Is There a Limit to Human Potential? – Facts & Infographic

Is There a Limit to Human Potential?

Is There a Limit to Human Potential.

Humans have continued to evolve throughout our existence, developing mentally and physically to become smarter, stronger, and in general, better.


In a world that seems to be progressing at an accelerated rate, extraordinary human bodies and minds are continually pushed to their limits and beyond, breaking world records and defying beliefs about our capabilities. More than ever, modern medicine and technology continue to extend lifespans and conquer medical maladies. With all this, we must ask ourselves: Is there a limit to human potential? Has our improvement stopped or slowed? With scientific and technological advancements, will we eventually be able to surpass our limitations and achieve the impossible? And what will the consequences be if we do?


Faster, Stronger, Better

World-class athletes are constantly exceeding the perceived limitations of the human body, and breaking records. The men's 100-meter sprint is a highly competitive race, with only fractions of seconds separating winners from losers. The record-holder of this race is considered the fastest man in the world. The current world record of 9.58 seconds is held by Jamaica's Usain Bolt.



Wind (m/s)






9.58 (WR)


Usain Bolt


16 August 2009





Tyson Gay

 United States

20 September 2009



Yohan Blake


23 August 2012





Asafa Powell


2 September 2008





Nesta Carter


29 August 2010





Maurice Greene

 United States

16 June 1999



Justin Gatlin

 United States

5 August 2012





Steve Mullings


4 June 2011





Donovan Bailey


27 July 1996



Bruny Surin


22 August 1999





Leroy Burrell

 United States

6 July 1994



Olusoji Fasuba


12 May 2006



Mike Rodgers

 United States

4 June 2011



Richard Thompson

 Trinidad and Tobago

13 August 2011

Port of Spain

[Fastest times in the men's 100 meters race (1999-2011): Source, Wikipedia]


The 10-second barrier was long considered the highest benchmark for world-class sprinters, but increasing numbers of athletes have broken the barrier. Mathematicians studying maximum running speeds have worked to model the pace of progress in order to calculate the fastest possible time for the men's 100-meter race.


Stanford University's Mark Denny studied the race data of greyhounds, racehorses, and humans from the 1920s to 2008 for answers. Denny's research suggested that speeds improved up to a certain point before reaching a plateau and eventually stopping completely. In 2008, his research using mathematical modelling showed that greyhounds and race horses reached their potential between 1940 and 1970 (horses in 1949), but that men have not yet reached the plateau. He calculated the fastest possible time for men's 100 meters to be 9.48 seconds, just under Usain Bolt's current record.


Reza Noubary, of Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania calculated the ultimate record 100 meter to be 9.44 prior to Bolt's recent record setting, but acknowledged the need to rework the model.


Tatsuo Tabata of the Japanese Institute for Data Evaluation and Analysis found 9.45, but expressed that Bolt's performance “seems to defy simple curve fitting,” referring to the model formulated with a century of data. Prior to Bolt, the model had successfully predicted the progression of speed for the 100-meters race, but it did not predict reaching 9.69 until 2030.


However, Abbe Brady, a sports scientist at the University of Gloucestershire explains that though the human body may hit its plateau in this sense, new and improved training techniques may continue to push these limits.


Limitations of the Body


Though the human body functions in complex and miraculous ways, and is capable of many amazing things, there are limits to what even the most exceptional people can accomplish. For instance, the most basic requirements to sustaining human life are food, water, sleep, and air. Each of these is necessary to continue living.


Though we often think of the body going into starvation mode after a few days without food, the human body can survive for extended periods without food. We become dehydrated after just a few days without water, and death is likely in the range of several days to a few weeks. But looking back into history, there is evidence of exceptions to these limits.


For example, Ram Bahadur Bomjon of Nepal, dubbed “Buddha Boy” spent 8 months meditating beneath a tree allegedly without food or water, accomplishing feats of “inedia,” or fasting, in 2005. Though these claims are unsubstantiated by science, there are other examples of people living without food. Prahlad Jani of India also called “Mataji” claims to have lived without food and water since 1940, which was confirmed by hospitals, but not in a peer-reviewed study.


David Blaine - This endurance artist has set many records. In November 2000 he stayed in a box of ice for 63 hours, 42 minutes and 15 seconds in New York City's Times Square. From September 5 to October 9, 2003 he was suspended in a transparent box over the river Thames in London and went without food for 44 days, surviving only on water.


Ngoc Thai, a 66 year-old from Vietnam, claims to have gone 33 years without sleep, suffering from extreme insomnia that resists medication. Medicine can allow people to go without sleeping for extended periods, such as in the case of Michael Jackson. Cases such as these make you wonder, will it ever be possible for humans to not require sleep?


