Do Superman's abilities, including super-speed, affect his thought processes? Is he smarter than most or does he think faster than humans because of any combination of his super powers?
In the DC Animated feature film All-Star Superman (2011), Superman is shown with genius level intelligence as he was developing a cure to his own illness as well as creating a 24-hour-Power serum to give to Lois as a parting gift.
IIRC, he also mentions trying to cure various cancers/illnesses that plague humankind as well.
This intelligence was probably from the intense exposure to the yellow sun that was the cause of his illness in the first place so, technically, it is an effect of his super powers.
In the canon DC Universes, Superman's raw intelligence is considerable but rarely challenged. Kal-El is the son of two of Krypton's top scientists but his time on Earth, in most continuities, he is not challenged to utilize his super-intellect to its greatest capacity. The greatest standard display of his super-intellect is his Fortress of Solitude.
Pre-Crisis Silver-Age Superman
Pre-Crisis Superman, particularly in the 1960s and early 1970s was the most scientifically inquisitive and skilled version of the character.
He built his Fortress of Solitude by himself, no Kryptonian super-crystals as seen in the Donner Superman movies.
He created a shrinkray so that he could visit the Bottle City of Kandor.
He tended a zoo of alien animals he saved from extinction within the Fortress.
He created his Superman robots to help tend the Fortress, stand in for him when he needed to protect his secret-identity and to assist him when he needed to assist in more than one place at one time. While the robots lacked all of his abilities, they were quite capable of standing in for him for most issues. He also programmed their artificial intelligence.
He maintained a laboratory where he conducted experiments (of an unknown nature), he maintained an armory of super-weapons from all over the known galaxy, and occasionally built devices (the Supermobile and other exotic equipment).
He also maintained a communication array that he used to talk with aliens all over the galaxy.
Superman, as he has been written from the Post Crisis Era to the last iteration of the DC Universe, was not considered to have as great a superhuman intellect. The early Post-Crisis version of the character were meant to emphasis the MAN, not the SUPER, so his life as Clark Kent was the focus of these early stories.
However, he would rediscover technologies from Krypton, utilize them as he needed and archive them within the Fortress of Solitude. He would rebuild his Fortress a number of times to improve security.
He would also use hybridized Kryptonian and human technology created by John Henry Irons (aka Steel) and would also utilize alien technologies over time (Thanagarian).
Whether this will remain true in the latest DCnU remains to be seen. Lacking a super-human intellect did not mean he was not intelligent, after all he was the son of the greatest scientists of Krypton, Jor-El and Lara-El. But he did not get the grounding in science he would have needed to equal his parents capabilities.
His current Fortress is still an inpregnable stronghold filled with technology from all over the galaxy. While he may not be considered a super-genius, his ability must be significant enough he is able to rebuild and maintain his Kryptonian stronghold on Earth.
That said, it is obvious that his natural abilities far exceed a Human's for a variety of reasons he displays every time he uses his powers.
He does possess a photographic memory.
- He is able to remember everything he has read and can draw upon it at will.
- He has taught himself surgery, at superspeed no less. It is theorized, if he made the effort he could learn and retain any particular skill he had an interest in applying himself to.
- It is unclear if this is a byproduct of his powers or a natural Kryptonian ability. He is also able to speak every language he has encountered or bothered to learn.
His brain must process its activity and neural connectivity at a rate far greater than ours.
This can be surmised by the fact that he is able to utilize super-speed with both precision and accuracy and has done so pretty much from the beginning of his media career.
This was displayed most often during his Pre-Crisis era when he would have a yearly race with the Flash around the world.
Their challenge was to keep the race sub-sonic because Superman would case catastrophic damage as he pass areas creating sonic booms. (The Flash does not have this problem, because of his speed aura. He only creates sonic booms if he wants to.)
Since Superman can control his bodily movement and proprioception (his awareness of where his body is in space) with pinpoint accuracy, it stands to reason his brain's processing speed and neural activity are both faster, more precise, better networked, and able to be controlled at a level far better than a Human brain.
Since it is unlikely, but not necessarily impossible, for his brain to speed up the flow of electrical activity past what the normal brain can, it is more probable he has a greater neural density, allowing more neural pathways for the signals to pass through.
