The superhero in you: Paul Zehr at TEDxEdmonton

The superhero in you: Paul Zehr at TEDxEdmonton


Translator: Liz Medendorp
Reviewer: Ariana Bleau Lugo Have you ever wanted to be a superhero? Or thought, more to the point, what it might be like
to exceed the limitations, the real or perceived limitations
that you or others put on, what you can do, what you can achieve,
what you’re capable of doing in your life. Superheroes represent metaphors
for us to consider going beyond the normal expectations
of what we can do. We can think of our modern-day
superheroes like Iron Man and Batman as really just iterations that have come
through time, back to the story of Icarus, building some waxen wings with feathers and trying to fly off the Isle of Crete. He went beyond what we would
normally think of as human ability in order to try and achieve something. My background is that I’m a neuroscientist and I got into science
through my study of martial arts, and I got into martial arts
through being opened up to many different ideas
because of the comic books that my mom would bring home for me after going grocery shopping each week. She loved comic books,
she used to like the old Tarzan and all the kind of pulp fiction comics from the early days,
and Batman and so on, and she really infused in me
as a young boy a real love of being creative
and thinking beyond and reading widely. And I think it was because
of all those experiences that, when I was about 13, my older brother,
he was 9 years older than me, started doing martial arts,
and I thought I would do martial arts too, for those reasons I just mentioned, also because I thought
it might be a nice additional way to annoy my older brother. So if I could hit multiple checklists
on something interesting, kind of cool, and annoy my brother, why not do it? So I started and just never stopped. Once I started, the reason
I’ve never stopped doing martial arts is I became captivated
by the potential the human body has and the wonderful things
that can happen if we only bend our wills towards training
or trying to achieve something. I saw myself gaining more and more skills
from the age of 13 on over the years of training, that I was able to do things
I never imagined being able to do before, and I could see my teachers doing things that seemed fantastical
the first few times I saw them. Because of that, that love
of understanding or trying to get a better idea
of what was happening in my body, I went off and studied kinesiology
as an undergraduate, and then as a master’s student, and was trying to do what I could to understand better
how does the body work, how are these things
that I’ve gained abilities in and other people have done, how does that happen?
From that, I got interested in the brain and understanding
how the movements themselves occur. And when I’m trying to put
all this stuff together, I was thinking, what is it about
all of this that knits what I’ve done and why I’m interested in these things? And if I think about that, we can think about human ability
and potential very simply. There’s you, there’s me, there’s us, and we can think about our abilities
and what we can do as moving in different directions
on a continuum of performance: Enhanced performance, which is the idea of going beyond
what we’re capable of doing now, which is where I started in my whole quest to learn more about how the body works. Or we can be
on the other end of the continuum if we’ve had some sort of injury,
or there’s been a damage, we’ve had an accident, or a stroke,
or even a broken limb; our bodies are weakened. That’s where I eventually got interested
in my own research, and a lot of the work that I do
in neuroscience. My research program is around
the recovery of ability after stroke and coming up with therapies
to improve the walking ability that people can regain
after nervous system damage. But when I looked at this whole picture,
one of the things that, when I’m thinking and was reflecting some years ago
about what I was doing, what was my impact in society as a professor and as a scientist,
and as a member of my community? What was I doing to engage
the community more? What kinds of things could I do more? That was juxtaposed
against a growing frustration with the fact that
we’ve all got human bodies, and yet most of us don’t know
how those human bodies work. We know more about our computer
than we do about our bodies, our own things that we’ve carried
with us all through our lives, literally. And because of that I feel we fall prey
too often to infomercials or strange diets because we don’t know any better. Or we might see, wow! – this actual, real system exists – Wow! An eye training device I can learn to move my eyeballs around
and I’ll lose pounds a day! (Laughter) Well, you’ll actually lose a pound
about every three years based on the calories that would be,
you know, do it now, feel the burn, as you wiggle your eyes around.
