The sounds of silence

Mar 22, 2012

The sounds of silence

Mar 22, 2012

It’s been a while since I did a Daredevil science post, but as there still remains loads of things to cover – despite the 30,000(!) words I’ve already devoted to the topic – and because you guys continue to amaze me by actually digging the science posts (they tend to generate an unusual amount of comments), I thought I’d give this topic another go. In fact, I’m also looking to add another chapter to my “history of the radar sense” series of posts next week so you radar geeks have that to look forward to as well. 😉

With this post, I’d like to once again examine some of the things that you might be able to do if you had superhearing, and what the experience would be like. I’ve touched on various aspects of this before, explaining why a heightened ability to hear at very low frequencies actually would let you hear heartbeats, and how having a wider hearing range (and more sensitive hearing overall) would amp up a person’s ability to echolocate. Regardless of whether you prefer the interpretation that Daredevil’s radar sense is echolocation (exclusively or primarily) or the one that suggests that the radar is its own mysterious sense (like we currently see with how Mark Waid writes Daredevil), this is undeniably a good thing. There isn’t a person out there, provided that said person is able to hear, who doesn’t make use of the information provided by sounds interacting with otherwise silent objects. Even if the radar is its own sense, separate from hearing, Matt would likely still benefit greatly from being able to use echoes, especially with his hearing essentially being his most important sense and his “visual” experience being as relatively impoverished as it is. Proficient echolocators can not only find and stay clear of objects but often tell a great deal about what materials they are made of, to name just one possible benefit.

So yes, superhearing would make it possible to hear heartbeats and heighten a persons ability to detect silent objects. But what about the rest of the soundscape? How would having superhearing change a persons auditory perceptions beyond sounds simply being louder?

Panels from Daredevil #6 showing Matt hearing things, by Mark Waid and Marcos Martín

I suspect that most Daredevil creators and fans alike, to the extent that they even think all that much about the subject, are stuck in the mindset of Matt Murdock’s hearing being much like yours or mine, just with the volume dial turned way up. In reality – if we must concern ourselves with such things – there is very little room for superhuman improvement in the frequency range of human speech, particularly between 400 and 5000 Hz. It is simply not physically possible to hear that much better than an average person in the most sensitive part of the spectrum before the absolute limit of sound becomes a factor (sound can only get quieter to the point where it physically ceases to exist, i.e. where the movement of the vibrating air molecules is no bigger than what we would expect from random motion). In this sense, Daredevil’s highly exaggerated ability to hear speech over long distances or through multiple walls is, perhaps surprisingly, much less realistic than his ability to hear heartbeats. Because, while humans hear extremely well in those mid-frequencies, our hearing drops off pretty sharply outside of this range, with sounds below 20 Hz and above 20,000 Hz becoming completely inaudible (in reality, for most people past their teens, even that 20,000 Hz figure is a big stretch). This is were the gap between the humanly possible and the physically possible begins to widen, and this is where superpowers could give someone a big boost.

What this would mean for the young Matt Murdock waking up after his accident is that the sounds of people’s voices probably wouldn’t seem strikingly different to him. They would sound louder, sure, and maybe a little off, but the biggest change to him would be all the other sounds that would have suddenly become proportionately much louder still. The low-frequency rumble of ventilation, traffic and stormy weather would likely be a bigger shock – especially since these sounds easily pass through walls – along with the suddenly much more striking presence and loudness of high-frequency sounds. Did you ever wonder why your cat or dog hates vacuum cleaners? Well, on top of the noise we can hear, vacuum cleaners generate lots of noise that we can’t hear, but that our pets can. Many of our fellow mammals have a much greater capacity to hear high-frequency sounds than we do. Many of them also rely on these inaudible (to us) sounds to communicate. If we expect Matt to be able to hear ultra-sound, he would also come back to a Hell’s Kitchen apartment where he can suddenly hear the rats squeaking on the other side of the wall.

