Why believing isn’t seeing

Dec 5, 2012

Why believing isn’t seeing

Dec 5, 2012

Note! At nearly 3,000 words, this is an essay more than a blog post. I hope you’ll find it interesting and thought-provoking, but you may want to wait to read it until you have 15-20 minutes of peace and quiet to spare. You might also need a cup of coffee!

A while back, I wrote a post called The radar simulation. As far as posts go, it turned out to be a pretty big dud. While I knew that far from everyone is able to get anything from auto-stereograms, I thought the number was in the 10-15 percent range. Judging from the comments, several of my regular commenters couldn’t see anything, so I guess that was a fairly pointless exercise. 😉

On a more positive note, one of the comments, left by Gus Davis, did raise some issues that I wanted to get back to. Gus’s suggestion was basically that Matt’s radar sense experience would be more vivid than what I suggested with my black on black auto-stereograms since he was once sighted and could imagine things based on input collected from his other senses combined with visual memories of things. Gus compares this with the way our mind’s eye fills things in for us when we hear a familiar sound.

Perception versus the “mind’s eye”

My response to Gus would be that we are really talking about two different things. What I tried to illustrate with the auto-stereogram post was the raw sensory experience of what having a colorless, three-dimensional spatial ability might be like. Using one of the examples Gus mentions – the sound of someone knocking on the door conjuring up an (internal) image of a person knocking – this would be analogous to trying to describe what it is like to hear knocking, or to hear anything at all for that matter, rather than what the brain does with that information further down the processing stream.

Daredevil hears a lock opening, from Daredevil #19 by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee

It would make perfect sense for Matt to put together an “image” or basic understanding of things he perceives, because this kind of mental imagery is something everyone is capable of, whether they have a full set of senses or not. In fact, I thought the panel above, from Daredevil #19, was a very good example of mental imagery. Here, Chris Samnee draws Daredevil listening to the sound of a lock opening in the distance, alongside an image of said lock. This is obviously meant to show the reader what he is hearing while avoiding unnecessary exposition or overly complicated sound effects. But, the use of a contrasting color and the way the panel is laid out doesn’t just show the particular event taking place, it also shows Daredevil becoming aware of what’s happening. But is this the same as actually seeing it happen? And, does imagery even have to be visual? I’ll get to that below, but first, let’s cover one more thing.

What is the essence of “redness”?

We all make inferences – more or less automatically – about the world based on past experiences and associations. However, that doesn’t explain the essence of the sensory experience that prompts the association. These unique “experiential” properties of our senses is what philosophers refer to as qualia. The difficulty in talking about sensory qualia becomes evident the second you start thinking about how you would explain what Mozart sounds like to someone born deaf. Or even how you would explain what red looks like to the substantial proportion of the (mostly male) population who has some kind of color vision defect. This even raises the question of whether everyone experiences red the same way. You and I may both agree that a Coke can is red, but does our sense of red overlap? Is your red the same as my red? Provided that we both have normal vision, the odds are pretty good that they do (we are members of the same species, after all), but this is the kind of thing that is quite frankly impossible to know for sure.

Philosophical conundrums aside, there is clearly something it is like to experience red that is different from simply knowing about colors on an intellectual level. An imaginary colorblind physicist could learn everything there is to know about the color red – that it is a property ascribed to objects which reflect light with a wavelength between 700 and 635 nm – and develop tools which tell him which objects fall into this category. However, this doesn’t give him the experience of “redness.” What I was trying to do with the auto-sterogram post was to try to approximate my own idea of “radarness,” the qualia of a spatial pseudo-visual sense devoid of color.

The limits of imagery

The name of this post is “why believing isn’t seeing.” What I mean by that is that the link between an external stimulus and mental imagery is of a very different nature than the association between that stimulus and our immediate perception of it, through the relevant sense(s).

Imagine that we have two test subjects – we’ll call them Bill and Bob – and let us expose them to an experimental stimulus. If we let both Bill and Bob listen to a sound of rustling leaves coming from behind a partition, what’s going to happen in their minds?

Bill might start thinking of playing in the leaves every fall as a child, and may even remember how his mom made him hot cocoa when he came back in the house. He might see an entire scene play out in his mind’s eye, and might even connect it to the taste of the cocoa or the smell of burning leaves. On the other hand, he might just get a rapidly fading image of a pile of leaves, especially if he is only given a brief moment to listen to the sound before something else commands his attention. Bill’s “snapshot leaves” may be maple leaves, and he may return to pretty much the same image in his head every time he hears the sound of rustling leaves.

