Daredevil Science and the sense of touch

May 31, 2010

Daredevil Science and the sense of touch

May 31, 2010

Yes, we’re finally getting to the end of the Daredevil Science series, though this post doesn’t actually mark the end. Yes, believe it or not, this text started running so long, I had to decide to leave the topics of balance and proprioception for a later post.

We’ve looked at some of the science of the Marvel Universe Handbook as well as how echolocation might be viewed as a plausible explanation for Daredevil’s radar sense. Now the time has come to cover everything we haven’t touched on yet, such as why Matt is such an accomplished acrobat (well, aside from the fact that he lives in a fictional universe where most superheroes routinely pull stunts that look like something out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets The Matrix) and whether or not it’s really possible to read print by touch. We’ll address the latter right now.

Braille on a page

Braille on a page

The sense of touch

The skin is our largest organ and responsible for a whole range of absolutely vital functions. It forms a barrier between the hostile environment around us and the tightly controlled one within us; it sweats to keep us cool, and its sensory functions tell us all kinds of information and keeps us safe from harm. Even the sensation we might sometimes wish we could live without – pain – is so crucial that people who are born without it sustain debilitating injuries and often die prematurely.

The sensations our sense of touch can perceive can be surprisingly complex when you think about it. The difference between a cool breeze on your face and the warm and wet feeling of stepping into a hot tub is huge, but the underlying mechanisms for relaying both experiences comes from a limited set of nerve endings and dedicated touch receptors distributed across the body. Some respond to hot and cold, and stages in between; some respond to pressure, and some detect light touch. Some respond quickly and some are a little sluggish. They adapt differently too, with some types of receptors craving novelty while being uninterested in a sustained stimulus. There’s a reason we pay little attention to the feel of our own clothes on our bodies after putting them on.

It is clear that the sense of touch is really a collection of different sensations. As far as Daredevil is concerned, most of the emphasis has been placed on his enhanced ability for fine touch and detection of hot and cold (though the latter is rarely showcased in the comic). The receptors which detect fine touch (these would be Merkel’s discs and Meissner’s corpuscles for those of you taking notes…) are unevenly distributed across the body, and the lips and fingertips are the most sensitive. One way to test the “resolution” of this sense is to test how far apart two pin pricks need to be in order to be registered as two rather than one.

Reading by touch

In a normal human being, the two point touch threshold of the fingertip is around 2 mm (0.08 inches). The spacing between the centers of two adjacent dots in a braille cell (each character in the braille system is one cell) is 2.34 mm (0.092 inches) which means that the ability to read braille requires an acuity close to the physical limit. In order to be able to discern the physical features of standard print, the resolution of the fingertip would have to be much better.

There is also a further complication in that the sense of touch wouldn’t be well adapted to feeling the continuous swirls we associate with standard letters. The fingertip prefers the “either present or absent” quality of dots, as evidenced by the fact that the raised, more or less standard, letters of the alphabets that predated the invention of braille were slow and difficult to read. Dot-based patterns go well with how the sense of touch works.

Aside from pondering the issue of spatial resolution, there is another parameter we need to take into account: How thick does the layer of ink need to be? That is, how high far above the page does a feature of text need to rise in order to be felt? Depending on the nature of the stimulus, it could be as little as just below 10 μm (one tenth the width of a human hair). Most standard newsprint can, in fact, be felt (try it) and this would have been even more true back in Stan Lee’s days. There is another problem, however, and we’re not going to let Matt off the hook this easily. The thinner the layer of ink is, even if we assume that it can theoretically be perceived, the more print reading by touch becomes a futile exercise in separating the signal from the noise. Because the paper the ink is deposited on has its own texture which may very well drown out the features of the print. By contrast, the height of a braille dot – 0.48 mm (or 0.019 inches) for standard American braille – provides plenty of signal.

As you may suspect by now, I actually find the idea that Matt would be able to easily read most forms of print by touch to be harder to swallow than his ability to hear heartbeats. Even more so if we are to accept that he can do this as if it were braille or with the same ease that a sighted person would. There is the noise problem, which has very little to do with his senses (and thus isn’t helped much by the presence of superpowers) as well as the resolution problem. The latter could be compensated for by adding more touch receptors with smaller so-called receptive fields, but there’s a limit to how densely you could pack these receptors.