(Laughter) And yet if you don’t really understand
how your body works, why would you not think
that was a good thing to do? I mean if it’s pitched a certain way,
we believe what we read or hear. Because I got so frustrated, I thought, is there something I can do towards
trying to contribute towards improving the literacy that people have
about how their bodies work and the wonders of the human body? And can I combine that with my interests
in science, martial arts, and comic books? And I started thinking back to what
we talked about a few moments ago about the metaphor
that superheroes serve for us as going beyond,
as going beyond our lives, and started thinking, what about
more realistic superheroes that really seem accessible to people? Can we use those as metaphors? So I started thinking more about that, and I started to coalesce these ideas
into some book concepts. So, when I was thinking about Batman,
I came across a quote by the very famous writer and editor
for DC and Marvel Comics, Denny O’Neil, who wrote that “Batman was the most
realistic of the great superheroes… …he wasn’t bequeathed those abilities,
he sweated for them.” So Batman’s got this kind of concept
of something that has achievement that we could maybe do ourselves
wrapped up in it. Or if you think about Iron Man, which maybe seems like it might be
a little different. But again, Iron Man is pitched
as a human being. And David Michelinie who is a very famous
writer for very influential story arcs in the Iron Man comics wrote that Iron Man
is a superhero with no superpowers. He could be you or me, if we had the money the inventiveness, the courage,
and the willpower. So these superheroes are kind of
superheroes that don’t require something like divine intervention,
or being, you know, we started off with an image
that was briefly up there of Superman, nothing against Sups,
but he was born on another planet, and we can’t really do that
because we’re born here, so it’s kind of a different category.
(Laughter) But Iron Man and Batman had this feeling
to them that if we go back to this idea of the enhanced you and the weakened you, and the you in the middle,
and the we and the us, that maybe we can use that idea
to think about Batman as representing the training concept.
What can we do with training to move our biology in one direction
towards enhancing our abilities? And what can we do when it comes
to the idea of technology and thinking of Iron Man as representing
a technological device that we could use that represents our use of technology
and what does it do to our bodies, and how do we respond to these things? And when you think of all these things,
lots more questions come up. And what’s really interesting is
you begin to appreciate, and I’ve gained a much deeper
understanding for how the body works and how we can think of thinking about
how the body works in different ways. And there’s lots of questions that come up
about what we can do with that information and how it can be used. When I first started off writing
these books and doing more, I didn’t realize that I was on a track
to be trying to become a science communications superhero
in my own right, trying to use that as something
to really fulfill my own inner need to contribute more to society that fueled my own passion towards
trying to communicate more to people about how their bodies work. And in many different ways, I almost
laugh about it when I talk to people now, that when I first wrote these books,
in particular the Batman book, I never really thought of its use
in schools and for children. It was mostly for adults, I was thinking. And yet, when I go and talk to schools and engage with a kid in grade 7 who wants
to know all about how their bones work and when they’re thinking of the context
of Batman or what happens to Iron Man, is it like what astronauts experience
in space? All these things, or when a kid comes up
to me afterwards and asks me, after hearing my talk and discussing
all about the science of their bodies and thinking of superheroes and being able
to do whatever they want to do, picks up one of my books,
looks at it, turns it over, and asks me something that I’ve only
ever been asked one time by this one girl. She said, “Hm, what does it feel like
to write a book?” Not what was it like, not how hard was it,
not how much time did it take, what did it feel like? And I said to her, “You know, I’ve written
lots of scientific papers as a scientist, but this is my first, you know, this kind
of book like this,” and I said, “It feels pretty good.” She said, “You know,
I think I’m going to write a book.” And I said, “I think you are too,
and I think I’d like to read that book.” She had a big smile on her face
and put the book down. I think of those things about what
information, what do we inspire, what can we do as scientists
to go on like that? But what are some specific things to take
forward as scientific messages about my own experience