Bob’s leaves, on the other hand, might be aspen. He may have grown up in a completely different part of the country. He may not have the strong personal memories of playing in the leaves as Bills does. Maybe the sound doesn’t even remind him of leaves at all, but of his grandmother who often used to play a new age-inspired “sounds of the rainforest” CD when he visited her house. My point is that even though Bill and Bob are listening to the exact same sound, which activates the same group of hair cells in their respective cochelae, their responses to what they are hearing is different. They are similar, absolutely. In both men, the sound evokes “leafiness” and stimulates their brains’ “leaf category,” but there is no 1:1 relationship between what they are hearing and what their mind’s eye is doing.

As we pull away the partition separating the two men from the source of the sound, we may be surprised to se a pile of birch leaves dancing in front of a fan. However, we might find that there are no leaves at all, but a stereo playing a recording of leaves blowing. The two men’s idea of what’s behind the magic curtain could be 100% wrong. The imagery they experienced, having access to only one aspect of the whole scene (sound in this case) would still be completely rational, and part of an essential ability of the human mind to categorize and draw logical conclusions, but it clearly couldn’t replace the missing information.

Mental imagery in the blind

First of all, I think we can all agree that these connections we make between the things we pick up through our senses and our internal representations involve all of our senses. The sound of coffee brewing can elicit a strong sense of being able to smell the coffee before the scent even reaches us. Seeing a painting of the ocean may remind us of the sounds of waves breaking against the shore and the taste of salt. In fact, more and more research is showing just how intertwined our senses are. Even the best wine experts in the world can be fooled by something as simple as white wine dyed to appear red. The way the lips move when someone is speaking actually influences what we hear (this is known as the McGurk effect and is demonstrated here) to the point where even knowing about this phenomenon can’t undo it. It’s increasingly clear that our senses combine to create a unified experience of our world.

Still, we often talk about thinking in pictures and, as highly visual primates, it’s no wonder that we think of images as being central to imagery. For people born blind, visual images are obviously not a part of their experience of the world. But what about people who lose their sight later in life? To what extent does visual imagery remain a part of their internal worlds? The answer to that question is apparently a very big “it depends.”

In his book The Mind’s Eye, my very favorite neurologist Oliver Sacks mentions several different cases. One is that of John Hull, who details the loss of his sight in middle age in the book Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness. Hull describes experiencing something he refers to as “deep blindness.” Shortly after losing his sight, he started losing his ability for visual imagery and was distressed to discover that he could no longer visualize the faces of his loved ones. Within two years, this progressed to the point where he could no longer even remember what seeing was like. However, his experience is far from typical.

In stark contrast to Hull’s experience, Sacks also mentions the case of Zoltan Torey, an Australian psychologist who had lost his sight in an accident at age twenty-one. Torey’s coping mechanism in response to total blindness was to develop his inner eye to the best of his ability. Sacks writes:

“In this, he said, he had been extremely successful, developing a remarkable power of generating, holding, and manipulating images in his mind, so much so that he had been able to construct a virtual visual world that seemed as real and intense to him as the perceptual one he had lost – indeed, sometimes more real, more intense. This imagery, moreover, enabled him to do things that might have seemed scarcely possible for a blind man.
‘I replaced the entire roof guttering of my multi-gabled home single-handed,’ he wrote, ‘and solely on the strength of the accurate and well-focused manipulation of my now totally pliable and responsive mental space.’ Torey later expanded on this episode, mentioning the great alarm of his neighbors at seeing a blind man alone on the roof of his house – at night (even though, of course, darkness made no difference to him).
And he felt that his newly strengthened visual imagery enabled him to think in ways that had not been available to him before, allowed him to project himself inside machines and other systems, to envisage solutions, models, and designs.”

If we want to try to imagine what Matt Murdock’s inner world looks like, it’s important to remember that his radar sense, whatever it is, supports an accurate sense of space. He doesn’t need to work as hard as the average blind person at creating a spatial map in his head, even though his inability to “see” color and detail (and signage!) puts a higher demand on his other senses to fill in as much missing information as possible. Still, the question becomes to what extent he would be actively trying to enrich this pseudo-visual experience with visual imagery.

Matt explains his radar, from Daredevil #1 by Mark Waid and Marcos Martín

As I hope we’ve already established, constructing a full image of what something might be like from a limited amount of information is not always reliable (remember Bill and Bob…) and may have little to do with external reality. There is no denying that Zoltan Toreys’ brand of mind-mapping is useful to him or that a blind person who was previously sighted can get a very rich experience from having a painting or scene described to her. But in many cases, there is no way for a blind person to actually verify the accuracy of his or her visual imagery and in no way does imagery replace either the experience or function of eye sight.