Because not all sounds would become proportionately louder, it is a safe bet that the superhearing-endowed Matt Murdock actually inhabits a world that is not only generally louder, but sounds qualitatively different as well. With bigger gains by necessity being made in the frequencies average humans have a relatively more difficult time hearing, i.e. low and high frequencies, any sound which incorporates a wide range of components of various frequencies would sound different to him compared to before his accident. The bass in a song on the radio would suddenly stand out more, the household items he might have been used to would sound very different (consider the vacuum cleaner scenario mentioned above), and the soundscape as a whole would likely initially appear to be completely foreign, not just “loud.” Of course, humans are highly adaptable, and soon the initially strange and disorienting would become the new normal, but I personally think it’s fascinating to dwell on just how different the world of our favorite blind superhero would be, if we really start digging beneath the surface. Having your hearing dramatically heightened at the low and high end of the hearing spectrum would be like some inebriated studio technician walking in to your auditory world and going crazy with the soundboard.

Of all well-known superheroes, Daredevil is clearly the one whose power set presents the most obvious example of a mixed blessing. Not only do his heightened senses often present him with an uncomfortable and overwhelming amount of input, he is also forced to operate without conventional vision. On top of robbing him of his sight, the accident that paved the way for Daredevil also robbed him of the experience of silence. Pushing his senses into the kind of overdrive that would put his hearing threshold right at the point of literally hearing air molecules moving around would give the world a swooshing background sound. In a way, this would be not unlike a strange form of tinnitus. Even if Matt could escape the sounds of city life, “silence” itself would still have a sound. And, even this relative silence would be hard to come by. The many barely noticeable sounds of our natural and man-made environments would never escape the attention of the superhumanly hearing-enhanced. No wonder Matt Murdock is often cranky, and likes to turn to meditation to recuperate. Who said being a superhero would be easy? 😉


  1. R.M. Hendershot

    Love this! I’ve long thought about Matt’s hearing in a similar way. I’ve always had better-than-average hearing myself, especially at high frequencies (when I was a kid, I could be awakened by the whine of the TV on mute on the other side of the house), and you’re right–it’s a totally foreign soundscape to most people, even to the slight extent I experience it. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been irritated by noises my friends couldn’t hear, or had to sit outside a concert because the amps were maladjusted and the shrieking was giving me a headache.

    You’re also right about the rarity of silence. When I’m in a noisy or stressful place, I’ll sometimes plug my ears and listen to the sound of my heartbeat in order to calm down. I imagine Matt can hear his own heartbeat all the time, without trying, so perhaps he never experiences silence at all …

  2. Thomas W

    I never really thought about it, but you’re right. The only way for his hearing to be amplified in the range we already hear at would indeed push him towards being able to hear the air molecules moving. God, what a terrible thought.

  3. Aaron K

    Fascinating stuff, Christine! Sleep would probably be nearly impossible for Matt without a powerful white noise generator across a wide range of frequencies.

  4. Christine

    @R.M. You’re right about silence being impossible because the sound of his own heartbeat. Body sounds in general was actually something I was going to include in this post but accidentally missed. It’s not only the heart that makes a sound, but many other bodily processes as well that all lie in about the same frequency range. He’d constantly hear people’s breath sounds, and the sounds of bowels moving. Pretty disgusting, certainly, but also one of the things that makes it virtually impossibly to hide from Daredevil.

    @Aaron I’m actually one of those people who has no problem falling asleep in the middle of a loud party, so I certainly hope Matt would be able to doze off, despite the noise. Eventually exhaustion gets to you one way or another.

  5. jellipidy

    Really interesting post, Christine, and at least it makes sense of the addition of the floatation tank in ‘that film’! (That’s one anomaly sorted then …)

    On a completely unrelated note – is it just me or has this been the longest month waiting for number 10 to come out? I know it has a late release date but even so, did someone sneak some extra days in to March when I wasn’t looking? Not long now though – and relax!

    • Christine

      No, it’s not just you. I’m going through serious Daredevil withdrawal with the five weeks between Daredevil #9 and #10. Thankfully, all the stuff coming out in April should more than make up for it. 😉


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