 2003). After just 8 weeks of mindfulness training, participants were measured for electrical brain activity as well as injected with the influenza vaccine and monitored for immune response. The results showed that the experimental mindfulness group had increased left-sided anterior activation in the brain—an area associated with more adaptive responding to negative or stressful events and faster recovery from negative provocation. Furthermore, in reaction to the influenza virus in their system, mindfulness meditators displayed a significant rise in antibody titers (aka the buggers that battle against falling sick) compared to the control subjects. This study shows that everyday people can build up their superhuman abilities through mindfulness.

And pain tolerance is not the only superpower related to mindfulness. A state of mindfulness has also been shown to give people the ability to control emotions through increase positive reappraisal, or the ability to pause and reevaluate a stress event in a more positive way. By inducing positive reappraisal, mindfulness inspires positive emotions such as compassion, trust, confidence, and equanimity, which reduces stress in the moment and also prevents bad feelings in the future (Garland, Gaylord, & Park, 2009). 

So, for all of you who may want to be more than simply human, you may not have to be genetically mutated or born on the planet Krypton: just start practicing mindfulness.


Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., Muller, D., Santorelli, S. F., ... & Sheridan, J. F. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine65(4), 564-570.

Garland, E., Gaylord, S., & Park, J. (2009). The role of mindfulness in positive reappraisal. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 5(1), 37-44.

Grant, J. A., & Rainville, P. (2009). Pain sensitivity and analgesic effects of mindful states in Zen meditators: a cross-sectional study. Psychosomatic Medicine71(1), 106-114.

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness Based Interventions in Context: Past, Present, and Future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10(2), 144-156.

Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L., & Burney, R. (1985). The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. Journal of Behavioral Medicine8(2), 163-190.

Kox, M., Stoffels, M., Smeekens, S. P., van Alfen, N., Gomes, M., Eijsvogels, T. M., ... & Pickkers, P. (2012). The influence of concentration/meditation on autonomic nervous system activity and the innate immune response: a case study. Psychosomatic Medicine74(5), 489-494.

Kox, M., van Eijk, L. T., Zwaag, J., van den Wildenberg, J., Sweep, F. C., van der Hoeven, J. G., & Pickkers, P. (2014). Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences111(20), 7379-7384.