Though perhaps best exampled by Neo in the 1999 film The Matrix, superhuman reflexes to some extent are an attribute of so many superheroes that it’s basically a default superpower. But just how realistic would it be for us to expect genetic enhancement to enable people to have such quick reflexes? That’s what I’m going to attempt to answer in this post.
First we need to define some terms. Biologically, a reflex is a simple and automatic response to a stimulus. If you touch something painfully hot you will automatically withdraw your hand, so it’s a reflex. You can still learn or unlearn a reflex, but the important thing is that a reflex is done without thinking: your brain isn’t really involved. If, out of the corner of your eye, you see something falling off a table and quickly grab it, that’s not a reflex. You don’t automatically grab any falling object, and if that object was a knife you’d leap away from the table rather than try to grab it, which is a sure sign your brain is processing the situation rather than it being automatic.
As you’re probably aware, there is a delay between the stimulus (e.g. touching something painful) and the response (e.g. pulling your hand away) of a reflex. The main factor determining this delay is how fast the signal can travel along the nerve cells (neurons) from the hand, to the spinal cord, and back down to the muscles (there’s a slight delay as the signals cross the synapse from one neuron to another, but its contribution is minor). In humans, the neuronal conduction velocity varies between different nerves, but let’s just look at the ones sending the signal from the hand to the spinal cord (which travel at about 50 meters per second) and those that send signals from the spinal cord down to the muscles (which travel at about 100 meters per second). So travelling a meter along your arm and then another meter back means the fastest possible reflex would occur after 30ms (it’s a bit slower than this in reality, but let’s go with this).
So the question now turns to how we can get neurons to conduct signals faster. There are three tactics that animals use to do this. The first is making the neurons thicker in diameter, which is why the neurons that control our muscles are the some of the thickest in our body at up to 20 micrometers. But some animals, like squid, have neurons that are are 500 micrometers, but our neurons are still 4 times faster. This is because animals like humans have a second strategy, which is to insulate the neurons with a substance called myelin. This allows the neurons to be much smaller while still being really fast, which is essential for packing as many brain cells as possible into a small skull. But the record for the fastest neuronal conductional velocity in the animal kingdom belongs to a penaeid shrimp, which not only has fairly big neurons (at 120 microns) and myelin insulation but also has a third mechanism where in between the neuron and the insulation is a gap filled with super conductive salty fluid that further speeds up how fast the signals can travel (for a discussion of these mechanisms, see Castelfranco & Hartline 2016). Their neurons can send signal at 200 meters per second, twice the speed of our fasted human neurons.
Given that we need to fit our nerves through the holes our vertebrae (the neural foramina), we can’t really rely on increasing the size of our neurons. And we’re already fairly well insulated. Maybe we could use some shortcuts like the penaeid shrimp do, but without the increase in size it’s unlikely we’d get to the velocities of 200 meters per second the shrimp achieve. Any genetic enhancement to human reflexes is realistically going to be much more modest.
But let’s say we do manage to double the speed of our neurons, what would that be like? Well, a simple doubling of conduction speed would more or less halve our reaction time. Our reflexes would be faster, but so too would the speed at which we could think and perceive things. Our sense of time wouldn’t change, but given the limitations of our current neurons the closest we can come to seeing what the world would look like with double speed neurons is watching a video at half speed (which you can easily do on YouTube). This would give a massive advantage in martial arts and many sports like sprinting, fencing, tennis, football and baseball.
But would this magnitude of reflex enhancement be enough to dodge a bullet? Almost certainly not, and not least because we have only speed up the nerves while leaving the muscles as slow as ever. The simplest test of visual reaction time of the sort you’d need to dodge a bullet is the ruler drop test, where you try to catch a measuring stick as quickly as you can after noticing it has been dropped. This therefore captures both the ability to visually detect movement and perform a simple movement (a pinch grip) in response. The average reaction time, on this test, for athletes is about 200ms. Even if your reaction time has been enhanced to be half that of a normal man, a Glock 17 has a muzzle velocity of 375m/s so in the 100ms it takes you to react by moving your muscles the bullet would have traveled 37.5 meters. The gunman would have to be quite a distance away to allow you to duck behind cover as soon as you see the gunshot. And the bullet would still be traveling too fast for you to see, because we only enhanced reflexes not your visual perception speed (which would involve making photoreceptors in the retina work more rapidly), so you would still be attempting to dodge a bullet that you cannot actually see.
So genetic enhancement of reflexes has many practical limitations in comparison to the fanciful portrayals we see in fiction, but would still be immensely advantageous in competitive sport or hand-to-hand combat where every millisecond matters.
In order to get extremely rapid reflexes, we’d need to do away with the limits of biological systems altogether and transmit signals through electronic circuits, which could a million times faster. When it comes to quick reaction times, robots or perhaps cyborgs will have a massive advantage. At the moment robots already have faster “reflexes” than humans, but the human brain still outperforms artificial intelligence if the stimulus requires complicated visual or spatial processing or if performing a novel movement requiring coordination. But maybe one day, robots won’t only be beating us at chess but also fencing, tennis, baseball and martial arts. And by then, maybe we’ll be able to implant that technology into our own body, and truly gain reflexes faster than anything the biological world can offer.