Whoosh! Issue 27 - December 1998


IAXS project #414
By Marbeth Stefan
Copyright © 1998 held by author
2613 words

Author's Note: The biological concepts and theories discussed herein are grounded in real science and are the subjects of ongoing research. Xena: Warrior Princess, while dealing with compelling adult themes, is still an action fantasy television show and, some may say, is no place for serious scientific thought. However, I am a science geek so, if you will, allow me my theorizing. It is all in fun and besides, you may be surprised by the results.

Introduction (01-03)
A God-Given Gift? (04-06)
A Biological Explanation (07)
     The Sensory Environment (08)
     Biophysics of the Ear (09-10)
     Specialized Senses of Animals (11-13)
     Sensory Integration (14-15)
A Learned Skill (16-17)
     Neurobiological Organization and Sensory Integration (18-19)
     Memory and Learning (20-22)
     Sensory Integrative Therapy (23)
     BLIND FAITH (24-25)
     Maintenance of the Skill (26-27)
     Superhuman Potential Within Us All (28)
Conclusion (29)

Xena's Supersense:
A Gift From The Gods, A Consequence of Biology, Or Derived from Her Warlord Persona?


Darn these onions!

As adroit as Xena is, she still got squirted in the eyes in BLIND FAITH.

[1] Have you noticed that Xena seems to have eyes in the back of her head? She uses a "sixth sense" that allows her to fight her enemies with unerring skill and to catch arrows in mid-flight. The episode that started me pondering this was BLIND FAITH (42/218) in which a blinded Xena was able to sense the movements of her many attackers and, in another scene, catch her chakram as it sped toward Palaemon's face.

[2] What if many of her unsurpassed warrior skills stem from some heightened perceptive ability, or in another word, are a kind of "supersense"? The show has often referred to Xena's extra-sensitive hearing, which enables her to pick up sounds before others can, giving her a distinct edge in battle. This could also contribute to her gymnastic sense of balance.

[3] In the Xenaverse almost anything can be explained or attributed to interference by the gods, but with the bulk of this paper I will attempt a few scientific explanations for such a supersense.

A God-Given Gift?

[4] Many heroes of mythology are described as having some superhuman attribute. Consider Hercules' famed strength or Heimdall, the Norse god of light who, similar to Xena, had hearing so accurate that no sound escaped him, not even the growth of wool on a sheep's back! With the existence of gods in the Xenaverse (such as Ares, Poseidon and Hades, not to mention the possibility of Ares being Xena's father), it may be that Xena, like Hercules, is a demigod and so only part mortal. This would make her "many skills" on a par with the supernatural powers of those gods.

[5] Whether you subscribe to this "demi-goddess" theory or not, there have been many instances of the Greek gods granting extraordinary gifts to mortals in need. A few examples include:

[6] Perhaps Ares, in seeking a mortal to lead a massive army and rule the world in his name, saw such a potential in Xena, and, thus, he gifted her with superhuman battle abilities. He probably never guessed that she would eventually turn from his cruel and destructive ways.

A Biological Explanation

[7] While there is no "superhuman gene" that can account for Xena's abilities, a more mundane explanation, one admittedly outside the fantasy realm of the Xenaverse, can be offered with the biological concept of sensory integration. Sensory integration describes the way in which the brain sorts out and processes the many sensations we receive from the outside environment.

The Sensory Environment

Heeeere fishy, fishy, fishy!

Xena takes a more 'hands on' approach to fishing than most.

[8] We have five basic ways to sense our surroundings. These five senses are hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste. The cerebral cortex, the brain's outermost layer of nerve cells, is responsible for all forms of conscious experience, which include sensory perception and intellectual functions like thought, memory, and emotion. Since this paper is addressing Xena's supersensitive hearing, we will focus on the sound sense.

Biophysics of the Ear

[9] Sound waves generated by mechanical forces, such as a bow being drawn across a string or the vibration of vocal cords of a person speaking, are funneled into the outer ear, down the auditory canal until they strike the eardrum. This thin membrane then vibrates with the pressure of the incoming sound waves and transmits these vibrations to the middle ear, where they are amplified, and then carried into the fluid-filled inner ear.

[10] Waves of fluid generated by these vibrations move the ultra sensitive hair cells located in the cochlea, stimulating the auditory nerve fibers within to produce a series of impulses that are conveyed to the brain via the vestibulocochlear nerve. These electrical signals pass through the brain stem, where they are processed and integrated with other sensory information. Ultimately, they reach the auditory areas of the cerebral cortex, which then interprets the sound.