Even breathing, one of the most basic signs of life, can be conquered. Denmark's Stig Severinsen held his breath underwater for 22 minutes in April 2010, and holds the current world record in this category.


Each of these feats of human ability may show that our body's capacity may be greater than we believe. The human body could potentially achieve the impossible, even in regards to strength, endurance, and extremes.


Take, for example, Dean Karnazes, Ultramarathon Man, who specializes in ultramarathons (races with extreme distances, commonly 50 kilometers). Karnazes is famous for running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days in 2006 – and after finishing, ran from New York City to St. Charles, Missouri. The time of the both the men's and women's marathons have also shown a continuous decline.


Top 10 Men's Marathon Times



Time Athlete Country Date Location

2h03:23 Wilson Kipsang Kenya 29 September 2013 Berlin

2h03:38 Patrick Makau Kenya 25 September 2011 Berlin

2h03:45 Dennis Kimetto Kenya 13 October 2013 Chicago

2h03:52 Emmanuel Mutai Kenya 13 October 2013 Chicago

2h03:59 Haile Gebrselassie Ethiopia 28 September 2008 Berlin

2h04:05 Eliud Kipchoge Kenya 29 September 2013 Berlin

2h04:15 Geoffrey Mutai Kenya 9 September 2012 Berlin

2h04:23 Ayele Abshero Ethiopia 27 January 2012 Dubai

2h04:27 Duncan Kibet Kenya 5 April 2009 Rotterdam

2h04:27 James Kwambai Kenya 5 April 2009 Rotterdam

(Source: Wikipedia)


Top 10 Women's Marathon Times

Time Athlete Country Date Location

2h15:25 Paula Radcliffe United Kingdom 13 April 2003 London

2h18:20 Liliya Shobukhova Russia 9 October 2011 Chicago

2h18:37 Mary Keitany Kenya 22 April 2012 London

2h18:47 Catherine Ndereba Kenya 7 October 2001 Chicago

2h18:58 Tiki Gelana Ethiopia 15 April 2012 Rotterdam

2h19:12 Mizuki Noguchi Japan 25 September 2005 Berlin

2h19:19 Irina Mikitenko Germany 28 September 2008 Berlin

2h19:31 Aselefech Mergia Ethiopia 27 January 2012 Dubai

2h19:34 Lucy Kabuu Kenya 27 January 2012 Dubai

2h19:36 Deena Kastor United States 23 April 2006 London

(Source: Wikipedia)


Fauja Singh (100) became the first centenarian to complete a marathon, the Toronto Waterfront Marathon on 16 October 2011 with a time of 8:11:5.9, making him the oldest marathoner. Because he could not produce a birth certificate his age could not be verified and his record was not accepted by the official governing body World Masters Athletics.


The Tarahumara people, an indigenous tribe of Mexico, are the subject of the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. The Tarahumara are known for their remarkable endurance running, regularly traveling distances of up to 200 miles over two days as a form of persistence hunting.


“Iceman” Wim Hof of the Netherlands is known for his ability to overcome the limits of the body, and holds 20 world records, including the record for longest time immersed in ice, with 1 hour, 52 minutes, 42 seconds in 2011.


Limitations of the Mind


The human brain is incredibly powerful and not yet fully understood. A pervasive myth states that we use only 10% of our brains. This is not exactly true, as brain scans (including MRI and PET) have shown that humans use all parts of the brain, but some parts are more active than others.


Lord Martin Rees, President of The Royal Society on the limits of the brain: “A 'true' fundamental theory of the universe may exist but could be just too hard for human brains to grasp. Just as a fish may be barely aware of the medium in which it lives and swims, so the microstructure of empty space could be far too complex for unaided human brains.

“Some aspects of reality – a unified theory of physics or a full understanding of consciousness – might elude us simply because they're beyond human brains, just as surely as Einstein's ideas would baffle of chimpanzee.” (2010)


Alternatively, BBC science presenter Dr. Brian Cox gave his own opinion: “The idea that certain things are beyond us is quite a bleak one and history does show that we can eventually overcome the most difficult of problems.” (2010)


IQ – or intelligence quotient, is a test used to assess intelligence, designed so that the average score is 100. The Flynn Effect shows that IQ scores have increased significantly on average since the 1930s. Tests are revised regularly, because the average scores rise over time. Some suggest that improved nutrition and better education, such as preschool, have caused people to become smarter over time, as the change is too rapid for the cause to be genetic selection.


People with the Highest IQ in the World


Name IQ Nationality

1 Terrence Tao 230 Australia/US 2 Christopher Hirata 225 Japan / US 3 Kim Ung Yong 210 South Korea 4 Evangelos Katsioulis 198 Greece 5 Rick Rosner 192 US



The end of progression?


