A unified theory of Daredevil’s radar sense?

by | Jun 8, 2023 | A History of the Radar Sense, Daredevil Science | 1 comment

This is a post I’ve been thinking of writing for some time now, and since I just put the finishing touches on the Being Matt Murdock companion website – which had spent too many months in a sad state of “under construction” – now seems like a good time. And since the parts that still needed finishing were the ones pertaining to the final few chapters which deal heavily with the radar sense, the specific topic(s) of this post are fresh in my mind.

I’m a big believer in writing as a tool that not only puts ideas and information on “paper” in order to communicate something, but as a genuinely creative – and dare I say illuminating – process in its own right. Writing things down and seeing the snippets of information in front of you so that you can move things around, expand on points that need it, and look for flaws in your reasoning can be incredibly helpful in generating new insights. The writing becomes an extension of your brain in a way. With this project in particular, I was forced to revisit all of my previous thinking on the topic of Daredevil’s senses while injecting entirely new information as well. And, it made me think about certain things in new ways, or with more clarity.

After having reread the book a few times, there are a few major takeaways that I would like to bring to a broader audience. For those of you who are already familiar with the material (I’m obviously going to assume you have it memorized!), this post will serve to highlight some things that I found particularly important, and expand on them.

The radar as metaphor

Passersby point to Daredevil masquerading as Thor in Daredevil #30 by Stan Lee and Gene Colan. Matt complains to himself about the fluttering cape which muffles the sound vibrations that guide him.

This first point I wanted to cover isn’t so much an insight as a discovery. As mentioned in Being Matt Murdock, I was reading M. Leona Godin’s There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness as part of my research. Finding this book when I did turned out to be quite fortuitous because it had just come out (in June of 2021), and I was well into the writing process when I came across it. In it, I found several references to the writing of Jacob Twersky. There was one account in particular, quoted from Twersky’s 1959 autobiography The Sound of the Walls, that totally blew my mind when I read it. Even thinking back to that moment gives me goosebumps. Here’s the quote:

“Near a large object I could sense its presence and steer out of the way of it. This obstacle sense depends on noticing subtle changes in air currents and temperature, but chiefly on hearing and interpreting tiny echoes as they rebound from obstructions. It is something like the bat’s method for detecting obstacles, or like radar. The sound of a footstep, in fact the slightest sound, releases the echoes, yet it does not require acute hearing, but concentrated and trained hearing, Nor does it give any sort of auditory impression – the impression is of vague sight or of slight pressure on the face. It is often called facial vision. I certainly did not suspect that it had anything to do with my ears, though I usually did not bump into things except when confused by too much noise.”

On the one hand, I was already pretty suspicious of any kind of literal interpretation of the radar sense when it comes to how Daredevil was originally written. As I’ve pointed out here on this site and in the book, the Silver Age radar really is all over the place, suggesting that the early creators weren’t too concerned about the finer points of how Daredevil’s object-sensing ability was actually supposed to work. And, the only outright mention of electromagnetic waves I’ve been able to find anywhere in the Daredevil record wasn’t even in the comic itself, but in the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (in the 1985 and subsequent editions) where it was proposed as one of two theories (the other one being that the radar is sound-based).

And so, the term “radar” was highly likely to have been intended as a metaphor, as is the case in other contexts where it is used somewhat inappropriately, such as when people talk about “bat radar.” Or so it seemed to me at least. Still, I was not expecting to find a blind author and Stan Lee contemporary (and fellow NYC resident) to have put into words something so… Daredevil-like. Was it possible that someone at Marvel had read these exact lines? Either way, my radar-as-metaphor theory definitely felt more solid after I read this passage.

But a metaphor of what, exactly? Not of strict echolocation necessarily, but of facial vision as a concept. “Facial vision” is one common historical term for that which has also been called the “obstacle sense” of the blind. It refers to the ability to detect and steer clear of obstacles that appears in many historical accounts of real blind people – and in highly exaggerated form in the literature featuring fictional blind characters.

We now know that echolocation is both necessary and sufficient to explain the phenomenon (and that air currents and temperature have nothing to do with it), but just as Twersky explains his own abilities in looser terms, it’s best to think of the early (and later!) radar as an ability that the Daredevil writers don’t necessarily feel like they have to define. It’s what it does that matters, not necessarily how it does it. And, whatever lies at the heart of the ability, the link to a real phenomenon is, I believe, central to how Daredevil was conceived. He’s in this sense a classical “superblind” fictional character of which there have been many throughout history.

