There are many factual inaccuracies when people talk about redheads. Stereotypes have been perpetuated about redheads throughout history: they are fiery and aggressive, they are unlucky, they are practitioners of witchcraft. Ultimately, they are unfounded myths about people with red hair. These myths have often ostracized people, but, more recently, some scientific misunderstandings have led to a more positive misunderstanding: the idea that red hair comes with "genetic superpowers." People with naturally auburn or ginger hair can boast certain characteristic distinctions, but according to scientific research, redheads can't exactly run out and join the X-Men.
While theirs is the rarest of all hair colors, redheads still make up a significant portion of the world’s population, so let's take a minute to run through some ways being a redhead is more complex than simply having incarnadine hair. These are interesting notes, many of which have been oversimplified or misunderstood to create the impression that the color is tied to remarkable abilities.
*Editor's Note: We've corrected a previous version of this article, which incorrectly claimed redheads have genetic superpowers. Read the updated version below.
The scientific community knows how people develop red hair; those with naturally red hair exhibit a recessive version of the gene melanocortin-1 (MC1R), which when the recessive gene is expressed it causes that person’s body to not produce eumelanin, a pigment that darkens a person’s hair color, skin color, and eye color. Without eumelanin, the body instead expresses pheomelanin as the dominant pigment causing a person’s hair to be red and their skin to be lighter than those with the dominant gene.
This genetic mutation isn't thought to be same for all people with red hair, however. Some in the scientific community believe some people of African descent have red hair due to a form of ablinism, which too is caused by a genetic mutation, but not the same as those from Caucasian descent. This form of albinism is called rufous albinism, and it's caused by a mutation in the TYRP1 gene. In most people, the TYRP1 gene produces enzymes which regulate melanin production, but for those with the mutated TYRP1 gene, melanin doesn't get produced thus creating red hair and light-colored skin.
In recent years the MC1R gene has been thought to affect the way people perceive pain. The melanocortin 1 receptor is found in the midbrain close in proximity to where pain perception is regulated. Scientists have wondered whether or not the presence of this recessive gene rather than it’s dominant alternative changes how a person perceives pain.
In 2004, anesthesiologist Daniel Sessler and his team from Louisville University conducted a study to test if people with the recessive melanocortin 1 receptor gene required the same amount of anesthetic compared to those with darker hair. The researchers found those with red hair required 19% more anesthetic than brunettes.
This study, however, indirectly contradicts a study conducted by Jeffrey Mogil and his team at McGill University, who researched if redheads were more receptive to pain killers where he found that redheaded women were indeed responded better to pain killing medications.
The contrast between the studies does present a greater question, however, how should they be interpreted together? Mogil can’t reconcile the data. “There’s no obvious way to reconcile the data, to be honest, and that’s always been disappointing to people,” Mogil said, “I know it’s frustrating to redheads, who would like to know whether they are more or less sensitive [to pain], and that’s still unclear.”
Others however have come to another conclusion; though these studies aren’t clear whether or not redheads feel more or less pain, some people suggest they may show redheads perceive pain differently than others.
Because redheadedness is genetic, everyone around the world can potentially exhibit the recessive gene but especially more so where the gene is most present. Anecdotally, it may seem like only people of Caucasian descent have red hair, but that’s also because there are statistically higher rates of people with the recessive MC1R gene in northern Europe than anywhere else in the world.
Redheads make up an estimated one to two percent of the world’s population but Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, among other countries in Northern Europe including Norway and Iceland, have a greater proportion of redheads. Furthermore, though the has a lower percentage of redheads compared to northern Europe, the United States has the largest estimated population of redheads numbering about 18 million.
Generally, because of this higher population and distribution of redheads in northern Europe and the United States, many people are led to believe redheads are only found in this region, but that isn’t the case.
Besides peoples in northern Europe, there are certain ethnic groups around the world who noticeably present the gene more often than others in similar regions, including the Berbers, Riffians, and Kabyles in Morocco and Algeria as well as Ashkhenazi Jews, due to global emigration from northern Europe.
Some scientists believe redheaded individuals are more acutely aware of extreme changes in temperature. Due to their MC1R gene and its association to the perception of pain, researchers have studied whether or not those with the recessive version of the gene are more or less tolerant to pain. Though studies have been inconclusive in that respect, a study from Louisville University did conclude redheaded people were more sensitive to temperature related pain. While the majority of people with darker hair reported to feeling pain from cold only when temperatures reached the freezing point, those with red hair reported pain when temperatures reached 6ºC (43ºF).
From this, some researchers have come to the conclusion that the MC1R gene may cause the temperature-sensing gene to become overactive and thus be more responsive to general changes in temperature.