Batman: Concussion And The Caped Crusader

E. Paul Zehr E. Paul Zehr
November 21st, 2016

I'm a neuroscientist, author, and martial artist. Comic books got me into martial arts, martial arts got me into science. In my day job my research helps to improve function and empower people with stroke and spinal cord injury. I want to empower everyone with knowledge so I also write about science and superheroes. My first 3 books are "Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero", "Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine", and "Project Superhero". My 4th book, "Creating Captain America" will be out in 2018. I live in Victoria, BC, Canada, where I work at the University of Victoria and teach martial arts.

Batman: Concussion And The Caped Crusader

Our Dr. E Paul Zehr takes a deep dive into the world of superheroes and neuroscience in his latest article for ComiConverse.

Batman: Concussion And The Caped Crusader

Batman Concussions

Credit: Warner Brothers

Batman’s brain and body take a massive mauling. Is Batman at risk for concussion and post-concussion syndromes?

Whether in comic books, animation, live action, or even sock puppets (yes, that’s actually a thing), and even when he defeats the villains, Batman takes a beating. Since Batman’s pitched as a human—just like us, sort of—this means thinking about what would happen to a real human inside the Batsuit.

The Batsuit itself isn’t going to do all that much to protect Batman from concussive injuries. For sure it is great protection from fire and is an amazing whole body bullet-proof vest against puncture injuries from projectiles and shrapnel. Within, though, there’s a human body that is constantly getting subjected to major accelerations. Such as from being hit (e.g. by Superman) or hitting things (e.g. the walls through which Superman has thrown him). Impacts like those would generate very high angular accelerations that produce concussions.

“Concussion” is now used so much that the real meaning is lost on most of us. A dictionary definition courtesy of Merriam-Webster defines concussion as “a jarring injury of the brain resulting in disturbance of cerebral function”. Concussions are some of the most common form of head injury in sports and athletic competitions. Essentially, bodily impact can produce synchronized activity of the neurons of the brain. Many neurons are transiently “stunned” (and some killed) and only slowly return to function. Symptoms of concussion include dizziness, headache, impaired vision, balance, memory and the inability to concentrate. Amnesia for events and loss of consciousness can occur. But you don’t have to be knocked unconscious to have a concussion!

But how much is exposure to concussion truly an occupational hazard for the Dark Knight?

To get an estimate, Bruce Wright, my colleague at the University of Victoria, and I examined the 10 “big screen” live action representations of Batman from the first serialization “Batman” in 1943 up to “Batman V Superman” in 2016. We published a paper called “Can Concussion Constrain the Caped Crusader?” in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Our analysis showed that Batman has been exposed to 176 concussive incidents in his “big screen” lifetime. That works out to about 6.5 incidents per hour of screen time. The highest exposure? Batman V Superman at 10.3 per hour. The lowest?

Batman Forever from 1995 at just over 2 per hour. The third highest exposure was actually in 1943 at just under 10 per hour.

One major conclusion is that in his earliest (hello Lewis G. Wilson) and most recent (I’m looking at you Ben Affleck) incarnations, Batman is not very good at fighting. So he gets smashed and bashed around like crazy. I’ll have more on Batman’s evolution as a fighter in a future post. So maybe the representation of Batman in action could be a bit better if we’re really thinking of him as a human being in a fancy suit. Also, in line with my last post where genetics was a main theme for Batman’s performance abilities, there are also likely genetic factors at play in concussion.

Which is why the work published in the Journal of Neurotrauma by Michael Dretsch from the US Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory about genetics and risk factors for past concussions is so interesting. No, it isn’t, unfortunately, actually about Batman, but rather active duty soldiers. In other words, those who are actually exposed to the impacts and detonations that a fictional Batman would experience.

They wanted to find out if there is an association between concussion history and genetic markers that are known to be sensitive to cognitive function. One marker, with the almost comic book sounding name of “brain derived neurotrophic factor” (BDNF) that sounds like it could easily have been created in the DC Universe by Professor Hugo Strange or Dr. Jonathan Crane. Instead, BDNF is a protein found in the—wait for it—brain and spinal cord that helps the integrity and function of neurons and their connections. Lower levels of BDNF are associated with diseases like Alzheimer’s, enhanced aging effects, and developmental disabilities.

Dretsch and his collaborators found that there was a strong relation between having a certain polymorphism of the BDNF gene (BDNF met/met genotype) and increased concussion risk. This was also related to increased aggression and hostility determined by personality and psychological testing. Some of which may increase significantly with repeated concussion exposures (you can read some more about this over here).

Despite what we can read in the story “Professor Strange’s fear dust” form way back in 1940 Detective Comics #46 that “years of rigorous athletic training have enabled the Batman not only to resist but to recover from the brutal beating that would have mortally injured most men!” This just isn’t true. Since Batman’s environmental exposure to concussive incidents is so high, we can only hope that his genome does not include the BDNF met/met polyporphism. He needs every bit of help he can get.

Although humans—yes, including Batman—aren’t set up for this, many animals are able to smash their heads with repeated hard impacts and suffer no ill effects. We’re looking at you Woody Woodpecker (and lots of goats and rams). These animals can be subjected to acceleration forces up to 100 times more than you, me, or Batman could withstand.

The velocity of a woodpecker beak at impact may be as high as 7 m/s with a resulting deceleration of 1000 times that of gravity! If Batman were a woodpecker, he’d be able to run into a brick wall at about 315 mph without suffering a concussion (no comment on the unavoidable musculoskeletal injuries). I can only imagine that we are supposed to assume that Batman was channeling “woodpecker man” when he was being thrown through buildings by Superman in “Dawn of Justice”.

As Bruce Wright and I found, Batman had 26 concussive exposures in that movie, including 5 fatal incidents during his major fight with Supes. Or something. I won’t go off here, but I’ve already written elsewhere about my feelings on that movie.

Ciao for now.

© E. Paul Zehr (2016)

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