Does this mean that I rule out this ability altogether? Not necessarily. Large print is easier to explain (though text the size of newspapers headlines becomes so large that it needs to be traced and can’t fit under the fingertip, making it rather slow and cumbersome), and for regular print, I’d go so far as to say that it might be possible to discern larger features, making it fairly easy to distinguish between an ‘l’ and an ‘o’ though more difficult to distinguish between an ‘a’ and an ‘o’ or an ‘l’ and an ‘i’.

In this sense, print reading for the “superpowered blind” might be seen as analogous to lip reading for the deaf (though speech reading is a more accurate, if less common, term). You’re taking a signal adapted for use by one sense (vision) and presenting it to another (touch) for which it’s not ideal. When you add in the knowledge of which combinations are common and rare and which words are likely to occur together, you can compensate to a degree for these imagined limitations and context would dictate whether a word should be read as ‘bad’, ‘bod’ or ‘bed’. In general, if this ability is to be able to operate at a decent speed, someone like Matt would likely be deciphering the shapes of whole words rather than the minuscule features of individual letters.

Yes, there’s another geek out for you. More will follow later in the week!


  1. Aaron K

    As we get deeper and deeper into the 21st century, it will be interesting to see how this trouble for Matt changes. Realistically, I simply don’t touch actual newspapers much any more. Rather, I go to those papers’ websites and get my news there. With most media coming at us electronically, how will Matt keep up?

  2. Christine

    That’s an excellent subject for another post, Aaron. Technology in general, including the Internet, offers great benefits for people with various kinds of disabilities. When it’s done right, I might add (one reason I might want to tackle this kind of subject again – see my old post Assistive technology in Daredevil – is that I deal with these things in my line of work and find the area pretty fascinating).

    In some ways you could argue that everything being available electronically actually makes being Daredevil much easier than it would have been in Stan Lee’s days. Doing library or other research when you can’t visually scan large amounts of text sounds like a real hassle to me. At the same time, it’s obvious that Matt would need assistive technology in order to access all of this electronic text, even if we were to go along with the ridiculous notion (damn you, Chichester) that Matt could somehow read computer screens by touch (*sigh*).

    If we assume that he has easy access to a computer with a screen reader installed, even though we’ve only rarely seen him anywhere near a computer (*sigh* again), I can’t imagine why he’d even want to bother reading a paper copy of the newspaper. Even if we pretend he could read print as easily as braille, it would still be quite difficult to get any sense of what’s where on the page and whether it’s something he’d be interested in reading. If he were on a computer he could just instruct whatever software he’s using to list all headers and subheaders on the page in a fraction of the time it would take to manually explore every little box on a large page. Many blind people are surprisingly tech savvy, and any blind professional would have to be. I saw a live demonstration of a blind guy surfing a bunch of websites recently, and it was pretty darn cool.

  3. Aaron K

    I have been very impressed watching how quickly blind persons can surf the web using screen readers. They listen to those at blazingly fast speeds! But, if I had to guess, I imagine most writers would be hesitant to force Matt to use these devices. As noted many, many places, Matt’s blindness is almost always downplayed: he’s handi-capable after all! To go from being able to read a newspaper like sighted folks (or even faster than them!) to having a computer read out the headlines to him may be perceived as a step backwards in the Matt v. Anonymous Sighted Person battle. It’s a tip of the hat to realism, but it’s also the creation of a weakness – and that’s probably a poor word to use – that Matt would seemingly have already overcome when technology was more limited. It also limits Matt’s abilities to interact with the electronic world outside of very controlled areas like his home and office.

    On the other hand, I could equally well imagine writers who would love to give Matt yet another hurdle to climb. The aura of absolute capability and competence around Matt has gradually diminished over the years, though I maintain it’s still quite strong.

  4. Matt Duarte

    Well, I can add some of my expertise to this post! I work in an office supply store that also doubles as a printing press, so I know about paper and ink (nothing compared to Christine’s knowledge of of the sensory organs, of course)

    It’s true that ink buildups can indeed be felt, even by us non-super-powered humans, although there are several factors that influence it. First of all is the printing method, most inkjet printers that people have at home leave very little in terms of traces, while laser printers leave a LOT. Modern day newspapers used a different method altogether which is offset printing, which use a more aqueous ink, thus leaving less buildup, although probably more than regular home printers.

