You can tell that an epic has left its mark on you when you continue to think about its world and characters long after you’ve read the last pages. In my case, the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson was that kind of epic. For many days after I finished reading the final book in the trilogy, I found myself looking at my pocket change with a sort of wistful longing, imagining what it would be like to “drop a coin” and flit through the mists, mistcloak billowing behind me.
When I start feeling wistful, the curious part of my brain starts asking questions. What if it were really possible to ingest metal, “burn it”, and have it affect you and those around you. How exactly would that work? Is any aspect of allomancy even possible in our world? It was these very questions that led me to start an informal review of the current state of scientific research regarding the abilities bestowed by each of the allomantic metals. What I found may surprise you.
The Science of Enhanced Senses
From the series we know that an Allomancer who burns tin will experience enhanced sensory input from each of the five senses. Allowing them to not only process more information from each source of sensory input, but making them more sensitive to sudden floods of information to those inputs. For example, Kelsier warns Vin that while burning tin will give her enhanced hearing and sight, it will also allow her to be stunned by sudden loud noises, or blinded by sudden flashes of light.
One natural phenomenon that has received a lot of attention in the area of sensory enhancement research is stochastic resonance1. In simple terms, stochastic resonance is the mechanism by which adding a small amount of random noise to a weak signal can make that signal easier to detect2.
Researchers have found that when they added noise to sensory input, test subjects experienced enhanced detection of tactile stimulus3 , stronger visual perception4, better hearing5, and enhanced mental concentration6.
The study on hearing points out that mammalian auditory nerve fibers produce a relatively high level of internal noise on their own and that this noise is reduced in individuals that have experienced hearing loss. While people with normal hearing in the study only experienced a moderate amount of increased hearing sensitivity due to the external stochastic noise, the results among those with hearing loss were considerably more pronounced.
A key aspect of allomancy is that burning any allomantic metal produces a series of pulses that are detectable to other allomancers burning bronze. Kelsier tells Vin that tin is one of the “internal” metals. Marsh elaborates further on this when he tells Vin that an internal metal “...changes something inside yourself...”
While unfortunately we lack the ability to gather direct experimental evidence on allomancy, we can hypothesis from what we do know that burning tin somehow increases the amount of stochastic noise in sensory nerve fibers. This additional noise could then cause increased stochastic resonance, giving an allomancer enhanced sensory perception. This hypothesis is supported by what little we are told about allomancy and the current body of research on stochastic resonance.
While Sanderson doesn’t describe the biochemical process that occurs when burning a metal, a well known characteristic of tin is the “Tin cry,” a distinct noise that can be heard when bending a bar of tin. It is possible that the allomantic process of “burning tin” exploits this phenomenon in order to generate the noise required to invoke stochastic resonance.
While some of the feats described in the Mistborn books may seem farfetched, current research shows us that the effects of allomancy may be more realistic than previously realized.
As a final warning, remember what Kelsier told Vin early in her training, “Some of the metals we use can be poisonous if digested; it’s best not to sleep with them in your stomach.” This is especially true for non-allomancers like you and me. While tin itself has relatively low toxicity, organic compounds that contain tin (called organotins) are highly toxic and are frequently used as fungicides and insecticides. So unless you’re an allomancer, don’t eat tin.
- Aihara et al., “How Does Stochastic Resonance Work Within the Human Brain?”.
- Gammaitoni et al., “Stochastic Resonance.”
- Collins, Imhoff, and Grigg, “Noise-mediated Enhancements and Decrements in Human Tactile Sensation.”
- Simonotto et al., “Visual Perception of Stochastic Resonance.”
- Zeng, Fu, and Morse, “Human Hearing Enhanced by Noise.”
- Söderlund et al., “The Effects of Background White Noise on Memory Performance in Inattentive School Children.”
Dr. Lee Falin is the host of the Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips podcast and the author of the “Science Fictioned” series, in which he takes scientific research articles and turns them into sci-fi and fantasy short stories. You can follow him on twitter at @qdteinstein.