“Superman or Green Lantern ain’t got a-nothin’ on me”

by Michael Mullaney on June 25, 2009

The Wall Street Journal ran an excellent review last weekend of professor Mark Changizi’s new book, The Vision Revolution. It’s definitely worth your while to click here and read the book’s short introductory chapter.

Changizi studies theoretical neuroscience and its relation to evolutionary biology, which makes him a theoretical evolutionary neurobiologist. That’s a whole lot of words. Here’s what it means:

He questions not how the human and animal brains have evolved to perform certain sets of functions, but rather why brains evolved as they did. For example, science has known for many years how color vision works. But Changizi is not content with understanding how it works, instead he asks why human eyesight evolved to see color. What environmental and social factors were present that made it beneficial for natural selection to favor our evolutionary ancestors who were better able to see colors?

It was while investigating this question, and other similar mysteries about vision, that Changizi made an uncanny discovery – human beings have superpowers. Honest to goodness superpowers. We can see into the future, talk with the dead, have x-ray vision, and are telepathic, he says.

It’s a bold claim, and here’s how Changizi frames it in the intro to The Vision Revolution:

Now, you might be thinking, “How could we possibly have such powers? Mustn’t this author be crazy to suggest such a thing?” Let me immediately allay your fears: there’s nothing spooky going on in this book. I’m claiming we have these four superpowers, yes, but also that they are carried out by our real bodies and brains, with no mysterious mechanisms, no magic, and no funny business. Trust me—I’m a square, stick-in-the-mud, pencil-necked scientist who gets annoyed when one of the cable science channels puts a show on about “hauntings,” “mystics,” or other nonsense.

But then why am I writing about superpowers? “No magic, no superpowers,” some might say. Well, perhaps. But I’m more inclined to say, “No magic, but still superpowers.” I call each of these four powers “superpowers” because each of them has been attributed to superhuman characters, and each of them has been presumed to be well beyond the limits of us regular folk.

That we have superpowers of vision—and yet no one has realized it—is one of the reasons I think you’ll enjoy this book. Superpowers are fun, after all. There’s no denying it. But superpowers are just a part of this book’s story. Each of the four superpowers is the tip of an iceberg, and lying below the surface is a fundamental question concerning our nature. This book is really about answering “why”: Why do we see in color? Why do our eyes face forward? Why do we see illusions? Why are letters shaped the way they are?

What on Earth is the connection between these four deep scientific questions and the four superpowers? I’d hate to give away all the answers now—that’s what the rest of the book is for—but here are some teasers. We use color vision to see skin, so we can sense the emotions and states of our friends and enemies (telepathy). Our eyes face forward so that we can see through objects, whether ourown noses or clutter in the world around us (X-ray vision). We see illusions because our brain is attempting to see the future in order to properly perceive the present (future-seeing). And, lastly,letters have culturally evolved over centuries into shapes that look like things in nature because nature is what we have evolved to be good at seeing. These letters then allow us to effortlessly read the thoughts of the living . . . and the dead (spirit-reading).

While you’re waiting for the book to arrive from your favorite online bookseller, you can keep busy by reading our recent news release on The Vision Revolution, or some of the excellent news stories on Changizi and his awesome research:

Uncovering Human Superpowers – Rensselaer Alumni Magazine

Anticipating the Future to ‘See’ the Present – New York Times

A New theory of Why We See in Color – Time Magazine

Were Letters Inspired by Nature? – USA Today

What Dictionaries and Optical Illusions Say About Our Brains – Scientific American

Science Builds Visual Circuits to Harness your Brain’s GPU – Wired