More neural connections, more conceivable brainpower
Having a greater network density could conceivably give Superman the potential for improved cognitive ability, especially if both sides of his brain are connected by a thick bundle of neural materials (in Human's this is the corpus callosum) which coordinates activity between the left and right sides of the human brain.
Since we have never been given access to the Kryptonian brain, we make assumptions it is much like the Human brain. But even subtle differences could give Superman far greater abilities.
Modifying the density of the barriers between the halves of the human brain would allow a human increased language capabilities, ambidexterity, incredible artistic and musical capabilities. If the Kryptonian brain were similar he would also have such increased abilities. Pre-Crisis Superman had all of these powers and more.
Instinctive, intuitive use of superhuman abilities
The most likely reason we would assume Superman (and by proxy all Kryptonians) have greater intellectual capacity is that their brains allow them to control their superhuman abilities at an intuitive level with only a few days of training.
In the cases of physical fit, or well trained individuals, they are able to control their powers in hours. Precise control takes far longer, but for the ability to utilize their superhuman potential in a matter of days, implies their brains are far more sophisticated, capable of incredible feedback mechanisms and shows the Kryptonian brain to be a finely tuned organ.
If anything can be determined by this essay, the best thing we can determine is that Superman, the character, is rarely shown using all of his mental capacity as can be inferred by these ideas.
Likely because, if he were written using his abilities to their fullest potential he would be even more difficult to write because it would remove him from his relationship to normal humans.
Superman could be as smart or smarter than Batman if he applied himself the same say Bruce Wayne has. Theoretically if he had teachers on the caliber of the Kryptonians, he should be able to learn as much as his parents did or even more since he has exposure to technologies that he did not invent.
The safest way to explain it is, since he aspires to be human, and possesses incredible natural talent, he has never tried to apply himself to see what ELSE he could do if he tried. Superman is a jock and writers are thankful for that.
Apocrypha: All-Star Superman
People often look at the graphic novel/movie version of "All-Star Superman" as a sample of Superman utilizing his superhuman intellect. While he does use his abilities to their fullest there, this particular Superman is an Elseworlds version of the character, not a mainstream continuity version. The DC Animated feature film All-Star Superman was based on the comic book series All-Star Superman. As noted in Wikipedia:
All-Star Superman is a twelve-issue comic book series featuring Superman that ran from November 2005 to October 2008. The series was written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Frank Quitely, digitally inked by Jamie Grant and published by DC Comics. DC claimed that this series would "strip down the Man of Steel to his timeless, essential elements".
The series was the second to be launched in 2005 under DC's All-Star imprint, the first being All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. These series are attempts by DC to allow major comics creators a chance to tell stories showcasing these characters without being restricted by DC Universe continuity. [emphasis mine]
The All Star Superman was not a single Superman but an amalgam or archetype of the iconic hero across his entire heritage encompassing all of his previous incarnations.
This was done to allow a well known writer to try and expound on the legend of Superman unrestricted. Grant Morrison used elements from across the history of the character to create a single story that embodied every Age of Superman.
All-Star Superman is not the canon character of Superman, he is the paragon of the archetype.
Super speed has to influence the speed of his thoughts or he would run into any kind of obstacle (because his brain wouldn't be able to avoid them).
At the same time, people manage to hit him which probably wouldn't work if he saw the punch coming. You could argue that he doesn't have to care for an uppercut (being invincible) but what about Luthor punches him through a building? Doesn't Superman care about the property of other people? Not to mention the joy of teasing Luthor...
So my impression is that Superman's brain speeds up with the rest of his body when he "switches" to super speed but he's not always using it.
Which doesn't explain why he doesn't switch to super speed to think about complex problems (say in a battle) or why he doesn't switch after Luthor landed the first punch.
So in-universe, all his abilities should influence each other but in a comic, that would be pretty boring: Problem pops up, Superman thinks a couple of weeks about it (internal time), Superman solves the problem one second later (external time). All fights would be ridiculous staggering of his enemies trying to hit him while he does whatever he wants to.
