A movement on the rooftop. Soft running footsteps, and then suddenly he’s there, a man dressed in red, like the devil himself, Daredevil to be more exact. The guardian of Hell’s Kitchen cannot see, at least not like you or we can, but that does not stop him from defending the neighborhood he loves and fighting for justice in a world full of gods and super soldiers. With the hit Netflix Marvel series returning this weekend for its second season, we here at The NYRD thought it would be a good time to blindly dive into the science of Daredevil and the differently-abled -pun intended.
The Man Without Fear (or Sight)
The accident that left Matt Murdock blind also gave him heightened senses, but Daredevil is not alone in this phenomena and most blind people don’t need chemical waste to sharpen their other senses. It comes down to simple brain chemistry. Our brains are magnificent pieces of equipment that adapt and change to help us survive. It is not so much that blind people learn to use their other senses better, but that the brain actually rewires itself to compensate for the loss. This is called cross-modal neuroplasticity, but that’s just a fancy way of saying that your brain finds ways to use your other senses more efficiently. In some ways it is similar to the condition known as synesthesia, which is when the input from one sense triggers another sense automatically, such as how some people can hear a color, or taste a sound.
Tests conducted in Canada found that blindfolded individuals could identify more layers of harmonicity in music notes than their non-blindfolded counterparts, even only after a few minutes without vision. Another study recently published in The Journal of Neuroscience, gives functional MRI evidence that people who are born deaf still use the parts of their brain that normally process sounds, called Heschl’s gyrus. Instead of processing sound, however, they use those areas to instead process other stimuli like taste or touch, almost literally hearing the world through another sense. Blind people like Daredevil also experience the world differently. Their visual cortex is still active only it becomes used to process information from things like sound and even smells. . All of this amounts to what many might a real-life superpower, but don’t crack open the mask and devil horns just yet.
Unfortunately -and despite the incredible capabilities of the human brain- there are limits to our brain plasticity. Being born deaf or blind, or becoming differently-abled at an early age -like Matt Murdock- gives a person their best chance of adapting to the condition. Brains are more pliable in youth, especially during particularly sensitive periods of development, like language acquisition. However, adults have a harder time adapting. Certain pathways have already been formed and experiences have already been learned. The truth is that neuroplasticity only goes so far, and the enhanced senses of Daredevil are still well beyond the capability of any human brain. His “sight” is very much an invention of comic books, but that does not mean that many real-life differently-abled individuals are not extraordinary in their own ways.
Blind as a Batfleck
Daniel Kish, has been blind since he was a baby, but that has not stopped him from doing things like hiking and even riding a bike. If we are looking for a real-world equivilant of Daredevil than Daniel might fit the bill. Through a technique of clicking his tongue, Daniel is able to use a process of echolocation that is similair to that of a bat. This kind of power was portrayed poorly by Ben Affleck in the 2004 flop, Daredevil, where Murdock is able to bang objects or use the rain to “see” the world around him. Daniel, however, does not throw pots at the wall every time he needs to find a doorway.
There are two types of echolocation, active and passive, and even sighted people employ its use in their day to day lives. Hearing footsteps growing louder, or sensing that there is a wall in front of you in a darkened room can all be forms of passive echolocation. The human brain is wired to interpret sound vibrations spatially. It is part of the reason why we have two ears placed on different sides of our head. Our brains naturally take in the sound around us, and then use the information from each ear to determine certain factors, like location, proximity and even size of the object we are hearing. In other words, if a car is coming at us on our left side, our left ear will hear it at a slightly louder volume than our right ear. Due to the Doppler effect, the car will sound progressively higher-pitched as it approaches and then lower-pitched as it travels further away from the observer. The brain then uses all that information to place the object in our mental landscape. People like Daniel Kish and Matt Murdock use this technique, except they don’t always wait for the world to give them a passive sound to do so. Instead, they make their own.
Human echolocation has been formally studied since at least the 1950s, and those that employ it have the ability to detect objects in their environment by sensing the echoes which bounce back to them, often by tapping a cane or making clicking noises with their mouths, as is the case with Daniel Kish. Differently-abled people with this ability have likely rewired their brains to actually interpret sound waves reflected by nearby objects, allowing them to orient themselves in a world they cannot see through typical human means. It has been inferred, and even outright stated, over the years that Daredevil “sees” very similiar to this technique, whether it be the sonar of Ben Affleck or the “world on fire” explanation that we get in the new Netflix series.
The Kingpin of Perception
A lot of this comes down to our own personal perceptions of the world. As sighted humans we put a lot of emphasis on out ability to see, sometimes at the determent of our other senses. “Seeing is believe,” “eye witness,” and “stop looking while I use the urinal,” are all common sayings that we hear daily at The NYRD office. When we think about the world we often do it through visual terms, even memories are often “visualized” in our minds as pictures or moving images, but human sight is remarkably limited. Only a miniscule fraction of light waves are perceptible to our eyes. For instance, snakes are capable of seeing infrared spectrum light, and many game animals can see ultraviolet light. Going beyond sight, there are many creatures that experience the world -or even more of it- than your average human.
A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than our own, but their eyesight is weaker. They are animals that experience the world through their nostrils, and in many cases often more sharply than us and our eyes. According to James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, “If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well. As humans we like to prioritize our own experiences over the experiences of others -which also explains politics. We tend to extrapolate that the way we “perceive” the world is the universal way -that it is the “normal” way- to experience the world around us. Yet, that is so far from the truth it is almost laughable. Human eyesight isn’t even that great, just ask anyone who has to wear glasses. We can’t see into extreme spectrums of light, and there are literally colors that exist that we have never seen and will never see.
This brings us back to Daredevil. We often call what he experiences a superpower, but the truth is that it is just another way to experience the world. His perception of reality may not be the same as Daniel Kish’s or even yours, but it is no less or more limiting. In fact, Matt Murdock’s true superpower is not so much his ability to “see” differently, but his dedication to not allowing his lost visual sense to get him down. Instead, of giving up he trained himself to peak human condition through perseverance and crazy martial arts.
As superheroes in the Marvel Universe go, he is not a thunder god, or a raging green hulk monster. He does not get his powers from a robotic suit or a super soldier serum. His superpower only lets him see the world around him differently. Daredevil is a hero because he dedicates himself to being one. He didn’t give up, even when the world told him that he was different or “broken,” and in our opinion, there is no better analogy for what it truly means to live as a differently-abled person.
We would like to thank our expert consultant, Dr. Douglas Smith, MD, for his help on writing this article.