The Flynn Effect may have come to an end in recent years. A 2004 study led by Jon Martin Sundet found that the increasing scores stopped in the mid-1990s after slowing gradually. A 2009 study on teenagers in the UK showed a two-point drop in the IQ of an average 14-year-old between 1980 and 2008. Psychologist John Raven explained “IQ is influenced by multiple factors that can be dependent upon culture, but the norms tend to be very similar across cultures even in societies that have no access to computers and television. What we do see is that IQ changes dramatically over time.” (2009). Others have pointed to computers and video games, a decrease in leisure reading, and changes in teaching methods as potential explanations for the change. Another study predicts a drop of 1.34 IQ points on average per decade among young people.


Overcoming Limitations

Humans have evolved to what we are today not because we embraced our limitations, but because we kept pushing and adapting, ignoring the limits imposed upon us by our minds and our bodies. This points to the idea that human limitations are subjective, moving outward as our understanding and perception of them increases.


Mind Over Matter

The human mind is a powerful tool that can be used to overcome limitations. Achieving a particular mental state can enable humans to endure pain or give us superhuman abilities. This state is often referred to as nonduality or oneness. Developing a sort of “mental toughness” can have many practical applications, and is used by yogis, Navy Seals, and elite athletes to overcome mental and sometimes physical limitations when it comes to strength and endurance in combination with physical training. In the case of martial artists, it can be used to overcome physical pain.


Meditation can even transform the body and the mind. A recent study by NYU's Zoran Josipovic examined fMRI brain scans of monks during meditation. Dr. Josipovic discovered that the brains of experienced meditators reorganize themselves during meditation. Brain organization falls into two categories – the extrinsic network and the default network. The extrinsic network is used during external tasks, while the default network is the contemplative, internal matters.


"Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimize in a way we didn't know previously was possible." - Zoran Josipovic


In the same way, mental exercises such as hypnosis have been used to place the mind into a psychological state, which can create a sense of heightened focus or can be used to overcome physical pain, psychological problems, addictions, and fears. Hypnosis is also used to improve athletic performances, by breaking down mental barriers.


Practice Makes Perfect?


Is being exceptional in our genes or can it be created? This controversial question ultimately boils down to the “nature vs. nurture” debate – and the answer is usually summed up as “a little bit of both.”


Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers: The Story of Success (2008) looks at successful people and the factors that made them that way, including the Beatles and Bill Gates. Gladwell examined how intelligence can manifest itself in different ways – a genius can become very successful or not, depending on their circumstances and whether or not they had the right tools and people to help them achieve greatness. He found that, in addition to innate talent, success requires many hours of preparation, practice, and training, which may be more important than in-born talent.


Gladwell looked at the key to success as researched by Anders Ericsson's The Making of an Expert

which claimed that to become successful, you must first practice for an average of 10,000 hours, which is known as the 10,000-hour rule. It's not that 10,000 is a magic number, it's more that dedicating 20 hours per week to a passion can allow someone to achieve greatness in about 10 years (especially for many geniuses in history, who began studying their subjects from a young age). This would suggest that in cognitively demanding fields, there are no “naturals.”


Another piece by Herbert Simon and William Chase explained: “There are no instant experts in chess – certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade's intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions”


A 2007 study by Guillermo Campitelli and Fernand Gobet looked at 104 competitive chess players and found that the average time to become a chess “master” was 11,000 hours. Similarly, Robert Howard (University of New South Wales) found that of 8 grandmasters, the average high ranking came after 14,000 hours of practice, while the famous Polgar sisters averaged 50,000 hours to become grandmasters.


In David Epstein's book The Sports Gene, (2013) the author points out that the 10,000-hour rule does not always apply, and that some people have innate talent and require much less training or practice. To test the 10,000-hour theory, Dan McLaughlin took up golf in 2010 – which he'd never played before – and has dedicated himself to practicing for 10,000 hours in hopes of qualifying for a PGA Tour in 2016.


Other studies do not support the rule. Zach Hambrick published a study in Intelligence that compiled data from 14 studies of elite-status chess players and musicians. He found that musicians had 30% of variance in their rankings related to the amount of time they spent practicing; for chess players, that number was 34%. Hambrick summarizes, “The silver lining here is that if people are given an accurate idea of their abilities, they can select activities where they actually have a realistic chance of becoming expert through deliberate practice.”


Are geniuses born or made? Is a genius like Albert Einstein or Thomas Alva Edison born or made? Edison famously said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration!”


