My muses are being a bit uncooperative these days, but the only way to get them to start talking again is to soldier on without them for a bit, so here’s a brief post I kind of wanted to get out of the way. And hey, it even counts as a Daredevil science post!
The joke between Matt and Foggy about how Matt can always spot an attractive woman is one that the characters return more than once during the show. And, it’s also brought up in episode nine – Nelson vs. Murdock – where it’s clear that Foggy feels betrayed by the fact that Matt could tell when someone was attractive all along.
Here’s the thing though: Given Matt’s heightened senses, being able to judge a woman’s attractiveness (or a man’s for that matter) is a fairly modest ability. Much of what he’s probably doing, hardly even requires any heightened senses. Here’s how it all probably works.
No, Matt obviously doesn’t “see” an attractive woman the way Foggy does
Before moving on, let’s first establish that Matt Murdock doesn’t really “see” faces other than in the vaguest sense of the word. This is true of the comics, and it clearly appears to be true of the Netflix show as well. I wasn’t particularly happy with the “world on fire” effect, but it at least doesn’t overstate Matt’s ability to “see” anything in great detail.
This point is further underscored by such things as Matt asking Claire “You’re looking at me like I’m crazy, right?” when he tries to get off her couch in episode two. He can obviously detect larger movements like a nod or a turn of the head in some direction, but the more minute details of a person’s face – including facial expressions – elude him.
What about someone’s general body shape? This is obviously something he should be able to gauge pretty easily in his own peculiar way of seeing without really seeing. On the other hand, features like body weight and general fitness level is something ordinary blind people without heightened senses could also pick up on. The weight of someone’s step and their overall movement patterns and breathing can be heard or, in the case of the former, felt through vibrations in the floor.
Other cues that signal attractiveness
Even though Daredevil probably can’t get much information about facial expressions, he has other ways of knowing how and when people react to something. Relevant for our purposes here is his ability to detect changes in Foggy. If a woman comes into a room and Foggy finds her attractive, Matt could easily tell from Foggy’s heartbeat picking up, or his scent changing in some perceptible way. Even without heightened senses, he could probably also pick up on a certain nervousness in his friend’s voice or just his general behavior. It’s really not rocket science.
Physical attractiveness is also most likely correlated with certain behaviors on behalf of the attractive person in question. While there are obviously traditionally attractive people with low self-esteem, just as there are people who carry themselves with confidence despite not quite living up to our current standards of beauty, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that people who are generally perceived as attractive are, on average, probably more likely to act the part. Add to this the notion that confidence in itself makes people more attractive, and general behavior becomes an important proxy for attractiveness.
“Maybe I just like the sound of your voice”
The above is a direct quote from the scene in episode four where Matt swings by Claire’s apartment to have his wounds tended to. Voices are obviously a big thing to Matt, and they also happen to be a good indicator of – you guessed it – physical attractiveness. Yes, it actually turns out that people who are judged to be physically attractive are also more likely to have voices that are judged to be attractive (and you don’t even need heightened senses for this one). To quote the abstract of one study (emphasis mine):
“We investigated the relation between visual and vocal attractiveness in women as judged by men. We recorded 34 women speaking four vowels and measured the peak frequency, the first five harmonic frequencies, the first five formant frequencies and formant dispersion. The women were also photographed (head shot), several body measures were taken and their ages were recorded. The voices were played to male judges who were asked to assess the women’s age and vocal attractiveness from the recording. The men were then asked to assess the attractiveness of the photographs. Men were in strong agreement on which was an attractive voice and face; and women with attractive faces had attractive voices.“
–Sarah A. Collins & Caroline Missing (2003). Vocal and visual attractiveness are related in women. Animal Behaviour, 65, 997–1004.
The nose knows
Physical attractiveness is not only correlated with voice attractiveness, but scent as well. Here’s a quote from abstract of another research paper (again, emphasis mine):
“We compared ratings of body odour, attractiveness, and measurements of facial and body asymmetry of 16 male and 19 female subjects. Subjects wore a T-shirt for three consecutive nights under controlled conditions. Opposite-sex raters judged the odour of the T-shirts and another group evaluated portraits of the subjects for attractiveness. […] The results showed a significant positive correlation between facial attractiveness and sexiness of body odour for female subjects. We found positive relationships between body odour and attractiveness and negative ones between smell and body asymmetry for males only if female odour raters were in the most fertile phase of their menstrual cycle.
–A Rikowski and K Grammer (1999). Human body odour, symmetry and attractiveness. Proc Biol Sci. 266(1422), 869–874.
Matt’s sense of smell is woefully underrepresented in the comics, and I would argue that this goes for this show as well. But “realistically,” scent would probably be a major turn-on for a young man with a greatly enhanced sense of smell, and the sexiness of that scent apparently correlates with visual judgements of attractiveness.
So, in a nutshell, it is not at all strange that Matt would be able to judge physical attractiveness based on hearing, smell, people’s behaviors and whatever he can gather about someone’s overall body shape through his pseudo-visual abilities (which are probably mostly based on hearing in this show, but wouldn’t consciously register as sound). Even without his heightened senses, he wouldn’t be clueless about these things.
Does he “see” what Foggy sees? No, clearly not, but they can still find the same women attractive. They just arrive at their judgements by different means.