A Spider's Web Is Part of Its Mind, New Research Suggests

Could structures 'outside' of a creature's body be part of its cognitive apparatus?. Stephencdickson [CC 4.0 License]/Wiki Commons

Spiders tend to elicit some of our most extreme fight-or-flight responses. Upon sight of one, some of us scream, others squash. Even those of us with kinder hearts often feel the need to trap and release, preferably somewhere away from home.

But new research may have you reconsidering your biases toward these misunderstood arachnids. Spiders, it turns out, appear to possess an extraordinary form of consciousness that we're only beginning to understand, and it has to do with their webs, reports New Scientist.

Researchers are slowly coming around to the idea that spider webbing is an essential part of these creatures' cognitive apparatus. The animals don't just use their webs to sense with; they use them to think

It's part of a theory of mind known as "extended cognition," and humans utilize it too. For instance, we might like to think of our minds as contained in our heads, but we rely on a number of structures outside of our heads (and even outside of our bodies) to help us think. Computers and calculators are an obvious example. We organize our living spaces to help us remember where things are, we jot notes, and we take photographs or store mementos.

But these examples pale in comparison to how a spider's thinking is interwoven with its web. Scientists are discovering that some spiders possess cognitive abilities rivaling those of mammals and birds, including foresight and planning, complex learning, and even the capacity to be surprised. It's enough to make you consider whether "Charlotte's Web" could have been a true story.

The crux of these newly discovered cognitive abilities of spiders comes down to their webs. We're finding that if you take away a spider's webbing, it loses some of these capabilities.

Picture the spider web as a hub

The future may no longer be in plastic, but rather a combination of spider silk and tree pulp. Amy Johansson/Shutterstock

For instance, we know that spiders can use their webbing as a sensory apparatus; they sense vibrations in the webbing, which alerts them to when prey gets ensnared. We now also know that spiders can even distinguish between different types of vibrations. They know which vibrations are caused by different types of critters, by leaves and other debris brushing past, and even vibrations caused by the wind.

What's really surprising, however, is what we're now learning about how spiders use their webbing to actually think through problems. When a spider sits at the hub of its web, it isn't just passively waiting for vibrations. It is actively tugging and loosening different strands, manipulating the web in subtle ways.

Research has shown that these manipulations are how to tell where a spider is paying attention. When it tenses one strand of webbing, that strand becomes more sensitive to vibrations. It's essentially the equivalent of a spider cupping its ears to hear better in a certain direction.

"She tenses the threads of the web so that she can filter information that is coming to her brain," explained extended cognition researcher Hilton Japyassú, in a report by Quanta Magazine. "This is almost the same thing as if she was filtering things in her own brain."

Furthermore, researchers have tested this hypothesis with experiments that involve cutting out pieces of webbing. When its web gets cut, a spider starts to make different decisions. According to Japyassú, it's as if the already-built portions of silk are reminders, or chunks of external memory. Cutting the web is like performing a spider lobotomy.

It's enough to make you feel guilty every time you accidentally walk through some webbing. (The good news is, a spider can always spin another one.)

Stronger claims about what this means for spider consciousness still need to be tested. If "consciousness" is a synonym for "awareness," then a spider's web certainly adds to a spider's ability to be aware of its surroundings, and this is a two-way street. Spiders both passively receive information from their webbing, and actively manipulate that information by making adjustments. But if we want to suggest that spiders use their webbing to form actual mental representations, that might be a question better left for philosophers.

Even so, experiments seem to at least leave the more nuanced questions about consciousness open for speculation. And a spider's web has certainly been shown to be more than just a hunting tool.

It's food for thought, and more than enough reason to reconsider your feelings about these remarkable web-spinners.