Supersenses

Most people think the extraordinary powers and senses superheroes are famous for are totally made up. Here's the thing - some aren't.
 

As a chemist with the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California, 57-year-old Peggy Moylan spends most of her working hours analysing water quality using specialist instruments such as gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers. Her company provides 5.7 billion litres of water per day to 19 million people, so it’s clearly an important job.

But every once in a while, Moylan reports to a special lab where the air is pressurised and filtered to eliminate any outside odours. There she uses a very different set of tools: her own nose and tongue.

She is not alone. Men and women around the world are using their unusually heightened senses to detect smells, tastes, sounds and images that many ordinary humans don’t even know are there. There are not many of these extraordinary people about, but they have senses significantly more acute, discerning or powerful than the norm. They are the supersensers.

Whether due to nature or nurture, supersensers are able to smell scents, taste flavours, hear sounds, feel sensations and see details that elude the rest of us. Moylan, for example, has a naturally acute sense of taste and smell that she has enhanced through extensive training.

Special Powers
Whatever their origin, heightened senses can enrich experiences, boost careers and even help save lives. But amplified senses can also be distracting, overwhelming and painful, leaving the supersenser longing for a respite from sensory overload. To the rest of us who don’t have such gifts, supersensers’ abilities can be confusing and even downright eerie.

But for Moylan, a 28-year veteran of the MWD’s flavour profile analysis panel, her senses are definitely a bonus. Is a blue-green algae bloom in one of the district’s lakes giving the water a musty taste? Moylan can sip, sniff and tell you which of two primary algae chemicals is present: geosmin, which evokes sweet roasted beets, or methylisoborneol, whose bouquet matches that of dirt. She can detect odourants in concentrations of just a few parts per trillion, frequently outpacing the usual scientific instrument tests.

In late 2003, she detected a smoky aroma in some of the system’s water that the instruments had failed to detect. It turned out the water had been contaminated by runoff from brush fires. A year and a half later, when the instruments weren’t able to identify an off-putting oily flavour in water from one of the district’s treatment plants, Moylan and a fellow panellist undertook an impromptu investigation. They sniffed around the plant like bloodhounds until Moylan caught wind of the oily odour and tracked it to its source: a new polymer that a contractor had been using to remove solids from the water.

“We were running tests on it and we couldn’t find anything in the water that would account for this particular smell,” she says. “I don’t think we would have ever tracked it down if we hadn’t gone out and found it.”

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