This post contains spoilers for Daredevil #14, so read the issue first! And you should, it was great!
“By the way, do you ever plan on giving us the promised “balance and proprioception” post? If it’s on the site, I can’t find it. I’ve used both search and the categories, as well as just going post by post for at least 10 times.”
My first reaction to this comment was “Wow, some people sure do seem to like reading the science posts as much as I like writing them,” followed by “Hm, I never did get to that post on proprioception, did I?” I was going to just let it wait until I start working on the Daredevil Science ebook I’ve been planning to write over the summer, but a particular panel from last week’s Daredevil #14 gave me the reason I needed to get to it right away.
So, what’s so special about this panel? Well as anyone who has read Daredevil #14 will know, Matt was infected with a very nasty strain of Latverian nanobots, programmed to completely take away his senses, and he ends the issue in a state of being more or less outpowered by Helen Keller (who, incidentally, was born exactly 122 years ago today).
In the panel above, we see Matt make a comment about losing his sense of touch, something he had also alluded to a few pages earlier. This panel is also a good reminder of the fact that while we often think of touch as being the tactile recognition of the outside world, we are also dependent on a form of “inner touch” to give us a sense of our general position and where the parts of our body are, relative each other. In this case, it is clear that our intrepid hero doesn’t feel the horse’s body pressing against his legs, nor does he have the sensation of his legs moving.
This sense of our own bodies is what is meant by the term proprioception, which originally comes from the Latin words proprius (“one’s own”) and capere (“to take).” The American Heritage Medical Dictionary defines proprioception as “The unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself.”
How is proprioception mediated?
While I won’t go into the sense of balance specifically (that will have to wait until the ebook), the vestibular system of the inner ear is a part of proprioception in a broader sense since it gives us information on how we are positioned relative to the planet we live on, as well as things like rotation, and acceleration.
Our sense of our movement, however, comes from nerve receptors in the muscles, tendons and joints. These are the muscle spindle, the Golgi tendon organ, and the Pascinian corpuscle. The latter is also present in the skin and in various internal organs. The muscle spindle is embedded in the muscle fiber and detects the length of the muscle. It’s also responsible for the stretch reflex. Golgi tendon organs are found in tendons, where the muscle attaches to the bone and senses muscle tension.
What happens when proprioception is lost?
It’s a well known phenomenon that spinal cord injuries lead to (varying degrees of) paralysis and loss of sensation below the level of injury. For this reason, it may seem natural to see motor function and touch sensation (including proprioception) as inextricably linked. However, there are scenarios in which a person may be unable to move, but have spared sensation (as is seen in people with ALS), or have normal motor function but lack normal sensation. Yes, cases such as Daredevil’s current predicament have been recorded, though it’s safe to say that nanobots have never previously been implicated in the process.
With or without nanobots, extreme cases of loss of touch and proprioception are exceedingly rare. One well-documented case, however, is that of Ian Waterman who, after contracting a virus as a young adult, found himself suddenly “without a body.” In order to move about and interact with the world he uses his vision and an enormous amount of concentration to monitor all of his movements.
I’ve said many times that I find Daredevil to be a very believable superhero, despite his lack of natural vision. One of my main arguments for this is that if we are to believe that his other senses are dramatically heightened, then that would include such things as his senses of balance and proprioception. His athleticism may be mostly practice and hard work, but having an unusually good body awareness would certainly help.
If a little alcohol can cause the average person’s proprioceptive acuity to drop dramatically (remember the test where people are instructed to touch their noses with their eyes closed?), it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to imagine a that some perfectly administered Silver Age radiation can have the opposite effect.