The way I see it, the term “radar sense” serves to name the ability to detect solid objects in the absence of sight more than it attempts to supplant it by imagining that there’s a radiowave sender and receiver in Matt Murdock’s head. That Daredevil’s creators have tended to make a bit of a mess of how all of this is supposed to work is understandable considering that it took science until 1940 to prove the link between facial vision and echolocation, and considerably longer for that finding to become widely known.

I believe this is as close as we’re ever going to get to the “what?” of the radar sense. Unless someone simply decides what it’s going to be – once and for all – going forward.

The radar from the inside

A highly stylized radar image, courtesy of Scott McDaniel, from Daredevil #308.

Another area that I felt was important to cover in the book was the experiential nature of the radar sense. Combining whatever “consensus” (ahem!) we find in the comics with an attempt at logic, I think it’s possible to nail down a few basic properties.

The first is that “radar-sensing” is a real (to Matt) perceptual experience with its own distinct phenomenology, or qualia. There is something it is like to radar sense, the same way there is something it is like to see, or hear, or smell. This view would also be consistent with what we know from the research record. The reason “facial vision” took literal centuries to figure out is that it doesn’t feel like hearing. The kinds of computations the brains of skilled echolocators perform on the very particular kind of auditory imput that echoes represent generate a particular feel that the brain presents to its owner as distinct from typical hearing. This has been described by some as a feeling of pressure, or like “vague sight,” to quote Jacob Twersky.

When it comes to how Matt Murdock perceives things, my bet is that it comes closer to the latter than the the former. I base this on the idea that the better the quality and quantity of these echo sounds (which would be a consequence of heightened hearing and some choice brain enhancements), the more sight-like the experience is likely to be. Radar-sensing would then be comparable to seeing in some ways. The similarities with sight would be that the objects Matt senses are perceived as occupying and being externally located in three-dimensional space.

I know a kind of sense that preserves the “spatiality” of sight but none of its two-dimensional surface qualities is difficult to imagine, but it’s possible that the brain could accomplish this similarly to how it can perceive those floating shapes of 3D-stereograms despite the fact that these shapes have identical two-dimensional patterns to the background against which they appear to pop out (here’s an old post where I attempted to explore this concept).

It’s also possible that the brain would use some of the tricks of the trade available to the visual cortex and encode the experience using some kind of “grayscale” so that nearby surfaces are perceived as being lighter than more distant surfaces, or vice versa. It’s impossible to know whether any of these descriptions would fit the bill, and this is highly speculative on my part. What we do know is that the brain is capable of processing information about lines, edges, surfaces, and depth. As long as you can provide it with reasonably stable good-quality sensory data that can provide that kind of information, the brain should be able to work with it.

I should point out that my basic assessment of the situation also holds for explanations besides echolocation. We could conceivably do the same exercise with radiowaves and it would be mostly analogous to what I’ve outlined above. However, there is no scenario in which this ability, whatever we make of it, makes sense as something other than a “true” sense. If it doesn’t give rise to perceptual states (or “feels”) that are connected to real things in the external environment, if it feels like nothing at all, then how could Daredevil detect and respond to things in real time?

This may seem obvious, but as I mention in the book it has occasionally been suggested that the radar sense helps Matt construct a scene in his mind’s eye, where the information it gives him is combined with snippets of other sensory data and pieced together to create purely intellectual “understanding” of a scene. This kind of process would be much slower than it needs to be in order for Daredevil to detect things in real time. The way it’s been described also seems to suggest that it’s possible to generate some of the missing information by imagining things, so that Matt is able to conjure up something close to the sighted person’s view despite not having access to all of the raw data (see for instance my old post “Why believing isn’t seeing”).

How the radar sense is not sight

Matt and Foggy are at their offices, Foggy has his back turned toward Matt, while Matt tries to set the record straight. We then see a front view of Foggy, from Matt's perspective, where he appears as a white line against a black background. Other objects are similarly hinted at in the background.

