E. Paul Zehr has made his childhood fantasies a profession. Many kids who grew up voracious comic book consumers no doubt daydreamed about what it would be like, to fly those skies, to fight that villain, to have that superpower.
But as professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria, he entertains those fantasies for science. In fact, he’s turned his “what-ifs” into two books about biological capabilities, Becoming Batman and Inventing Iron Man.
At the TEDxEdmonton 2012 seminar on June 9, Zehr will join speakers such as inventor Randy Marsen and filmmaker Kris Pearn to share their visions of the future. “It will be about what is realistic about superheroes like Batman, Iron Man, the more human-based superheroes,” he says. “What did Bruce Wayne have to do to become Batman, what did Tony Stark have to do to become Iron Man, what are some of the character traits and things you can take into real life?”
I spoke with Zehr about just that. Here’s a taste of what’s to come at TEDx. (Click here for tickets.)
So what did Tony Stark or Bruce Wayne have to do to become who they are?
You can’t just be good at one thing if you want to be anything, and neither of those superheroes revolved around one thing. Even at a very superficial level, Batman is a scientist and a detective and the most highly trained specimen of humanity in the world. And Iron Man is a genius engineer and scientist, and an industrial financial expert, and he created this suit of armour that could be used for fighting against evil. They’ve got multiple skill sets.
The reality is, what an animal like a human being is all about is being good a lots of things. We have to be careful that we don’t be seduced by what we can specialize in, that we just play video games, or just run marathons, or you’re just a power trainer. We have this luxury nowadays because we buy our food in grocery stores, we don’t have to chase it down — the things where you’d need a well-rounded skill set — that we can just do one small piece of the human experience.
So in a way it was part of our evolution. Grocery stores and other modern conveniences simplified our being so that we can have singular focuses.
Yes, the way we’ve built our environment, it allows us to do that. It’s actually very sensible from an energy-perspective. If you have a wild animal and you just feed it all the time, it’s not going to go running around its cage. It’s not going to chase down animals that don’t exist. It’s just going to lie around.
What’s the next evolution for humans?
The first two books were about training as far as you can without altering the biology, and the next step was the technological piece, now what I’m trying to think of is, what if you said all bets are off and you can do whatever you like? You could modify whatever you want — take steroids, use gene therapy, targeted gene deletions or gene insertions, and you can implant things that you like — where does this go?
Can I guess who your superhero will be for that book?
Is it the Hulk?
Well, for the next project I’m not focusing on one superhero, but he’s one of them. The Hulk is a good example of how the possibilities get bigger and bigger, and exponentially increasing. Once you start thinking of what we can do, or what we’ll be able to do, should we do that stuff?
So what’s the answer to that moral question?
I’m not so sure we should. Too often as soon as we think we can, we do. As soon as there’s a next generation of smartphone, whatever, we need that. Why do you need that? Just because it’s the new shiny thing, we should go get that? I wonder sometimes what we’re doing when we keep feeding that.
Your passion of science came through a love of martial arts. What does one have to do with the other?
When I was 13 I took up martial arts, and I got fascinated by skilled movement. Whenever you were trying to do something — a kick, a punch, a throw, whatever — and it was just hard to do. You can’t just get your body to do what you want it to. But with practice, you could do it really efficiently. And the more I trained, the more interested I got in how the body works. Like how is it possible to intercept or block something and not even realize it until after it’s happened? So I was thinking about how my brain is controlling movement, and that naturally stimulated some curiosity to learn more about how the body works.
Biology has more to do with Batman than Iron Man Man of course —
I’d add a caveat there.
What’s the caveat?
If you think about using technology, you have to have a trained system. Imagine that your nervous system is a computer program. If a program doesn’t run very well, its buggy, it crashes — that’s somebody who’s not well trained. Their ability to think about how to command things is poor. So if you took an Iron Man suit and the input isn’t very good, you’re just going to get amplified junk on the other end.
The Iron Man suit of armour looks like something you can just jump into and you’ve got these displays — all this information coming at you, all this sensory overload and things he’s trying to control and think about. You don’t have the attentional resources to do that. It’s just not possible.
Think of the last time you were travelling in your car and had a map out. If someone was talking to you, you probably stopped talking to them, if you had the music up, you probably turned it down. You’re trying to restrict what you can focus on to figure out where you need to go. Now imagine multiplying that by 100, which is what the Iron Man suit represents.
So, there’s quite a high level of training in the brain-machine interface that’s involved.
Well, with Batman, what can or can’t we learn from him?
If you were to give Batman a letter grade, you’d give him an A-plus. But if you look at the different components of what goes into being Batman, is he going to be the fastest runner? No. Probably an A-minus. Is he going to be the strongest? No, same thing.
If you look at all these characteristics, you realize he can’t be an A-plus in all the categories, but that’s fine, because the key category is being Batman, being well-rounded. What sport would he excel at in the Olympics? I’d say he’d a decathlete — the idea that you have to be good at so many things. Is a gold metal decathlete going to also win in shot put? No, but they’ll be in the top three.
What you can’t learn is related to that. You can’t actually be the fastest runner and the strongest lifter. Your physiological adaptations don’t let you do things that are mutually exclusive. The adaptations your body goes through for one thing don’t allow you for another kind of thing, but it does allow you to be well-rounded.