in analyzing these superheroes? I’ve created the superhero checklist. You can draw it down if you like,
or you can memorize it if you want. It’s not that much information. It’s really hard becoming a superhero,
but let’s pretend. The superhero checklist,
when I think about all the training that would be required to produce
both a Batman and an Iron Man, as the two more realistic superheroes
I’ve been discussing so far — The extent of the physical training
is very extreme, as alluded to with some of the images
we saw at the beginning with some of the martial arts training
in the extreme, sort of impact training
shown in that video. That physical training is a big part
of both of those superheroes, Batman and Iron Man,
and we’re talking decades of training because the expectation on them
goes beyond what we’d ever imagine that we could ever do. You hear lots of talks about people being
able to exceed their abilities, but you’ve got superheroes who actually
have to go and defend themselves against all manner of attack,
but they won’t kill anybody. They won’t use lethal force.
They’ll hurt rather than harm. And this takes a tremendous amount of time
and involves an extremely large dollop of mental training to have the ability,
the steel will, to push themselves and to be able to keep themselves
under composure to be able to respond appropriately. To also think about not just the physical
and mental ability but the time taken. It’s no easy task,
even as we see in some of the movies that have come out
about superheroes recently that show good depictions
of how long these things actually take. It’s decades of training, decades of R&D,
if we’re thinking about Iron Man; It’s a long time. So you have to have a commitment
to do those things. These superheroes do represent for us not just this idea
that they gain something. There’s a reason why I called
my first book “Becoming Batman”, the second one “Inventing Iron Man”
because it’s a process. It’s not just be this or have this. It runs a bit contrary to our modern ethos so we can just walk into a store
and buy something. You can’t buy Batman’s skills,
you can’t buy the ingenuity that went into creating
the Iron Man suit of armor. You need the commitment and the time. You also of course need, if you’re
going to think about the ability overall for human ability, you need the genetic
component, which is something that is, until now, pretty much predetermined,
but going forward with what we are experiencing
in biotechnology and genome therapies, we’re getting to the point where we’ll be able to do something
about those on purpose. We also have the issue of money
and of course we can’t do much about that. Probably no coincidence that Tony Stark
and Bruce Wayne are billionaires. So “billionaire” is unfortunately
one of the checklist items down there. (Laughter) But that’s okay because I want to talk
to you near the end of my talk now, about not what it means for really
becoming a superhero, but rather, what if we boiled
down all the things that are part of the superhero-ness
we’ve just been discussing? What do we really have?
Well let’s look at some panels from some comic books to illustrate
a few points I want to make. This panel you see was in Batman #1
in 1940 from a story called “The Legend of Batman: How He Came to Be.” This is the first that Batman’s training
is ever shown in the comic books. On the one panel, we have Bruce Wayne
shown in the laboratory, training to be a scientist,
and on the right, we have him doing his athletic skill
training needed to become Batman. I would say we could call this
pretty minimalistic. This is a bit of a very snapshot idea
of probably the training that wasn’t really needed,
but it got the idea across, and boy, as somebody who spent years
going to school to get my Ph.D. and so on, and spent more than 30 years
doing martial arts, I wish I could have seen this, though,
because if this really works, apparently you need 5 minutes in the lab,
I’m reckoning that’s how long you can hold your hand like that
without fatigue and shaking, (Laughter) You just need a barbell
and hold it over your head like this. The downside is you have to wear
very odd blue pants. (Laughter) But the interesting point about all this
is that what this panel shows us is Bruce Wayne was a scientist, a detective,
the ultimate in physical skill as well. He was doing lots of different things,
even within the things there were lots of different things
he did lots of different things. He had many, many skill sets,
if we think about what Batman represents. And this tells us, I think, when you look
at both of these superheroes, this idea of being good at many things. Nowadays we specialize in things.
We do just this or just that. If it’s physical, we just do marathons,
or we just do power lifting, as examples. Instead, these superhero lessons
are that they’re well rounded. They’re good at many things, which allows