On the topic of what the radar sense cannot convey, we have the obvious property of color (this is not news), as well as fine detail. At least if we go by what I would argue has been the majority take by most creators over the years. Ann Nocenti is one noteable exception that stands out to me on the topic of the acuity of the radar sense (“A childhood accident with a radioactive isotope took his sight, but gave him back heightened senses and a radar that works better than sight,” as seen in Daredevil #242, or “A childhood accident stole his sight, but at the same time blessed him with a radar-vision that’s more accurate than eyes,” from Daredevil #245). Other writers have made similar claims, though usually in slightly milder terms. And, the idea that the radar sense is supposed to compensate (or even more than compensate) is very common, probably due in large part to how this has been presented as central to what makes Daredevil “super.”

However, when pressed to describe – through the script or the art on the page – what radar-sensing is actually like, most creators have seemed to default to something less impressive than 20/20 vision. To take a few examples:

  • “[t]he rooftop reflects back at me all at once a crude map of blocky structures and room to maneuver. Hypersensitive hearing is more specific, pinpointing an ascending rhythm — leather soles scuffing their way up concrete steps.” (Daredevil #298, by D.G. Chichester and Lee Weeks)
  • “Radar-senses: How to describe them? For the blind super-hero called Daredevil — for the sightless lawyer, Matt Murdock — they provide a glimpse — if only a vague, ill-defined glimpse — of the world other men see — a world which now strains to reach him — and finally — does!” (Daredevil #96, by Gerry Conway and Gene Colan)
  • “I really am blind. From a childhood accident that heightened my remaining senses — and added a sort of… radar sense! It gives me an idea of an object’s contour — but that’s all.” (Daredevil #353, by Karl Kesel and Cary Nord)

The fact that the radar sense is (typically) described this way, however, doesn’t usually spell any kind of real trouble for our main character. As mentioned, it’s an a priori conclusion that Daredevil’s senses should compensate, and so… they do.

However, there’s another common theme that sets the radar apart from good ol’ eyesight, and which I’ve also mentioned here at The Other Murdock Papers before. I’m talking about the “conspicuously absent radar,” or the propensity for this sense to be used as needed, rather than by default, and to often be recruited late in the process, after the other senses have been tapped for information. I believe this post from nearly a decade ago may have been the first time I defined this particular phenomenon.

I mention several examples of the conspicuously absent radar (from the comics as well as the television show) in my book, but what I’m most pleased with is how I was able to come up with some, to my mind, reasonable explanations for why the radar sense would behave this way:

  • The notion that the radar sense doesn’t actually deliver anything close to the acuity (to say nothing of the contrast) of visual experience, at least according to most writers (as outlined above), means that it naturally ranks lower in the hierarchy of the senses for Matt than sight does for the typical person. This alone makes it less “attention-grabby” than his other senses.
  • Another thing that makes it naturally less prone to grab Matt’s attention has to do with the concept of salience. To quote myself from the book: “Salience refers to the propensity of an object to stand out against a background by virtue of the contrast of some feature that differentiates it from its surroundings. For instance, a red apple easily catches our eye in a bowl of green apples. It is rendered salient by the contrast in color.” The mere fact that the impressions of the radar sense may be quite faint (and depend on the often ephemeral medium of sound) doesn’t make them less real, but using this ability may require some amount of focused attention, which also resonates with how it’s been described in the comics.
  • If we assume that the radar “sense” is best understood as an ability that depends on hearing, there’s also the fact that listening to the location of source sounds and detecting echoes requires different and somewhat opposing strategies. Even if Daredevil is excellent at both of these tasks, optimal performance of either one may require some switching of attention or neural strategies, if you will. And so, the perceived physical (object) features of the world may very well fade more into the background if Matt is deep in conversation, or listening closely, or at rest.

Why Daredevil’s blindness is so difficult to make sense of

Matt goes to visit Chuckie, in Daredevil #191 by Frank MIller, quoted above

While I suspect it seems like I’m sometimes coming down a bit hard on some of Daredevil’s creators (and many of his fans) for downplaying the consequences of Matt’s blindness, and what the radar sense fails to deliver, I truly do understand why this can be tricky.

