Did you hear on the grapevine? Believe nothing of what you hear, and only half of what you see. It’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop, because children should be seen and not heard. Now hear this! You should ask no questions, and hear no lies – after all, hear no evil. I might just be talking to hear my own voice, but I won’t hear a word against it!
We’re going to talk about superhearoes. And it’s quickly getting to the point where ‘hear’ doesn’t even look like a real word.
Superhearing is self-explanatory: being able to hear better than average. Like superspeed, it’s one of those powers that tend to get lumped in with twenty other very powerful abilities (Superman, Wolverine, etc.). The most popular hero we’ve got recently who can superhear goes by the name of Daredevil. Wonder Woman, among a dozen other things, also utilizes superhearing to tie up the bad guys with her lasso of truth.
A little history. Daredevil first came to us in 1964, and is the most prominent blind superhero that we have. He wasn’t born with his powers, but instead was splashed by a vague radioactive that rendered him blind. His other senses were also enhanced. In true superhero fashion, he was spurred into superhero action after his father was killed and donned the red hood to fight crime via vigilantism and the law. Oh, he’s also a lawyer.
Wonder Woman is a little earlier, first published in 1941. Her origin story is more complicated than Daredevil’s. To put it in general terms, Wonder Woman is a goddess – no, really, she’s the daughter of Greek gods. She rules as the goddess of war over the Amazons and serves in the Justice League. Not only is she still incredibly powerful, she has a number of useful items at her disposal, similar to Batman: bulletproof bracelets and the Lasso of Truth are the most common.
History out of the way, what do we know about superhearing? Let’s start with hearing and tack on the ‘super’ later.
We hear via vibrations. Sound waves enter our ear canal and they’re passed along the eardrum, middle ear bones, and onto the inner ear. It then enters the snail inside of our heads and reach the tiny hairs inside. From there, those tiny hair cells send electrical signals to the part of our brain that registers sound.
(And maybe turn down your music every once in a while. If you always play it too high, you can bend those hair cells and they won’t work anymore. –Your Mom)
OK, that’s how hearing works. But do you remember hearing that people who have lost one sense usually have other advanced senses? How does that work?
When we say that blind people can hear better, what do we mean by ‘better’? Longer distances? More sounds?
Short answer: yes and no.
There was a study done that separated people into three parts: ‘fully sighted’, ‘early blind’ (blind during the first two years of their life), or ‘late blind’ (blind later in life). Two tones were played, one after the other. Then, the subjects had to answer whether the second tone was lower or higher than the first. The results? People who were ‘early blind’ could make accurate distinctions, whereas there wasn’t any difference between ‘late blind’ and ‘fully sighted’ subjects.
Another completed study found that blind people can comprehend human speech much more quickly than sighted people. At our maximum, we can understand about ten syllables per second. The study found that blind people could comprehend speech at about twenty five syllables per second. I’ll link an article that gives an example of a recording at only sixteen syllables per second, and it’s incredible to think about people understanding that, much less twenty five syllables per second.
But why does this happen? Daredevil would fall into the ‘late blind’ category, but why can blind people in general hear so much better than sighted people?
In short, it’s more than a conscious decision to listen better. Not every part of the brain is able to ‘rewire’ itself at will, but certain parts are entirely capable. For the blind, the visual cortex is utilized by other senses. Sometimes, this can only take place at certain times in an individual time in someone’s life – hence why it would be easier for someone who was ‘early blind’ to rewire than ‘late blind’.
Now, superheroes like Daredevil use superhearing in a number of ways – one of the cleverer ways is behaving like a human polygraph. Daredevil, thanks to the irradiated sludge splashed on him, was able to hear quick heartbeats and faster breathing. That enabled him to determine whether or not someone was lying.
So, how accurate is it?
Figures hover roughly from 70-90 percent accuracy. Not terrible, but certainly not foolproof, especially where the law is concerned.
The problem with polygraphs is that they only test autonomic responses – sweating really bad, your heart beating really fast, your breathing increasing. You can imagine where there might be situations where someone is nervous, or finds a way to beat the polygraph test. Daredevil’s ‘I could hear their heartbeat and it was pretty fast I guess, but I’m not a doctor’ probably wouldn’t stand up in court.
While I’m talking about polygraphs, here’s an interesting little fact you’d probably find underneath a Snapple cap: the inventor of the polygraph, William Marston, also created Wonder Woman. Upon seeing how popular Superman and Batman became, he was inspired to create Wonder Woman under the names Charles Moulton! He was a psychologist, lawyer, inventor, and overall a supporter of women’s rights: pretty cool guy! So don’t ever tell yourself you can’t create comic book’s most lasting female character and a better-than-average lie detector at the same time.
So, that’s all cool, but Wonder Woman and Daredevil can both hear far? What can hear far?
Owls. It’s obvious why they have such good hearing – when you’re a flying creature listening for a tiny rustling mouse, you need to hear it. It’s not so much that they have a massive frequency that they can listen to, but there are certain sounds that are much more sensitive to owl ears. What really makes them special, though, is ear asymmetry.
Go look in a mirror right now and give your eyes a rest from a screen. You’ll notice that your ears are mostly symmetrical. Owls’ ear openings (apertures) are such that a sound will hit one ear first. This means that they can localize a sound. If a sound hits their left ear first, they know a creature is to the left. If they turn their head slightly left and the sound hits both ears at the same time, then the creature is right in front of them. This also works on the vertical plane!
It’s more than just ear anatomy, however. The piece of brain that is related to hearing, the medulla, is incredibly complex. It helps with making a mental image for the owl to piece together where dinner is!
So maybe Wonder Woman or Daredevil could hear a little better if their ears were just a little more lopsided.
Daredevil is definitely the most prominent superhero with superhearing, but Wonder Woman also has the same power and a connection to the science behind it through her creator! While they are both given the vague ‘born with it’ or ‘radioactive sludge’ explanation behind the powers, we can see awesome hearing abilities in our real life.
Those with early blindness have the ability to distinguish pitch much better than those with late blindness or full sight, as well as being able to understand an incredible amount of syllables per second. If you’re not that fussy about accuracy, superhearing could also be used as a makeshift polygraph test. And in terms of being able to hear far, owls definitely have us beat with their asymmetrical apertures (which isn’t a bad band name).
Senses are really cool to think about, as it’s literally the study of how we realize the world. How what we see, smell, touch, taste, and hear is transmitted into our thoughts so we can make observations, do analyses, make buildings, paint a picture, whatever! Supersense superheroes actually are really cool, as it pushes the bounds of human understanding further. It urges us to open our minds beyond to what we do see, and imagine what we could see.
Marvel History, marvel.com
Daredevil Visual History, Variant Comics
Wonder Woman –
Wonder Woman History, dccomics.com
Wonder Woman Visual History, Variant Comics
How to Hear –
How We Hear, asha.org
Blindness & Hearing –
Pitch Study, sciencedaily.com
Sound Localization Study, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
Speech Processing Study, scientificamerican.com
Cross-model Plasticity Evidence, scientificamerican.com
Lie Detectors –
Truth about Lie Detectors, apa.org
Do Lie Detectors Work?, psychologytoday.com
Inventor of the Lie Detector, biography.com
Owl Ear Anatomy, eraptors.org
Hearing Localization, owlpages.com
Barn Owl Hearing Sensitivity, owlpages.com