Superheros: based in Neuroscience

Lets talk superheros! We all wanted to be one as a child! Who didn’t want to have incredible strength, or the ability to read minds let alone dashing good looks. But can super heroes truly exist? Are some of the childhood struggles that superman deals with in “The Man of Steel” at all possible (link to video attached)? Is his strength and imperviousness a true possibility? Could someone ever read minds like Dr. Xavier? Below I discuss whether or not any of these powers would at all be possible, and even suggest what a certain power may look like in the brain if it was at all possible.

Question 1: Can you have X-ray vision?

X-rays have a wavelength roughly ranging from .01 to 10 nanometers. The human eye can detect a visible range of 390-700 nanometers. So the answer to that question is most likely no. However, some animals can see infrared or ultraviolet. These types of light have wave lengths of 700nm-1mm and 390nm to 10nm respectively. For instance, goldfish supposedly see ultraviolet light and snakes sense using infrared radiation. Furthermore, humans have constructed technology that allows us to view these wavelengths, so could you potentially make glasses allowing you to see in X-ray vision, sure, but that technology is still some time down the road.

Question 2: Is super human strength possible?

There have been cases, albeit rare, where mothers have lifted or pushed full cars off their children. This excessive strength comes from adrenaline. A study done by Corkill and Tiegs, (1933) showed that sympathetic nerve stimulation increased the strength of contraction in frog leg muscles. They claim that this effect can also be imitated by adrenaline. However, adrenaline is used up relatively quickly, and taxes the body immensely. Continued longterm use of adrenaline would surely have disastrous consequences.  Epinephrine has shown to act as a anesthetizing agent. Research by Ryo, Yuka, Saori, Shizuka, and Masahiro, (2009) concluded that epinephrine and a 2% lidocaine solution increased pressure pain thresholds and touch thresholds. So conceivably, an individual loaded with epinephrine might have less pain, however that doesn’t stop one from smashing through buildings unscathed.

Finally, Question 3: is telepathy real?

Dr. Xavier has a nach for getting inside people’s heads. He could convince them to do certain things, or think certain ways. But is something like this possible? After looking at research, I could not find many articles that related to this idea of telepathy. For those articles that attempted to define it, most dismissed the idea. Although telepathy would be cool it seems highly unlikely.

Suppose it was possible though. How would it look in a human brain. My guess is that stimulation would occur in areas of the brain where unconscious processes take place, like deep in the midbrain. However, with telepathy being a sort of communication, I would also expect to see stimulation in language processing areas in relation to both speech and comprehension. Areas like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area would be highly stimulated. Furthermore, I would also suspect frontal lobe activation if one was trying to telepathically communicate a course of action or an idea.

Overall, and much to the disappointment of many, the power of superheroes is outside our grasp. Although one could be super for a split second, we are all for the most part human with pretty normal brain activation, communication, and sensory abilities.

Superman video:


Corkill, A. B., & Tiegs, D. W. (1933). The effect of sympathetic nerve stimulation on the power of contraction in skeletal muscle. The Journal Of Physiology78161-186.

Wakita, R., Oono, Y., Oogami, S., Hayashi, S., & Umino, M. (2009). The relation between epinephrine concentration and the anesthetic effect of lidocaine iontophoresis. Pain Practice9(2), 115-121. doi:10.1111/j.1533-2500.2008.00252.x


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