In Matt’s case, he’s free to imagine Foggy wearing a polka dot suit to work every day if he wants to, but the question is whether this is at all useful for him. The information revealing the true state of affairs is unavailable to him through his remaining senses and no amount of imagery can make up for it. Trying to use all of his available senses to reach the best possible understanding of his surroundings is one thing, and is no different from what you and I do, but my own take on the character is more in line with what Mark Waid described in Daredevil #1 (with art by Marcos Martín, seen above). Many descriptive categories that sighted people use to make sense of the world are of no practical value to him. And, to get back Gus’s original comment, the knowledge and memory of sight should have limited bearing on the immediate experience (qualia) of his non-visual senses, including radar.

The problem with Bendis

So, I’m going to have to get a little rough on Brian Bendis again (even though I’m sort of going to let him off the hook for this one). Don’t blame me, it’s all Gus’s fault for mentioning Bendis’s writing as an example of Matt consciously filling in missing information. 😉 Gus is absolutely right, though. I can think of at least two cases where Bendis has Matt actively create a scene in his mind while we as readers follow along by looking at the art. The one that will be most familiar to readers is probably this page from Daredevil #43 (vol 2) where Matt studies Milla, who has come to visit him in his office, and we see her gradually come into focus (art by Alex Maleev).

A longer and more detailed example of this “filling in” process comes from Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #7, by Bendis and Bill Sienkiewicz, and can be seen below in two pages worth of panels.

Scene from Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #7 by Brian Bendis and Bill Sienkiewicz

In both of these examples, Bendis – through Matt’s internal monologue – takes us on a little tour of what kind of information it is that Matt is paying attention to as be builds his image. While this is happening, the artist’s rendering of the scene becomes gradually sharper. Focusing mostly on the art, one might easily be lead to believe that Bendis intends for us to take the image appearing before Matt’s senses literally. There is a strong suggestion that the image Matt is building in his mind and the one you or I would see before our eyes is virtually one and the same.

Personally, I think this is a unfortunate, especially as that conclusion doesn’t actually line up with the writing. Bendis himself puts disclaimers in there, such as “So, even though I will never see him the way you do…” Add to this the fact that all the things that Matt is picking up on as he narrates the scene are things that are very non-visual. The fact that the man above is a sweaty smoker whose positions Matt can pinpoint from the heat of his body would really tell him nothing about what he looks like. He can probably pull up a stereotypical image of someone who fits that description and used to live in his neighborhood as a kid, for reference, but that can never be a literal representation of the man in front of him.

In my mind, this kind of storytelling technique, interesting and beautiful as it may be, greatly exaggerates the visual properties of Matt’s understanding of the world. We are lead to believe that he is in a position to make educated inferences about appearances that his senses really shouldn’t allow for.


This was a long one! My goal here was to 1) explain my intentions with the radar simulation (auto-stereogram) post, i.e. to capture the qualia of the radar experience, and 2) try to make the distinction between the primary physical experience of our senses – and their relationship to the external world – on the one hand, and our internally generated mental images on the other. I want to thank Gus for leaving the comment that inspired this post.

I also want to take the opportunity to point out that my intention with this and other Daredevil science posts is not necessarily to get anyone to conform to my own view of how Daredevil should be interpreted. Every reader, and writer for that matter, should feel free to imagine for themselves what being inside Daredevil’s body is like. What I try to bring to the table is whatever information I might have come across over the years to try to explain things in Daredevil’s world as they pertain to real world phenomena.

So, feel free to disagree with me! And, I would love it if you did so in the comment section. Who knows, it might inspire a whole new post? 😉