them to be excellent at what they do. Batman is not the best athlete in each
individual category: the fastest runner, the runner that goes the furthest,
the highest jumper. But if he was a decathlete, he’d win
the decathlon for being Batman and come first to third in every event. Very well rounded. Maybe we’ll see him
at the games this summer. (Laughter)
He’ll stand out for sure. We can also think of Iron Man as another
example to highlight another point about what we can distill down
about lessons for life coming from thinking about superheroes. This represents the inside cover
of the first comic book where Iron Man was shown,
Tales of Suspense #39 in 1963. Now, I want you to look at that image
for a moment. In particular, look at the way the head
and the shoulders of Iron Man are drawn. You can see the wiggly lines. It doesn’t suggest strength.
It suggests staggering, vibrating, not moving around very well. One of the things that is important
in this story, you’ve got this superhero wearing this exoskeleton
that can amplify his ability and give him all kinds of power and
strength, yet in this story we learn that he had to learn to walk
again once he put that suit of armor on. He had to go back and literally,
the panel describes him walking like a baby for the first time.
Or, not a baby, obviously, but an infant. A baby for the first time would be
impressive, however. (Laughter) Iron Man represents, therefore, a way to
look at something in a very different way, and I think the true value is to see
the familiar with new eyes. I think we think of Iron Man as we see
in the movies now, in The Avengers, and the Iron Man films,
and the comic books nowadays. We don’t think of it as coming from
that kind of origin, but really that is a way
to appreciate differences. We can see the familiar
in new things, in new ways, when we just change our perspective. That’s been a big part of my own journey
as a science communicator in the last number of years,
I’ve tried to look at superheroes through the lens of science,
which is a different way of viewing it. It’s had broad impact on all aspects
of my life, even my normal science gives me a different perspective,
and I think it allows us to find opportunities that may have been there
before and we might not have seen. How about this,
we can also think of the Hulk. Now, not as realistic as Superman,
pardon me, as Iron Man and Batman, at least not without the genetic therapies but we have this idea of the Hulk saying,
“Why shouldn’t I be the Hulk?” This is, of course, what we all
probably ask, why shouldn’t I be the Hulk? Why be a puny scientist? I think of this when I’m shaving
in the morning, typically. (Laughter) Why am I a puny scientist when I could be
the most powerful man walking the Earth? Now, what does the Hulk tell us here? Really what the story of the Hulk
is telling us is to think about following a passion. Now, Hulk’s passion is to smash things,
(Laughter) and to smash them up a lot,
and just keep smashing. I don’t want you to think
about smashing things, I want you to think about smashing
preconceptions, smashing the shackles of the bonds that hold you back
from doing the things you think you want to do
and that you’re capable of. That’s the message from all these
superheroes and the metaphor they give us. They follow their passions
as far as they can go. So if we come back to this idea of you:
the enhanced you, going from weakened to the you you want
with training and technology, we can distill all this stuff down into
three points with one additional point. Be good at many things. Try to do
new things and try to gain new skills. See the familiar with new eyes. Try to make sure you follow a passion
to drive you. And above all, you need to have
the will to act. That’s the line that separates
success from failure. The people who step up
and try to do the things, not just talk
about what their passions are, not just think about what they might want
to try that’s something new not just say, well maybe I’ll try that
but I’m not so sure I want to do it’s something new.
Actually do it. I’d like to leave you with this quote
that I just love, which says, “Every great advance in science has issued
from a new audacity of imagination.” Please use your imagination
to find the superhero in you. (Applause)

David Anderson

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6 thoughts on “The superhero in you: Paul Zehr at TEDxEdmonton

  1. Andrew Heard says:

    Definitely a good talk. 🙂

  2. amrroxmoora says:

    Definitely the best neuro scientist superhero ever !

  3. Ronald Martin says:

    He makes a good point , batman and iron man what if we society

  4. Kevin S says:

    Icarus didn't build the wings, Daedalus did.

  5. Harsh Sharma says:

    Good talk , he actually tells us what it takes to be a superhero..

  6. Gregory Yarbrough says:

    Being rich is their superpower

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