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Science Behind the Fiction: People who think they're actually superheroes
For the past 10 years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has proved it’s possible — and potentially highly profitable — to introduce characters in a number of independent stories before weaving them together in an intensely satisfying crossover event. Before Tony Stark first stepped onto our screens, though, M. Night Shyamalan had planted the seeds of his own connected superhero world with 2000’s Unbreakable.
The movie, arguably one of Shyamalan’s best, introduces audiences to David Dunn (Bruce Willis), the lone survivor of a train accident who, incredibly, walks away without a scratch. The accident, it turns out (spoiler alert) was anything but, and was orchestrated by Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) in an attempt to validate his theory that superheroes are real and walk among us, even if they don’t realize it.
Then Shyamalan’s Split came along and presented a special case. The movie isn’t perfect. It has problems, specifically in the way it presents mental illness, but it was largely accepted as a return to form. It doesn’t hurt that James McAvoy offers a thrilling and impressive performance as Kevin Crumb, the antagonistic homicidal kidnapper with multiple distinct personalities, including the monstrous Beast. It also doesn’t hurt that Willis returns at the end as David Dunn, cementing Split in the same shared universe as Unbreakable.
Now there's Glass, the latest Shyamalan offering, which puts David Dunn, The Beast, and Mr. Glass all in the same room. Glass takes the question presented in Unbreakable — whether these abilities and weaknesses are truly extraordinary, or mundane but overgrown — and looks it in the face. Dr. Staple (Sarah Paulson) takes the latter approach, assuring the collected men that their beliefs are all in their heads, and that science can explain their experiences and save them from themselves.
Here in the real world, belief in special abilities, or superpowers, is not all that uncommon. Human history is littered with tales of individuals who possessed extraordinary abilities from the demigods of yesteryear to the phone line psychics of today.
Superpowers were, for a long time, known by another name: magic. And it has a long and storied history that walks hand in hand with the development of human society.
What made Unbreakable so interesting was the way it introduced and explained its super-people. Absent were any cosmic rays, irradiated arachnids, or science experiments gone wrong. Instead, viewers were treated to characters who existed on the fringes of human potential. Dunn and Price weren’t aliens from some other world, they weren’t changed or enhanced by inexplicable science, they were simply what a person might be if all of their biological dominoes fell toward one extreme or the other.
They seemed like people you might have known. We’ve all met that person who seems to be injured all the time, or who never gets ill. It’s a story about what happens to a person when they identify the thing that makes them unique and allows that thing to define them. What’s more, it’s never quite clear if Dunn or Price are actually super at all. They are treated, within the framework of the movies, with all of the grandiosity of true supers, but there’s a voice that niggles at the back of your neck with doubt, saying maybe all of this has just been blown out of proportion.
As children, our ability to distinguish between reality and fantasy is blurred. Stories, even fantastic ones, present possibilities in need of testing and it isn’t until we grow that belief in special abilities wanes. Some people, however, never quite lose the sense that they inhabit a special place in the universe and maintain a belief in unusual abilities from the mundane to the spectacular.
Certain personality disorders can mess with the way a person interacts with the world around them in such a way that they maintain a belief in unusual abilities beyond their formative years.
Those with Schizotypal Personality Disorder can exhibit a number of different symptoms but common among them is the belief in magical thinking.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a handbook used by mental health professionals, the diagnostic criteria for Schizotypal Personality includes belief in such things as clairvoyance, telepathy, or a sixth sense. Additionally, those with the disorder might believe that events in the world, whether significant or mundane, have a direct link to their personal destiny. Put together, these beliefs can create the perfect storm of superhero ideation.
It’s important to note a distinction between Schizotypal Personality Disorder and Schizophrenia. Those with the former disorder are capable of examining evidence contrary to their particular beliefs and becoming aware of its inconsistency with reality.
In a study completed by Robert McCarley, M.D., the chair of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, published in JAMA Psychiatry, a correlation was found between those diagnosed with Schizotypal Personality Disorder and reduced gray matter in specific areas of the brain, which might explain the origin of these symptoms; those parts of the brain responsible for dismissing irrational thought just aren’t working as well as they should. Where many of us might briefly entertain the idea of an enhanced influence on the world around us, those experiencing certain mental illnesses find themselves unable to push those thoughts aside.
Now that we’re living in the age of superheroes, it’s worth examining how cultural influences impact the way we think both in terms of childhood development and into adulthood. There is nothing inherently negative about a belief that you are someone special, that you hold a special place within the world you inhabit, and that what you do matters. But let us be sure those beliefs don’t impinge on our ability to live a healthy life or cause us to derail trains in search of an arch nemesis.
Glass hits theaters on January 18.