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Sometimes Less Is More: Reflections On X-Ray Vision

Henry Cavill as Superman and Amy Adams as Lois Lane in the movie Man Of Steel.
Warner Bros. Pictures

I saw Man of Steel last week — the latest retelling of the Superman story — and I was thrilled to see that now, finally, an effort has been made to make better sense of Superman's X-ray vision.

Surgeons have been performing cataract operations on the blind for centuries now and there is a large and ancient literature exploring the work. But what has not very often been discussed is the fact that removing cataracts does not typically have the effect of, as it were, pulling aside a a curtain and revealing, in one fell swoop, a coherent visible world. Visual information to someone who is unfamiliar with it can be confusing and, in fact, blinding.

Case studies describe patients who refuse to use vision to perform delicate or difficult tasks that they have long since mastered relying on senses other than sight. Such patients will shut their eyes to make their way across an intersection, or turn off the bathroom light so that they can shave. As Oliver Sacks, Richard Gregory and others have also documented, acquiring sight at a late age can be a demoralizing and unpleasant gift.

This is just the situation that we find young Clark in as his superpowers begin to develop.

Readers of my age will remember the ads at the back of comic books for X-ray specs that promised to enable you to see through ladies blouses. But Clark was not given his own voyeuristic power with the onset of X-ray vision. He was, rather, blinded and confused.

To see the skulls, or subcutaneous flesh, of the people around you, is not to see their faces, and so, really, it is not to see them. Clark found himself alone and scared, alienated from those around him. To see at all, Clark needed to learn not to see through things. He needed, that is, to come to understand that seeing is a way of paying attention, not to everything, but to what interests you or is relevant or important for this or that purpose.

In the film, Clark is represented as having wildly hyperactive senses, as though he suffered from a kind of ADHD, or something along those lines. To harness his powers, what was required, finally, was a kind of mindfulness training. He needed learn to focus and filter and shut out and pay attention.

But the true moral of Clark's situation — brought out when we notice the literature of the surgical restoration of sight — is that we are all always in the situation that Clark Kent finds himself in, his more powerful sensory capacities notwithstanding. It's not the sensations that matter to us. It's the world around us. And the way we learn to see is by learning to understand the way our sensations depend, in reliable and familiar ways, on our changing relation to a changing environment.

Clark Kent is, then, truly a super man.

Later in the film he is able to use his all-too-human understanding of the limitations inherent in our perceptual capacities to do battle with villains from Krypton who, although also equipped with the same heightened sensory powers, are, initially at least, no better than blind.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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