The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 170 | The Science of Superpowers

Leaving Proof 170 | The Science of Superpowers
Published on Sunday, January 27, 2013 by
Comics and the classroom intersect in today’s piece on five superpowers and their parallels in the real world’s laboratories and clinics.

Superpowers are fascinating things. Not just from the obvious, “superpowers are awesome!” standpoint, but also because they provide us insight into the state of popular scientific knowledge at the time of their introduction in print—to paraphrase the third of famed science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s Three Laws of Prediction: “Any sufficiently advanced technology or exotic biological phenomenon is indistinguishable from a superpower.”

What follows is an examination of five superpowers that may have seemed to a comics writer or character designer to be powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men at the time of their creation twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, or sixty years ago, and how they stack up against contemporary findings and developments in various scientific fields. It isn’t this article’s intent to poke fun at the layman’s occasionally naïve perception of science and technology, of course. In their own way, science-based explanations of superpowers, no matter how misinformed or distorted, ultimately help dispel the idea that human societies are perpetually in need of intervention by an external, quasi-mystical agency to resolve their problems and conflicts. Rather, it is today’s Leaving Proof entry’s goal to show that science fact can be just as strange as—and indeed, even more intriguing than—superhero fiction, and that as silly as superhero comics might be to some people, the medium can nonetheless be tied to the appreciation of science and scientific research in the pop culture sphere.

The Superpower: Accelerated healing ability (a.k.a. “healing factor“)


Wolverine’s adamantium-laced skeleton might be unbreakable, but the ligaments, muscles, tendons, and other connective tissue that hold it together are still susceptible to tearing.

A relatively mundane power given that comics have guys who fly, shoot optic force beams, move things with their minds, and so forth. Largely associated with Marvel Comics’ Wolverine, it’s a popular ability as far as character designs go, also seen in characters like Deadpool, the Hulk (as a minor “retcon”), Sabretooth, the Lizard, Marrow, and to less of an extent Captain America and Spider-Man. The power’s variants range from the ability to regenerate whole organs and limbs in a matter of minutes (such as with Deadpool) to the capacity to recover slightly quicker than normal from non-lethal injuries (such as with Captain America).

The Reality: Mesenchymal stem cells can help with tissue regeneration

We’ve long known that certain vertebrates have powerful regenerative capabilities, but as far as humans go, we’re still a long way from being able to spontaneously grow back whole limbs after amputation the way amphibians such as the axolotl and certain species of newts can. Axolotls and newts can do this because they have the innate ability to regress adult cells at the limb amputation site to multipotential stem cells, and thus grow back their limbs much in the same way the original limb developed embryonically. Certain lizard species exhibit a similar, but much more limited mechanism to regrow portions of their tail.

Over the past decade however, great strides have been made by researchers in using transplanted mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) to promote bone regeneration in bone fractures and non-union bone defects in human subjects. The process and technology have progressed to such a degree that clinical trials involving the use of autologous MSC transplants to augment the healing of non-union, delayed union, and mal-union fractures of long bones have been completed.

The role and potential of MSC-based therapies extend beyond the treatment of fractures, of course, given MSCs’ ability to differentiate into multiple cell types. Already, advanced animal studies and even human clinical trials are underway that are investigating MSC-based treatments and tissue engineering solutions for myocardial infarcts, spinal cord injuries, stroke-related brain injuries, implant rejection, and more.

And here is a video of  University College London Chair of Laryngology Prof. Martin Birchall referencing Spider-Man and the Lizard in his discussion of the use of MSCs in tissue engineering. Geeky!

The Superpower: Imperviousness to physical pain

Another one for the “mundane superpower” list, this rather unspectacular ability—which arguably falls within what TV Tropes calls the “disability superpower” category—is a feature of the eponymous heroes in Sam Raimi’s Darkman and Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.’s Kick-Ass as well as the recent film version of the DC Comics villain Bane, to name but three of the most prominent characters to explicitly possess it. The character design logic, such as it is, goes that because these characters can’t feel pain or have a blunted sensitivity to pain, they are able to perform physical feats that would be just about impossible for the normal human being.

darkmanOf course, pretty much any super-strong, invulnerable, or super-fast character in comics possesses this ability to some degree, even if it is not specifically mentioned as part of their set of powers. Luke Cage can take multiple assault rifle rounds to the chest without flinching from the heat and pressure that they impart, Sebastian Shaw can laugh off a left cross from Colossus even if presumably it should still trigger his pain receptors, and Quicksilver doesn’t seem to feel the pain of the repeated rapid impact his feet make on pavement even as he runs at the speed of sound (never mind the pain he should feel from the build-up of lactic acid in his leg muscles). In these three cases and innumerable similar instances, the characters’ primary powers imply that they also have either a superhuman degree of tolerance to physical pain, or that they just don’t feel physical pain the way us ordinary, non-superpowered shlubs do.