First of all, most accounts of blind characters in fiction are deptictions of people who are totally blind. Despite the fact that total blindness is much rarer than milder forms of vision impairment, people (including the authors of the relevant works) tend to fall into the trap of thinking of blindness and sightedness as these black and white, sharply defined categories. So, when you have a character like Daredevil, who certainly appears to be something less than totally blind, it’s easy to make the mental jump to full sightedness. Sure, there are certain things we all know he can’t do (like read visually, or see screens), but these situations are often treated like niche problems, or minor nuisances. He doesn’t collide with out of place furniture, and so he can’t really be blind. Or something like that.

And despite the fact that I’m very much of the opinion that Matt would be much more impacted by his blindness than what the comics (and even the show) suggest – while still being a relatively believable superhero! – I too have struggled to put into words exactly why this is. Oh sure, I’ve written tons about this subject on this site, but it wasn’t until I was working on the book that I managed to find the right words to express what I’ve been wanting to communicate. And here, I’ll just quote the book directly (this is from the final chapter, in the context of discussing the use of the white cane):

“Of course, Matt Murdock cannot be expected to be placing himself in any great danger by going without a white cane. Or, to the extent that he’s placing himself in danger, this has more to do with his choice of extra-curricular activities. Why this is has to do with the very specific ways in which his other senses can legitimately be said to compensate. One problem with severe, but less than total, vision loss in terms of the effects on a person’s ability to get around safely has to do with the fact that the visual system creates a perception of three-dimensional space from what is essentially two not-quite-overlapping two-dimensional images presented to the eyes. With diminishing acuity, contrast, or other problems with the quality of these images, people may find themselves less able to make accurate spatial judgment calls from what they are seeing. Additionally, shadows may be difficult to tell from real objects, and all kinds of complications may arise.

What Daredevil’s radar sense does, whatever we imagine it to be, is that it very neatly sidesteps such complications. Matt will never be fooled by a shadow (he can’t see them), and the same stimuli and body-stimulus interactions that allow him to perceive objects and shapes in the first place also simultaneously allow him to sense where they are in three-dimensional space. This is what makes it possible to bestow Daredevil with a “sense of space” that is at once reasonably reliable, with objects and surfaces that are sensed more intensely as he approaches them, and at the same time have him operating with very little of the visual information we get from our eyes. It’s a perfect “decoupling” of contrast, color, and acuity from the perception of space and the solidity of walls and objects.

Where am I going with this? Well, for Daredevil specifically, the fact that he has little to no problem getting around without colliding with anything in his way is an extremely poor predictor of how much he “sees” on a more general level. In the real world, we assume that these things go together. For Daredevil, they do not. By extension, his non-reliance on a cane for mobility purposes is a poor metric for how blind he really is by other metrics.”

What I really wanted to get across here was the notion of a decoupling of the various qualities we associate with normal vision. While there are conditions that can affect certain parts of the eye so that the ability to read or see fine print in the central visual field fails much later than the sight needed for mobility (retinitis pigmentosa), or the opposite (e.g. macular degeneration), we can generally assume that if a person with a vision impairment is struggling in one area, other areas will be adversely affected as well.

The natural phenomenon on which I believe the radar sense was based, i.e. the ability of some blind people to perceive things we associate very closely with vision, even in the absence of any vision at all, illustrates this sort of decoupling in the real world. For Daredevil, this ability is taken to the extreme. But the radar sense doesn’t make him sighted, it allows him to be blind in a very unusual way. 

1 Comment

  1. Rea Beverly

    Echolocation definitely is an attribute to the radar sense, but is not a single explanation. If you close your eyes and hold your hand in front of your face, any sound you make will sound different depending on how far away your hand is. I read something about that in a different Daredevil science book, though yours is also on my shelf. Of course, Daredevil is stealthy, so making noises to determine how far away a wall might be is not a very effective strategy. And I doubt he can hear a wall, unless there is plumbing there. If he sees in outlines, then would a wall look like nothing? If looking at a wall, or looking, say looking straight off the tallest building in Hell’s Kitchen, then would there be a difference? Cause a wall, which hypothetically has no plumbing or anything that would make noise living behind it, and empty air, wouldn’t they both be blank? Of course, on a building he would know how he got there, and could feel the wind. But hypothetically if there was no other factor for the radar sensor then hearing… Sorry if this made no sense! Just my musings while reading through this article.


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