Big comic fan and student, with a working knowledge of most things Superman. Believe it or not, this is something I've given some significant thought to... and, brazen as it may be, I think both the Post-and Pre-Crisis reasonings are actually... not wrong, but lacking in correctness, a bit. I just never bought that he gets "all" his powers from the yellow sun, full stop. There HAS to be more to it!
This is ESPECIALLY TRUE in terms of his possible mental powers; as a more advanced race, biologically, it simply makes sense that his brain would be evolved to a greater capacity. This would affect both his physical, and cognitive function.
Why does Superman have powers? You touched on the 2 big reasons everyone knows about:
- The gravity
- Earth's Yellow sun.
I postulate that there is a third reason, which essentially goes back to his Kryptonian physionomy, not just his cell structure.
In a 2000 reprint Millennium edition of Superman #1, 1939 , it reads that Clark's main powers, as evidenced on one 8-panel page are that he could, and I quote:
Hurdle sky scrapers, Leap an 8th of a mile, run faster than a streamline train and nothing less than a bursting shell could penetrate his skin!
Apparently, this Pre-Crisis account of near physical "perfection" accounted for super strong senses, as well (telescopic, if not microscopic & x-ray vision, at least).
This goes to what I consider the 3rd, base source of at least a portion Superman's powers
Highly advanced Kyrptonian physiology, that is, in some ways, deeply different from humans. Oh, it maybe humanoid, yes, but not completely human in any way. The elements I would account for in a Kryptonian body which grant Superman more abilities are
- A more evolved form of muscle cells and tissues, combining both slow-twitch AND fast-twitch properties. These "pink muscles" would allow Superman to produce a greater amount of force, without tiring , for far longer periods. They would also probably have a naturally higher number of mitochondria, which would produce greater contraction ratings in each fiber.
In other words, if there was no yellow sun and equal gravity, and Superman was placed against an earthling of equal size, height, weight and mass, his muscles would still work, on average, 10-20 times better and longer, making him an average of possibly 20 times stronger.
A cell structure that more efficiently copies itself, allowing the cells to flush toxins, renew themselves and make perfect clone cells without (or at least with a highly retarded rate of) degradation. This would mean every cell in his body, even without a yellow sun, produces less waste chemicals from break down, and more quickly reproduces/regenerates itself from damage. This would essentially give Superman a "healing factor" or sorts, as he would not easily sustain major cellular damage. He would also, consequently, age more slowly.
A corded muscle structure. Most human muscle is smooth & flat; I'm guessing Kryptonians have muscles which work like braided ropes or chains, meaning the fibers are entwined. This would naturally make them stronger and more durable, physically.
Adaptive antibodies in his immune system. Superman's immune system would need to be more evolved to be able to "resists poisons" as he does, or at least allow his structure to adapt to said poisons better than ours do.
All of these advantages must likely stem from some advanced chromosomes in Krptonian cells that we humans just don't have. So even on a chromosomal level, where new genes are created, Superman's body has an edge after hundreds of thousands more years of evolution. These chromosomes would also account for the organelles in his cell structure which absorb and store solar radiation, allowing for the photo-voltaic affect which allows him to produce even MORE power. Chromosomal differences would also easily explain why Superman imply can't have a child with an Earth woman; we're vastly different, even at the genetic level.
Writer S. Elliot Maggin wrote about the "Photo-nucleic Effect", which tried to explain the DIRECT effect the yellow sun has on Superman's body on a cosmological level, beyond him being a mere "solar capacitor". This too might be an element.
Now comes the crucial part: the possible neural adaptations!
An additional lobe or sub strata to his brain humans are lacking. The Prefrontal cortex in humans is underdeveloped or fully not present in other species. This thin sheath of brain cells allows for greater impulse control, advanced thinking, planning and empathy in our species. It's conceivable that further evolution has produced some new brain areas or development of underutilized areas in Kryptonians that humans don't have.