The Reality: Congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP)

32-year old Washington native Steven Pete suffers from CIP (image credit: BBC)

Washington native Steven Pete suffers from CIP (image credit: BBC)

There exists a family of disorders collectively termed as congenital insensitivity to pain (CIP), also known as congenital analgesia. Individuals afflicted with this autosomal recessive condition have the normal complement of physical senses but they lack the ability to feel physical pain. While that sounds like the premise to a grounded, modern superhero story à la Unbreakable, the reality actually holds the potential for tragic complications.

Nociception, the ability of the nervous system to detect potentially damaging stimuli in the form of pain, is an integral aspect of how all animals develop and how they navigate and deal with their environments. All motile organisms learn strategies or have innate, evolved mechanisms to avoid or overcome objects and behaviors that cause them pain and potentially lead to physical damage. People born with CIP however, are at a distinct disadvantage in terms of learning to avoid damaging objects and dangerous behavior because they can’t feel pain. Take, for instance, the story of Steven Pete, who along with his late twin brother, was born with CIP. As he wrote for the BBC last year:

It first became apparent to my parents that something was wrong when I was four or five months old. I began chewing on my tongue while teething. They took me to a paediatrician where I underwent a series of tests. At first they put a cigarette lighter underneath my foot and waited for my skin to blister. Once they saw that I had no response to that then they began running needles up and down my spine. And since I had no response to either of those tests they came to the conclusion that I had what I have—congenital analgesia.

By which point, I had chewed off about a quarter of my tongue through teething.

We grew up on a farm. My mum and dad tried to be protective without stifling my brother and me. But when you’re out in the country, especially if you’re a boy, you’re going to go out and explore and get in a little mischief. So during my early childhood I was absent from school a lot due to injury and illness…

… When I was five or six years old, I was taken away from my home by child protective services. Someone had reported my parents for child abuse. I was in the state’s care for, I believe, two months. And during that time I broke my leg before they finally realised that my parents and the paediatrician were telling the truth about my condition.

… Internal injuries are the ones I fear the most. Appendicitis is what really scares me. Usually whenever I have any type of stomach issues or a fever I go to the hospital just to get it checked out. The last time I had a broken bone, my wife actually noticed before I did. My foot was swollen, black and blue, so I went to the doctor and had an X-ray and they told me that I had broken two of my toes and they wanted to put a cast on it.

… One of the things I’m going to have to face soon is the fact that I won’t have my left leg anymore. I’ve had quite a bit of surgery on my left knee in the past and it’s got to the point where my doctors have told me to wait until it gives out completely. Once that occurs they’re just going to have to amputate.

I really try not to think about it. I try not to let it get to me.

Below is a short American broadcast television feature on a young girl with CIP:

So what causes CIP? A study conducted in 2006 mapped one variant of the condition to three mutations in the gene SCN9A, which is responsible for coding for portions of the voltage-gated sodium channels in pain-sensing neurons. And while any sort of gene therapy-based cure for CIP seems to reside in the indeterminate future for now, CIP patients like Steven Pete who volunteer themselves for studies that further our understanding of pain and that will ultimately help in the development of better and safer analgesic medications for those of us who do feel pain are heroes in their own right.

The Superpower: “Radar sense”


Daredevil “sees” with some form of echolocation.

Comics’ “radar sense,” the ability to “see” the outline of objects via a variation of the echolocation sensory modality used by bats, toothed whales, and shrews is the trademark ability of Marvel Comics’ Daredevil but has also been associated with other characters like the X-Men’s Banshee and his daughter Siryn as well as DC Comics’ Man-Bat and (less commonly) Aquaman. Daredevil super-fan Christine Hanefalk, who runs The Other Murdock Papers, one of the best character-specific comic book fan sites on the web, has written a lot about the speculative features of Daredevil’s special ability in a continuing series of posts tagged “A history of the radar sense” (one of the more insightful ones being 2011’s “A history of the radar sense – present time”) and any discussion of the portrayal of superhero radar/sonar sense in comics should rightfully begin with Hanefalk’s intelligently-argued analyses and historical breakdowns (our way of saying that if you’re any sort of Daredevil fan, you should probably bookmark her site).