Specialized Senses of Animals

[11] There are cases of a supersense being possessed by many animals but as a natural sense rather than anything supernatural. One example is the extraordinary ability of bats to navigate using a method called echolocation. The highly specialized ears of these nocturnal mammals emit ultrasonic vibrations. This enables the capture of prey by detecting the corresponding "echoes" that are produced as the sound waves are reflected from the prey back to the bat's ears. Hence, all the things that we see with our eyes - obstacles, food, distances, directions, relative speed of things, size, and the many other properties of our visual world - are represented in the bat's audible world.

[12] Auditory researchers study the bat to provide invaluable model systems for the study of mammalian, including human, hearing in general. Ongoing research has discovered a second type of hair cell present in the cochlea of mammals which enables us to distinguish the quietest sounds and which may also be responsible for the ear's ultrasonic emissions. In the advanced ear of the bat, one adapted to its nocturnal aerial environment, these hair cells appear to be much more developed.

[13] As an aside, let's stretch scientific credibility by posing this question: Could it be possible that, as a result of some genetic abnormality born to her, perhaps involving the aforementioned hair cells, Xena's auditory infrastructure was enhanced to the degree of being supersensitive, akin to the evolved hearing ability of the bat? Or who's to say that a similar supersense could not naturally develop, over time, in humans? Xena could just be at the forefront of such an evolutionary step toward a human supersense. Perhaps if the world had remained as predatory and barbaric as in Xena's time, without the civilizing influence present in today's society, humans, in order to survive in such an environment, might have adapted by developing a supersense, such as supersensitive hearing.

Sensory Integration

That deoderant Salmoneus sold me doesn't work!

An effect of Xena's Fury-induced madness was a heightened awareness of other senses.

[14] A more feasible explanation, going back to the idea of sensory integration, is that a high level of this integrative ability, inborn in an individual, may enable one to be unusually skilled in an activity, such as gymnastics or art. Such individuals would be highly adept at sensory organization and attention. In Xena's case, we find a warrior with a high degree of sound sense, and other unique skills, extraordinarily attuned to the external physical world.

[15] But when does a high level of a sense become a supersense? Aside from biology, there has to be something else, some added element contributing to Xena's seemingly logic-defying abilities. What further life experience could nurture an ability that had originated in nature?

A Learned Skill

[16] After Cortese's raid on her home village of Amphipolis and the death of her beloved brother Lyceus, Xena started on the path to becoming a cunning warrior at the head of her own army. However, after her betrayal by Caesar and her friend M'Lila's death [DESTINY (36/212)], Xena entered her darkest years as a warlord - years consumed by rage and bloodlust, and obsessed with directing her violent impulses on her physical surroundings, be it a village ripe for plunder or an opponent on the battlefield.

[17] With this type of extreme focus on the external world, to the exclusion of her inner emotional well-being, Xena's combat skills steadily improved, becoming almost unparalleled. Using the visceral experience of battle as a training ground, Xena's heightened attentiveness, her expertise with her sword and chakram, and her gymnastic maneuverability became learned behaviors, eventually coming as second nature to her.

Neurobiological Organization and Sensory Integration

[18] As previously stated, the integrative function of the nervous system refers to how relevant sensory information is channeled into the proper motor areas of the brain in order to produce the desired response. The brain is able to focus on one type of sensory input by inhibiting other types of input. This allows the individual to focus attention and reduces the level of distraction. In this way, sensory input pertinent to the learner's inner needs and goals reaches a level of consciousness.

[19] We have forwarded the theory that Xena was born with a high level of sensory integrative ability. Xena, having chosen to lose herself in the sensory experience of battle, quickly developed specific neural pathways that became conditioned to her violent actions, thus greatly enhancing her warrior skills.

Memory and Learning

[20] These neural pathways have a discriminative function which allows a sensory pattern to be perceived, the information to be stored in memory, the memory to be retrieved as a second sensory pattern is encountered, and then the two memories to be compared in order to determine the target response. For example, when Xena hears the release of an arrow from a bowstring, she can instantaneously recall the memory of this particular sense (no doubt encountered countless times before) and make the programmed response of intercepting it inches from her body. From a learning perspective, this requires the ability to focus attention, to store information into memory, and to retrieve the information when needed.