More advanced neuro-synaptic structure, which accounts for Superman's greater memory, senses, and faster nervous system, while also attributing in part to his strength and speed. Logically, his nerves would need to fire faster to power more evolved muscle tissue at a greater rate. This likely also means that Superman largely perceives everything around him in "slower motion" than most humans, and, without the sun, he would likely still be capable of moving & thinking between 40 - 90 times faster than an average person
Greater abundance of stem cells, which would also mean greater developed sensory cells. Where as a human has 2 million odor sensitive cells in his nose, Superman might have 20-10 times more, for instance; same thing for his sense of sight, taste, touch... even some senses we might not know about. This would explain his vision, even for him being able to see in the entire spectrum; many Earth animals already see outside visible light.
Actual development of the brain which can allow for psionic abilities, such as telepathy, eidetic memory, and limited telekinesis. This telekinesis would need to be amplified by energy from the yellow sun, else only done via extreme concentration. This would account for Superman's ability to fly under a yellow sun; the only other option is some form of graviton manipulation via some new organ.
The mental powers of telepathy or "thought projection" would also explain his "random" powers in the Fortress of Solitude in Superman II; they were all mental projections, which he had better control of in the Fortress via its technology; the holograms were actually "psychic copies", and the "Giant S" was just him projecting a defensive thought "shield" against Nom. It's not far fetched; in the movies, Jor-El was essentially a mental imprint kept in a Kryptonian crystaline computer. And we know that it's possible to program a computer based on the algorithms of the human brain. An advance civilization tens of thousands of years ahead of ours which has harnessed telepathy and thought projection may have found a way to copy those thoughts as energy patterns, and store them in crystalline capacitors.
Anyway, all of this is just my own theorizing, cobbled together from various sources and scientific conjecture. Superman's powers have been handled by greater minds than my own on many occasions.
Superman has been documented as doing computations as fast as a having the mental computation speed of a Radio Shack TRS-80 (later known as Tandy) computer.
In this weird product placement crossover, DC had Superman team up with Radio Shack's Tandy Computer Whiz Kids to save Metropolis. After Superman lost his super-speed calculation ability (due to inhaling krytonite dust, which seemed to leave his other powers largely unimpaired), he had to have young Alec and Shanna take over his super-computation abilities. Superman would collect data about a problem using his super senses, then radio the information to the Whiz Kids, who would use their computers to figure out how fast Superman needed to fly (or whatever) to deal with the problem.*
The archive.org copy of the comic that I linked to above was a standalone comic that was printed by DC but distributed free through Radio Shack stores, just like the other Whiz Kids comics. (By the 1980s, Radio Shack was in trouble, and they were desperate to drum up interest and get traffic into their stores. They also had a loyalty club where you could get a free dry cell of your choice every month.) However, this Superman crossover was also reprinted in a regular Superman comic (after the issue's main story, making the whole issue a double, presumably with Radio Shack absorbing the extra cost). There were apparently also DC crossovers with Supergirl and Wonder Woman, but I don't know if those were ever included in regular DC issues.
*The Whiz Kids' ability to write programs capable of finding numerical solutions to graduate-level mechanics problems at superhuman speed was never addressed.
If you think about it, Superman's abilities are a combination of his dense molecular structure combined with his ability to absorb radiation from our yellow sun (also an effect of his physical makeup, being inherently evolved to function in a red giant system).
His brain is as molecularly dense as his body is, so it stands to reason that his memory and cognitive functions are as enhanced as his physical prowess. In fact, I believe that's how his non-strength powers work; they are a form of telekinesis that allows him to manipulate gravity and molecular activity.
He's not just strong enough to lift a semi truck from the front bumper, he also subconsciously affects the gravity surrounding it so that it doesn't buckle under its own weight. Likewise, his "super breath" is a form of molecular level telekinesis that he performs, while the "blowing" is just a way to physically mainfest it – sort of like the way that other telekinetics use their hands to focus their power, even though their hands have nothing to do with it.
As it was explicitly stated in several encounters with Flash, Superman's ability to comprehend motions at super speed is severely lacking compared to that one of Flash. Seing as he is able to catch bullets and generally avoid too much collateral damage while running at super speed it is likely that he has that ability to a certain degree.
I can visualize assorted moments from Pre-Crisis Superman that address this question, but cannot lay hands on actual references and sources. Except for the following. It doesn't speak to Superman having exceptional intelligence, per se, but it certainly illustrates how his mind is fully as fast as his superspeed reflexes. "Superman" #188 (1966)