  1. Gus Davis

    Dear Christine

    Thank you so much for this information:)i loved it.!!!and I also though want to say that in no way was it my intention to sound like I was having an undue issue with the radar simulation.I really didn’t understand that you were trying to explain what his immediate raw sense of his world would be like in real time.i love that you’ve been fascinated with daredevil and his abilities just like I have been most of my life lol.I’ve read all of your posts on the science of his radar sense(history of the radar sense)and even the wacky powers posts you made about daredevil’s powers.but I do want to apologize openly and honestly.I didn’t know you were referring to what his immediate radar would pick up when he would be mapping a location vs what his mind would try and do with the raw sensory data that his radar would give him regardless of his mental imagery or not.but I do see where Bendis like you said was very misleading.and you have you have to be a psychic!!!cause when I posted that part of his mind filling in the gaps I was exactly thinking about when matt was visited by milla and it was portrayed like matts sensory information that he was getting in real time from her being the sensory stimulus was the same as his minds eye(internal view of the world from years of visual stimulus)with accuracy.I never thought about what his radar experiences would be like in real time as being different from his view of the world anytime of the day 24/7.I do see your point that there is a difference between what our senses give us a data at the moment of perception based on direct observations vs what the imagery of what are our senses perceive in the mind.and for the record though I do feel that your radar simulation works as to what would be matts experiences at the moment of perception since they do have a immediate grasp of his surroundings like what mark waid’s interpretation was that you highlighted in the panel above. I want to take the time to thank you for making this post. I have always loved theses that you have made.but again I do want to say I meant no ill view by what I posted back then.I’m so sorry if i came across like that. And yes l I take full responsibility for you coming down hard on Bendis;)I have no problemwith that lol.please continue with posting information on his radar whenever you find something new as to how’s it portrayed or how’s it pictured.I feel you’ve done a excellent job at putting the pieces together as to what the writers have said what his experiences are and then as to what you’ve shown in what the real world would be like for him.please keep up the good work and thank you again for this enlightening post.!!!!:)

  2. Bill

    Brilliant post Christine. When you talk about how different, it terms of context, it must be for someone who has lost their sight and someone who was born blind I start to wonder about what we can really know about the way Matt experiences the world. We have about 50 years of data showing what Matt can do with his powers, but we don’t really know what red is.

  3. Christine

    Thanks guys!

    @Gus: Absolutely no need to apologize for anything. I was more worried you might take it the wrong way that I used your comment as the basis for this post. I’m actually relieved that you liked it. 🙂

    @Bill: The whole qualia thing is one of the most fascinating things about thinking about the humans senses in general and Daredevil’s senses in particular. My own personal take on what the radar sense would “feel” like is that it is more similar to the experience of vision than it is to any of the other senses (mainly because it deals with the same kind of spatial and whole-scene information that vision does). However, it would still have a completely different experience from normal vision. In terms of qualia, Daredevil lives in a completely different world. That makes him absolutely fascinating to me.

  4. Gus Davis

    Dear Christine

    Oh no i didn’t take that the wrong way at all:)I was honored that you used my comment for the basis of this post.:)and I’m glad that you’re relieved. I was just wondering by any chance do you have a favorite take on daredevils radar?Or a explanation that you like more cause it makes more sense?like whether its something that comes from his head like electromagnetic energy(real radar),more like sound navigating(2003 daredevil movie, ultimate daredevil),all four senses with experience combined(ultimate daredevil) ,or like some spiritual type of sense?I say spiritual type radar since that was the way i kinda took frank millers take on it since when matt lost his radar,sticks was able to teach him more of the nature of his radar and through training he was able to get it back, and that it was something that everyone could develop or get this type of radar sense(sticks is said to have it as well..but its more a proximity sense more then a radar).

  5. Gus Davis

    Dear Christine

    I just have one other thing that i wanted to ask could you please expound on for me. You said towards the start of the post that “who says imagery had to be visual at all? I was just wondering if we don’t use imagery based on internal views of the world or through direct intake through normal vision then what other kinds of imagery can we perceive?are you saying there are sound, touch, and other kinds of imagery that cant be seen either mentally/physically?

  6. Christine

    Hello again, Gus!

    Do I have a favorite take on the radar? Yes. I actually prefer the most natural explanation, which is that it’s echolocation on steroids (i.e. superpowers). I know it hasn’t been described that way in the comics a lot, but that’s basically what I would do if I wrote the character. I wrote a post on that a while back.

    It doesn’t affect my view of what the radar would feel like, though. There’s been at least one study that clearly shows that expert blind echolocators process echo information in the visual cortex rather than the auditory cortex so the experience is closer to “seeing” than hearing, even if the signal is sound-based. This is what I would imagine happening if the radar sense is something else (like radiowaves). I imagine that the visual cortex would handle the information in a similar way.

    When it comes to non-visual imagery, I mentioned a few examples above, but it’s really something you do quite often. Having a song stuck in your head is a form of auditory imagery, practicing a movement in your head is kinesthetic imagery. I imagine Matt’s world to be full of non-visual imagery, especially since his “vision” (the sensation of objects around him, whatever it is) is very poor compared to what sighted people have and his other senses so very strong. If he’s thinking about some kind of everyday object, like his own couch or something, I think he’d probably wouldn’t pay much attention to its radar shape (which isn’t really distinctive), but the way it feels to sit in, what it smells like, the feel of the fabric when he touches it and things like that. These are all examples of non-visual imagery.