    Then there’s also the matter of the paper itself. Newsprint that is used for most newspapers is very thin and cheap paper, has obviously more of the “noise” that Christine was talking about earlier, and absorbs a lot of the ink. As the paper rises in quality and thickness (and price), there would be less interference and would absorb less ink thus leaving more buildups, and making it easier for Matt to be able to read it. Of course, there’s also paper with outlines and watermarks, etc. that would probably throw him off.

    So my verdict? If we factor his heightened sense, Matt would probably be able to easily scan through a shiny brand new hardcover, that usually has high quality paper and a more expensive printing process, though he would find it harder (if not impossible) on a regular newspaper.

  5. Andrew

    I think many writers don’t want to really acknowledge, in any meaningful way, that Matt does indeed have an impairment. It is not at all a failing on the part of the character but rather on the writers who, perhaps because of their lack of experience in this area, cannot understand how normal it would be for Matt to use assistive technology for things his other senses cannot truly compensate for. We all use technology in our lives to make life easier, and that is at least as true for people who are differently abled. They just have another area in their life in which technology fits. And if Matt were real he would of course use these tools, despite his enhanced senses, if for no other reason than it would aid in his disguise. But really, he would do it because technology would allow him access to information in ways beyond the need for sight. The writers don’t seem to get that, and I think it’s because many are not familiar with individuals who really are differently abled. So like Aaron said, they don’t allow Matt to be unable to do everything with his other senses that we do with sight no matter how unnecessary or silly that is. Characters like Batman and Iron Man use technology to do the things other superheroes have powers for, but oh no! You can’t allow Daredevil access to a computer. It would cheapen him… Please.

  6. Christine

    @Matt: Thanks for your contribution to this topic! Maybe we can get Gloria to weigh in too, since she also has ties to the printing business (and lives in Spain, coincidentally). Nice analysis that describes my own print-related experiences pretty well. 🙂

    @Andrew and @Aaron: Well, you know my opinion on this topic (I’m getting dangerously close to beating a dead horse here). What makes the handling of this aspect of the character particularly annoying to me is that I occasionally feel like Marvel wants to have their cake and eat it to. I’ve seen Joey Q say, more than once, that “Daredevil is special because he’s handicapped” only to effectively not even go near the subject with a ten-foot pole.

    I can see why writers would be hesitant about including assistive technology because they don’t know enough about the subject, but I really don’t see what kind of fan would object to having Matt use some kind of gadget within the context of a story where doing so would make perfect sense. While the digital age “risks” highlighting a new set of obstacles that weren’t present in Stan Lee’s days, you’d also think that society – including comic book fans – would have matured enough to accept this. Back in the 60’s, blindness would have carried a much bigger stigma than it does today, even though enough people obviously still have problems realizing that people with disabilities are “normal people.”

    Either way, I agree that there might be an element of fear in writers being hesitant to touch on this subject, but I do think it’s mostly unfounded. There are probably some fans who do think it would be “uncool” for Matt’s disability to be more obvious, but I think there are many more who would welcome it when appropriate.

    I’ve seen more than one person (yes, really) make comments along the lines of “the Daredevil movie sucked, but the scene where he folded his bills was pretty cool.” I’ve also seen new fans express disappointment upon discovering that Matt can read print by touch or do something else in the compensatory department that might seem excessive or a little silly. When I did my survey (on the CBR and Newsarama message boards) of comic book fans who don’t read Daredevil a couple of years ago where as many as seven of the 67 respondents pointed to some version of “you can’t even tell he’s blind” as one reason they didn’t find the character interesting enough.

    I’ve mentioned before that I think Brubaker did a pretty good job of sneaking some of these things in, though on a modest level, and I mentioned those cases in the post I did on assistive technology (linked in my first comment).

    Also, you’d think that writers would welcome a weakness like Matt’s blindness. Too often in superhero comics, writers have to bend themselves backwards to create sticky situations for their characters (such as kryptonite or the color yellow). With Daredevil, it’s much easier and you can still use his considerable skills to offset the risk of him seeming too vulnerable.

    Really, if fans can’t handle Matt occasionally having a blindness-related snag of some kind, they need to grow up. ‘Nuff said.