One thing Hanefalk does seem to neglect in her posts about the nature of the radar sense and its portrayal in print is the possibility, raised by the epistemologist Thomas Nagel in his 1974 essay What is it like to be a bat?, that the echolocation used by bats is such an alien means of sensation, with no direct analogue in human experience and physiology (as we’ll explain below), that any attempts to imagine it or describe it will fall well short of reflecting its reality.

The Reality: Human echolocation

While Nagel might be correct that any attempt to couch animal echolocation (or any alien perceptual or cognitive processes for that matter) in a way that transparently translates to human sensibility and experience is ultimately doomed to futility because of the current lack of a bridge to span the chasm between inter-species physiology and phenomenology, the limitations he brings up do not really apply to the experience of human echolocation (a.k.a. “flash sonar”) as utilized by certain blind individuals.

One of the most proficient users of human echolocation was the late Ben Underwood, who was so skilled at its use that he didn’t need a cane to negotiate his surroundings:

Human echolocation isn’t so much a “new” sense or even a manifestation of some sort of “super-hearing.” Despite the principles governing its mechanism being the same as the ones in animal echolocation, its neurological and physiological bases are actually quite different. What human echolocation demonstrates are the related phenomena of activity-dependent plasticity and neuroplasticity: the ability of the brain to adaptively rewire itself in response to activity-dependent functions and bodily injury. Studies have shown that blind people adept at echolocation don’t possess a sense of hearing that is significantly more acute than that found in individuals with normal vision. Human echolocators have a normal hearing range and their physical hearing apparatus is structurally unchanged. Instead, as demonstrated by Thaler, Arnott, and Goodale in a 2011 study published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, human echolocators actually utilize portions of their visual cortex (the part of the brain normally reserved for processing visual information) to help analyze the information they receive from the sounds and echoes they hear from their environment. In other words, their neural wiring and functioning have adapted to process sound information differently, devoting neural resources that would have normally been used for vision to the task of interpreting environmental sound data.

Bats, shrews, and toothed whales, by contrast, have specialized physical structures in their skulls for receiving echolocation feedback and they use a highly specialized auditory cortex (the part of the brain responsible for processing sound information) to process echolocation sensory data, thus obviating the need for remapping of the functions of the visual cortex.

The Superpower: Complex Human-Animal Communication

A superpower rooted in the pulp adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, the ability to have non-intelligent animals (or at least animals thought to be incapable of real language) understand and follow complex human language-based instructions has been manifested in superhero comics by characters such as Marvel’s Ka-Zar and DC Comics’ B’wana Beast and Vixen. DC villain Gorilla Grodd represents an inversion of that trope, wherein he has developed the ability to engage humans in spoken human language.

It's not what you think it is.

Get your mind out of the gutter, you.

The Reality: Apes using ASL… but do they really understand it?

As any person who has watched an episode of The Dog Whisperer has learned, animals can be taught to follow simple commands through the processes of classical conditioning and operant conditioning and perform acts that mimic intelligent behavior. In fact, most claims that some supposedly intelligent animal can understand human language can be debunked by classical and operant conditioning-based explanations as just an animal exhibiting conditioned responses to stimuli that it does not understand in a semantic sense.

There is at least one case of a chimpanzee supposedly learning the rudiments of American Sign Language (ASL) much in the same way human infants pick up a specific language from their milieu: not through a reward-based conditioning system, but through exposure and observation activating an innate capacity for organized and complex communication. The chimpanzee, Washoe, unlike many other great apes tested for the use of language, was raised from infancy in the company of humans and from the age of two had been placed in a home environment similar to that a human child would find itself in, to facilitate her social development and mirror the type of language-acquisition situation a deaf child would encounter. As psychologists Beatrix and Allen Gardner explain in the video below, Washoe did not only exhibit the ability to pair ASL signs with the proper objects, but like a deaf human child learning ASL, she also allegedly signed with a rudimentary but consistent syntax (i.e., functional word order) and was able to come up with novel syntactical constructions of her own:

In recent decades however, serious study of language acquisition in great apes has slackened. Subsequent scientists, using more rigorous and stringent experimental method designs, have been unable to replicate the results the Gardners achieved in their work with Washoe and at least within segments of the linguistics and cognitive science communities, the study of the so-called great ape language and the practice of training infant apes to use a mode of communication developed for humans is considered a pointless, perhaps even cruel, exercise in anthropomorphizing animal behavior that tells us precious little, if anything, about the development of human language, the cognitive capabilities of great apes, and how great apes actually communicate in nature. As the noted linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky remarked in an e-mail interview from 2007:

Matt Aames Cucchiaro: It seems that even after the numerous studies conducted in the 1970s—and well beyond—had clearly failed, the notion of chimps possibly learning language still persists. What do you think when researchers to this day, such as Susan Rumbaugh (ape trainer), claim that Bonobo chimps can draw signs and refer to it as language similar to humans’ ability?

Noam Chomsky: It’s all totally meaningless, so I don’t participate in the debate. Humans can be taught to do a fair imitation of the complex bee communication system. That is not of the slightest interest to bee scientists, who are rational, and understand something about science: they are interested in the nature of bees, and it is of no interest if some other organism can be trained to partially mimic some superficial aspects of the waggle dance. And one could of course not get a grant to teach grad students to behave like imperfect bees. When we turn to the study of humans, for some reason irrationality commonly prevails—possibly a reflection of old-fashioned dualism—and it is considered significant that apes (or birds, which tend to do much better) can be trained to mimic some superficial aspects of human language. But the same rational criteria should hold as in the case of bees and graduate students. Possibly training graduate students to mimic the waggle dance could teach us something about human capacity, though it’s unlikely. Similarly, it’s possible that training apes to do things with signs can teach us something about the cognitive capacities of apes. That’s the way the matter is approached by serious scientists, like Anne and David Premack. Others prefer to fool themselves.

The Superpower: Hourman’s Miraclo pill-induced “super-energy”


The Reality: YouTube videoes featuring tweakers tripping their balls off.

Seriously though, to read about how the US, the UK, and Nazi Germany governments tried to create super-soldiers using methamphetamines and how the “go pills” used by the US military during the Vietnam War might have contributed to friendly-fire incidents and crimes against civilians, check out last summer’s two-part article on Sports, Super-Soldiers, and PEDs.

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3 Responses
    • I’m Christine from The Other Murdock Papers, so first of all, thanks for the huge plug! What I would like to say is that I’m well familiar with Thomas Nagel and he gets a mention in a certain, more ambitious, project I’ve been working on related to Daredevil science. Though I’m not sure I necessarily agree with his position. ;) Having said that, I find the topic of qualia – especially as it pertains to echolocation – to be absolutely fascinating.

      I have written much more on the general topic of “Daredevil science” outside the series on the radar sense. In fact, it’s been mostly in my other science posts were I’ve discussed things in greater detail and offered more of my own opinions on what “should” work in order for Daredevil to be as believable as possible. For example, I am a big fan of imagining the radar sense as echolocation and have talked a bit about how having heightened hearing (though limited by physics!) might be helpful in this regard.

      All of my science posts can be found here.

      • Ah, I’ll be looking forward to reading your “ambitious project.” And yeah, Nagel’s position in his 1974 paper now seems just a little bit outmoded, given all we’ve learned about perception, cognition, and neuroscience in general since its publication.

        [shameless plug] BTW, if you have plans for applying the same incisive analysis you’ve applied to the sensory science of Daredevil to the “fight science” of everybody’s favorite blind lawyer, you can do worse than using our recent article on eskrima and comics as a starting point.[/shameless plug] Guro Dan Inosanto’s ideas of “the mother flow” and “sensitivity” of hand-to-hand combat, I think, works real well with the notion of DD using the totality of his senses to develop a naturalistic and intuitive fighting style informed by Stick’s teachings.

    • I’ll wait around for the Web Shooters:

      Web Shooters seem to be better than this Congenital Insensitivity to Pain that you write about. Sure, it might be handy to be able to take a hit to the face without flinching, but at the end of the day, you’re still getting punched in the face.

      Web Swinging, the aerobic skills that are needed to use the Web Shooters fully and funly, might take more perception than just the eyes. While probably not needing full on echolocation, it seems that you need more awareness than the eyes can provide. Like flying a fighter jet, some things need more perception than the eyes.


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