  7. Gus Davis

    Thank you for expounding on that.I do see your point about those things.I just never saw hearing something in my head like a song,or remembering how something smells or fills as non-visual imagery. And also i agree with the link you sent me.thank you for that.I just read the article and i feel that it would make him more simple to just have a radar based on echolocation….albeit with superhearing into higher/lower ranges than a human would make him more proficient at detecting things without sight. And it would also yield alot of information to him like you mentioned about if he could hear the lower ranges he could then be “feeling”things like buildings/walls. While if he could hear ultrasonic sounds he could then get more detailed information about his environment. This would give him have alot of advantages that other blind people would never have and yet still keep him more natural in a way since it would like you seem like a cheat if he were somehow emitting high-frequency sound waves from his head or something like that.It would be cool if they would make him more natural with his radar like this and just use higher/lower sound ranges as his radar.

  8. Brook

    Thank you for this extensive and thoughtful post, Christine. I have just returned to Daredevil after many years away, and discovering your blog has made it an even better experience.

    Another reason I love Daredevil is this:

    I get the sense that the radar sense, often depicted in qualia-in-fucsia frames, assumes a materialist conception of the world, and one that reminds me of the ancient Greek and Roman atomists. Their account of phenomenal experience takes touch, contact, as the primary sense, while most of Western philosophy relies on vision and, to a lesser degree, sound as primary senses.

    Much of what you write above supports this connection, I think. Color is a convention of human language, not an actual quality of objects themselves, which are made up of indivisible, invisible atoms constantly in motion. Vision is the result of a thin film (simulacrum) emanating from things around us literally striking the eye, and then the mind making something of the resulting physical impression. Sound, smell, and taste work the same way, as does touch.

    Now, we can forgive a bunch of philosophers from the 5th century BCE to the 1st century CE for not getting the atom thing quite right, but it is astounding that they could conceive of nature in this way. Parts of things don’t literally hit us in the eyeball–but light does, as sound waves do eardrums.

    This materialism strikes me as useful in thinking about Daredevil’s radar sense, because we can think of it as especially an effect of his heightened sense of touch, hearing, smell, and even taste all at the same time, with all of these being different manifestations of the first (touch). I had tended not to think much about this improved sense of touch beyond his ability to read with his fingers, seek out weak spots in metal, etc., but came to recognize that his skin must be incredibly sensitive to the tiniest breeze, the subsonic echoes ricocheting off of buildings, cars, flagpoles, lurking enemies. The skin is, after all, the largest organ of the body. If Daredevil can distinguish letters written on a page with a few square centimeters of fingertip, he must be taking in massive amounts of detailed information from every dermal cell he’s got. Body hair must be like the stereocilia in our inner ears, with each one conveying information through mechanoelectrical transduction (thank you, Wikipedia!), each pore a barometer.

    Now, how to represent that on the page (paper or digital) is difficult, obviously, and I can totally appreciate your critique of making the visual equivalent so, well, visual. One of the things I love about comics is the work they ask us to do to leap among our senses in response to what is a purely visual format (excepting the fact that the very feel and smell of the books are an indispensable part of the experience for me!). Those onomatopoeic FWIPs and POKs and THWAMs whose use and artfulness are even more important for Daredevil are the most obvious level of this, perhaps. Lucretius, the great Roman atomist poet, loved to rely on onomatopoeia himself to convey non-visual phenomena.

    So far in this Daredevil run, the more daring the artists’ effort to convey non-visual stimuli visually, the more compelling I find the book. The same is true of Daredevil: End of Days, and interestingly, those experiments with non-visual stimuli have enriched how we “see” from Ben Urich’s perspective, having only gotten a glimpse of DD’s silhouette off in the distance at this point. It is not only the perspective of Daredevil himself that the creators are using to share this materialist approach to perception, but of other characters, as well. I really like that: it tells us that much more about how Matt must have to catalogue and respond to these massive amounts of sensory impressions compared to others, and about how enriching but also maddening it must be.

    The materialism at the root of the artistic approach also confronts us with a materialist worldview that is well suited to Daredevil: nothing is predictable, things change rapidly, we take pleasure in appreciating the radical beauty that those changes bring, but also in acknowledging that death is final and nothing to be afraid of.


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