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See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 5

These 5 Illusions Turn Ordinary Humans into Superheroes

Superpower your imagination



© MARVEL, COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL STUDIOS JAPAN

Superhero science has taught me this: Entire universes fit comfortably inside our skulls. Not just one or two but endless universes can be packed into that dark, wet, and bony hollow without breaking it open from the inside.—Grant Morrison, Supergods, 2011

An eclectic crowd of cosplay zombies, manga characters, and assorted villains and heroes, all sweltering under their makeup in the Arizona summer heat, presses us along at the 2014 Phoenix Comicon convention. We descend a four-story escalator into the immense Phoenix Convention Center, which sprawls across multiple city blocks of subterranean floor space. As we watch the bottom of the pit rise toward us, demons are brandishing crossbows, war hammers and lightsabers.

Comic book characters live in an augmented reality, a realm where individuals transcend natural capacities. Their stories are human dramas writ large: Superman soars to the rescue, and Spider-Man clambers up buildings to escape villains. The human nervous system offers many ways to be part of this world. Our eyes can take in the tremendous array of colors, light and movement that surround us, and the brain translates this visual maelstrom into something intelligible. In particular, our perceptual and cognitive systems rely largely on seeking out, embellishing and identifying contrast, a principle that is also fundamental to comic stories, with their central themes of good versus evil.

Nobel laureate Haldan Keffer Hartline of the Rockefeller University first discovered the brain's contrast-detecting ability in the neurons of the retina, which in humans lines the inner surface at the back of the eye. Hartline found that excitation in a neuron leads to suppression of surrounding, competing neurons, so that an enhanced neural response to visual stimuli goes hand in hand with the active inhibition of nearby opponent stimuli. Hartline called this process “lateral inhibition.”

Excitation versus inhibition enhances the contours of objects as compared with their interiors, and similar computations operate outside the visual system to have a part in virtually every known brain area. Lateral inhibition may also play a role in how we compare ideas and arguments. Disambiguating the world—heightening the difference among entities—appears to be a neural mandate. We cannot perceive greenish-red or bluish-yellow, for example, because the corresponding colors are processed as opponent types of information in visual neurons. They are like oil and water to the mind.

On the Phoenix Comicon exhibition floor, one of our favorite comic book creators, Dennis Calero, explains that managing dualities is also crucial to superhero lore. Heroes often internalize opposing personas: readers identify with Clark Kent and Peter Parker rather than with Superman and Spider-Man. Yet just as important, the villain makes the hero. Without a compelling villain, stories fall flat. Contrast between light and dark forces creates the narrative.

The images in this article play on the idea of superpowers and heroes. They challenge your visual and cognitive circuits to classify them as possible versus impossible. The ambiguity inherent to the visual inputs you are about to experience makes this task a feat worthy of the Man of Steel himself.

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