Scott Barry Kaufman, Assistant Professor of psychology at New York University noted “Everyone can’t be a genius in everything,” he says. “But I’m coming around to the idea that every single person has the potential for genius in something.”(2013)


Science and Technology


Top 10 Inventions that have Changed the World and helped human beings transcend limitations of locomotion, communication, industrial production, health and geography

10. The wheel 9. The nail 8. The compass 7. The printing press 6. The internal combustion engine 5. The telephone 4. The lightbulb 3. Penicillin 2. Contraceptives 1. The internet



The other major factor in surpassing human limitation is the use of science and technology to assist or take over many functions, potentially allowing humans to surpass any form of limitation. In the age of Google and every piece of information at our fingertips, it is no longer necessary to retain the information that we used to. We are able to use computers and the internet as external storage for our braints.


There are many inspirational cases of extraordinary people living with physical or mental limitations that have been able to overcome them thanks to science and technology, including Stephen Hawking, one of the world's leading scientists despite suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis/Motor Neurone disease speaks using an artificial voice generated through a computer program

and Oscar Pistorius – who has made Olympic history as the first amputee to win a world track medal.


Medical breakthroughs have occurred to eradicate many diseases, build artificial joints and limbs and even exoskeletons, transplant or even grow new organs, instal pacemakers, and have allowed many people to live longer, healthier lives. Vaccines have wiped out many diseases, and cures will likely be found for medical conditions such as cancer and HIV. Biotechnology, or technology applied to the human body can alter human characteristics. Human Enhancement Technologies can also be used to increase capacities beyond current human range, taking charge of human evolution.


Reproduction is another area in which medicine has made drastic changes to human limitation, with in vitro fertilization assisting women in conceiving and allowing even older women the ability to have children. Prenatal testing, including chrorionic villus sampling, amniocentesis, and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) are used to to learn whether a fetus has certain genetic diseases such as Down's Syndrome, Gaucher's, cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs disease, early-onset Alzheimer's, as well as disease propensity like the BRCA1 (breast cancer genes).


Pushed to the next step, tests such as these can be used to select for certain traits and characteristics. Parents of children with a particular disease can choose an embryo to have a baby with matching tissue types, so the umbilical cord blood can be used to treat their sick child. This points to the potential for engineering embryos.


A biotechnology firm called Chromos grows artificial chromosomes, which can be made with whatever modifications they choose. For example, someone with a medical issue like sickle-cell anemia can get artificial chromosomes with the correct copy of the malfunctioning gene. Advances like this could mean a disease-free future. Gene therapy could be used by athletes to improve performance beyond what is currently humanly possible.


Consequences and Problems of Overcoming Human Limitations


With all the potential for science and technology to allow humans to surpass current limitations, the question comes up: How far will it go? And how far is too far?


The ethics of using science and technology to fight nature are in question. Ethicists generally agree that matching tissue within families is ethical and an acceptable use of science. Of course, when doctors are able to prevent suffering and extend lives, the ethical standpoint will often allow it. But as our world progresses and becomes more used to science altering humans, even the views on eugenics are evolving as people become more comfortable with the idea, little by little moving toward it.


At its extreme, this type of meddling with nature can become a form of eugenics, or accelerated selection. The concept of eugenics dates back even to the ancient Romans and Greeks, who sometimes killed weak or deformed babies. This is incredibly dangerous, as we've seen in history, as it can lead to genetic cleansing and genocide, as in the case of the Holocaust. It could also widen the inequality gap between socioeconomic groups, as the technologies may only be available to the rich or elite. Another danger is the creation of identity issues that come with extreme changes in personality of appearance, as is sometimes seen in people who undergo cosmetic surgery. And at this extreme, there becomes a certain transhumanism, and the creation of a genetic dystopian society.


Advancements in weapons can also have devastating effects when those in power use them for evil. Another consequence of these advancements that we've already seen is the detrimental effect on the Earth, and ecocide.


Science and technology will also have an effect on sports – and already has in regards to performance enhancing drugs, which have riddled athletic events, most notably competitive cycling. As technology advances, or medical methods such as gene therapy, sports regulations will change and adapt to address them. In regards to gene therapy use, Peter Weyand explained, “You could see really freakish things and we probably will."


For the Olympic games, the International Olympic Committee and regulatory authorities will help determine how fast athletes will ever run based on the types of advanced biotechnologies allowed in competition. "It’s kind of an arms race with the regulators of the sport and the people trying to push the technology to the limits. At some point here there must be a détente where technology can’t push us any further and the rules will restrict it." - John Hutchinson of the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London. (2008)

Endless Possibilities


Will humans eventually be able to surpass any perceived limitations? The accelerating rate of progress seems to point to yes, with all the incredible inventions, social and scientific breakthroughs, and exceptional people throughout our history. These people who have the right mix of excellence, passion and motivation, have pushed through limitations to advance our world and our abilities and help us realize that the impossible just might be possible.



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