  7. Andrew

    “Also, you’d think that writers would welcome a weakness like Matt’s blindness. Too often in superhero comics, writers have to bend themselves backwards to create sticky situations for their characters (such as kryptonite or the color yellow). With Daredevil, it’s much easier and you can still use his considerable skills to offset the risk of him seeming too vulnerable.

    Really, if fans can’t handle Matt occasionally having a blindness-related snag of some kind, they need to grow up. ‘Nuff said.”

    Also, it makes him more heroic to put himself out there despite his limitations than it is for such extremely powerful characters as Superman and Green Lantern. But you don’t get that point across if being blind is really not an issue for him at all.

  8. Christine

    Good point, Andrew. It would make him appear more heroic, or at least (and appropriately) more fearless.

    Another thing that came to mind just now was how people might have the wrong idea about the notion of “overcoming” a disability. Applied to Daredevil, fans might have the idea that through Stick’s tutelage and Matt’s subsequent training, he was able to overcome his impairment and thus render it inconsequential, a non-issue.

    But of course, it doesn’t work that way. People don’t actually “overcome” disabilities (I’m putting that word in quotes because I find it misleading and don’t really care for it), they develop physical, psychological and emotional coping strategies that work to minimize the impact on their daily lives. These strategies address the underlying problem, but don’t actually remove it. However, I think a lot of people, without really thinking about it, think of this as essentially “getting over it.” Hm, now I can’t quite remember where I was going with this, ha ha. 😀

  9. Aaron K

    Here’s a question that I don’t know we can get an answer to: do the writers who have written Daredevil ever consider these problems? If Bendis, for example, had Matt read a newspaper by touch, did he consider how this would work or just uncritically (and forgivably?) use a talent Matt has used many times in previous issues?

    Given that, in some sense, Daredevil is one long story, perhaps writers are hesitant to suddenly REMOVE a power that Matt has used frequently enough in the past. From a reader standpoint, it would be odd if Matt suddenly – and inexplicably – couldn’t do something that he could do 30 issues ago. Powers are rarely abandoned unless deemed absurd; and this ability may well not be deemed absurd enough to throw away.

    Given enough time, I imagine we will see Matt’s interactions with the world change, but I think what is required is that Matt not use his “super powers” for a while before a writer would feel comfortable abandoning them. If Brubaker, for example, had Matt reading computer screens by touch, it would be odd to see Diggle, his successor, immediately state that Matt can’t do this.

  10. Christine

    @Aaron: I do think most writers just accept that they inherit the powers of a character, and I’m fine with this. I don’t suggest writers actually remove his ability to read print. My only suggestion is that they use it in moderation. I was a little disappointed when Diggle started his run by having Matt decline the offer when the Hand business types told him they could get him braille copies of documents (in Daredevil: The List). Maybe it was the cocky manner in which Matt did it that bugged me. I mean, I can see why meeting the corporate side of The Hand for the first time would be a kind of pissing match where he wouldn’t want to appear “weak,” but on the other hand, it might have been smarter to conceal this ability.

    Other powers, such as the reading computer screens by touch thing, has obviously gone away. It was introduced by one writer twenty years ago and never used again by anyone else. I don’t even think a modern writer would consider it (aside from the sheer goofiness factor, would’t having to keep you hands on the screen be 1) a real killer for your neck and shoulders and 2) distract your hands from their natural job of writing and navigating the content?).

    With Frank Miller, Matt at least started having to remove his gloves(!) before reading something so I think at least some writers try to use common sense. Matt has done tons of weird things over the years that were never revisited again, but any writer would be hesitant to mess with the well-known core abilities. For me, addressing the nuances around them would go a long way. The only writer I’ve ever seen portray the print-reading ability as something of a strain is actually Frank Miller, but it would make sense that it would be a strain, even with a heightened sense of touch.

  11. Sandra

    One thing that bugs me is when he reads print via the echolocation thingie, not with his hands. (It happened at least once, in an early Nocenti issue.)
    I think of the »radar sense« as seeing everything completely without color textures. Posters would be just blank papers. Billboards would be blank boards.

  12. trlkly

    I wonder if he can feel the difference in temperature of white vs. black on computer screens.

  13. trlkly

    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.

    • Christine

      I’m about to write one right now!


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