E. Paul Zehr


On his book Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero

Cover Interview of May 26, 2009

The wide angle

The main concept under the surface of Becoming Batman is that of stress and adaptation.  All responses of the body to exercise, training, and skill learning involve the principle that adaptations occur to minimize the effect of the stress.  We strain to lift heavy weights and our muscles respond by getting stronger.  They get stronger so that the stress of lifting the weights becomes less.  The bones of our legs change in density if we start running.  Again, this is to minimize the effect of the stress of the impact loading during running.

There are also many neuroscience concepts related to repetitive practice for skill learning and maintaining motor skills like martial arts that the book highlights.  In particular, Becoming Batman describes the neuroscience/neuropsychology concepts of focus, behavioural set, and the relationship between arousal and performance.  Related to this are key concepts on regulating the response to pain and ignoring discomfort arising from injuries.

My career path in science actually arose from my early study of martial arts.  I started training when I was 13 and grew fascinated with not just doing martial arts but how crazily complicated it must be for the body to do all the things I was able to do—and which my teachers were able to do better.  That brought me to kinesiology at the university (Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees) where I actually did several studies on aspects of martial arts.  Then I got interested generally in the neural control of movement and rehabilitation of walking after stroke and spinal cord injury, which is my scientific area now.  Extremely high-level performance such as training to become Batman, and rehabilitation to improve walking after stroke and spinal cord injury are just different points on a continuum of performance.  All the basic principles in terms of how the body responds to stress and training are the same, just applied slightly differently.  In many ways, my career path appears to have been slightly circular.