[21] The vestibulocochlear nerve provides the sensory enervation for both sound and equilibrium perception. The receptive systems for hearing and movement are therefore highly interconnected at a neurological level. This is seen when, as listening skills are developed, equilibrium, balance and postural responses are also improved. Hence, as Xena focuses on the battle she is engaging in, tuned into the auditory world of combat, she is able to sense, for example, a thug approaching her from behind, and to instinctively take action by deftly cutting him down.

[22] Therefore, a high level of sensory integration, combined with a learned and practiced interaction with the sensory environment, can result in heightened attention, sensory and extrasensory awareness, and intuitive processing, and increase successful adaptation to personal experiences. Though partly stemming from her evil warlord persona, Xena's supersense and accompanying skills are still present in her current heroic incarnation via preconditioned neural pathways.

Sensory Integrative Therapy

[23] In real life, sensory integration can be applied as medical therapy for children with autism, developmental delays, and sensorimotor disorders, and is used to resolve their unfocused sensory processing. Auditory integration therapy creates a learning environment by using controlled sound input in such a way as to allow the child to make an adaptive response that integrates the sensations and enhances the organization of the brain. Ongoing clinical trials have shown that this kind of therapy, in many cases, improves language and listening skills and fine motor coordination.


Now *that's* a close shave!

Xena cuts it close in BLIND FAITH.

[24] In BLIND FAITH (42/218), Xena was rendered blind but was still able to fight off the bad guys and catch her chakram with ease. She was willing to risk the permanent loss of one of her senses in order to save Gabrielle - a testament not only to Xena's profound devotion to the bard, but also to her confidence that she could adapt to being sightless and still thrive.

[25] When one of the five senses is not available, another sense may be trained to make up for the loss. A famous example, Helen Keller, lost both vision and hearing as a result of fever at the age of 19 months, but she was highly attuned to her sense of touch and went on to become a well-known author and lecturer.

Maintenance of the Skill

[26] As one can improve one's psychomotor skills, one can do the same with the sense skills. While we know that Xena must have a set workout routine to practice her battle moves and swordplay technique, we have also seen her in meditation mode. Of course, just what she was contemplating before Gabrielle snuck up on her unsuccessfully during their stop in Hower and Minya's village in A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215) is unknown.

[27] Mental practice is an innovative technique for enhancing learning and improving performance. The practitioner achieves a state of relaxation and then concentrates full attention on the sensory, spatial and mechanical details of the target activity and the flow of events during the implementation of the activity. In this way, the neural pathways signaling the activity are exercised. This method is often used in competitive sports training and in occupational skills training.

Superhuman Potential Within Us All

[28] Today, there are many self-help workshops and mind/body classes that aim to tap into an inner power, a hidden superhuman potential within each of us. Techniques ranging from yoga to quantum healing take a new-age approach to improving one's "well-beingness" through sensory awareness, mind-body balance, and self-realization.


[29] Xena's supersense (supersensitive hearing) can be plausibly explained as a combination of innate biology and learned behavior, with both nature and nurture playing a part. The paths she has chosen throughout her life, both good and bad, have allowed Xena to develop and hone her remarkable warrior skills and to fulfill her destiny as a hero fighting for the greater good. She is truly "a mighty princess, forged in the heat of battle." Battle on, Xena!


Myths and Legends
Contains links covering different mythologies, from Greek to Native American.

Seeing, Hearing and Smelling the World
Informative online journal

Virtual tour of the ear

Jim Buzbee's Bat Links Page

Use of a sensory integration-based learning therapy
An excellent article

The Monroe Institute
Learn more about workshop-oriented applications of sensory integration and focused consciousness.

Mental practice and visualization in sports training.


Marbeth Stefan Marbeth Stefan
A university graduate with a B.Sc. in biochemistry, Marbeth currently lives in small town Ontario, Canada with her one-eyed cat. As well as being a Hardcore Nutball, she is a huge fan of THE X-FILES, Sarah McLachlan and the musical RENT, which she's seen enough times to rival her Xena obsession. She also enjoys biking, writing, reading everything from SF to classic literature, and restoring old furniture.
Favorite episode: THE GREATER GOOD (21/121), THE QUEST (37/213), A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215), THE DEBT (52/306), ONE AGAINST AN ARMY (59/313)
Favorite line: Lao Ma to Xena: "...they say you're a dangerous woman". Xena: "Well, they're right". THE DEBT I (52/306).
First episode seen: By chance, I happened upon the craziness that is RETURN OF CALLISTO (29/205) and was immediately hooked.
Least favorite episode: KING OF ASSASSINS (54/308)

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