On spiders and beards

I’ve decided to start using this blog more often for what people often use blogs for — writing down thoughts and ideas, and seeing what comes of them.  I’m going to start by discussing why spiders might like to live in my beard.

Let me explain.  One time I was sat in a pub with a girl.  I was musing on something or other, doing my best to keep up my end of the conversation.  Suddenly the girl started laughing.  What started as a titter became more uproarious, and in response my self-conscious anxiety grew and grew.  What was she laughing at?  Was something wrong with what I was saying?  Did she suddenly realise I look faintly ridiculous, like a short and awkward version of Jesus?  Was she having some sort of boredom-induced brain attack?

Turns out there was a spider in my beard.  She reached over, coaxed it onto her finger, and gently flicked it over onto an empty part of the table.

At this point, several thoughts went through my head:

  1. Why did the spider decide to abseil all the way down from the ceiling into my majestic facial hair?  Did the spider really decide to do this, or was it a consequence of some external factors?  Did my majestic facial hair present an appealing nesting opportunity?  Just what is it like to be a beard-seeking spider?  Are all spiders innately beard-seeking, given the right conditions, or was this a particularly intrepid arachnid?
  2. This girl just touched that spider with her bare hand.  At best I’d use my bare hand only to slap it away from my face while squealing pathetically, despite it being a rather small and wispy spider, all things considered.  What is it about these eight-legged beasts that sends me — and, thankfully, lots of other neurotics — into a frenzy of terror and despair?  What does it say about me that I can face many challenges in life, and yet the mere presence of a tiny arachnid on my face makes me want to cry and scream and leap from the nearest window?  Come to that, what does it say about this girl who not only can tolerate their general ickiness, but actually finds them amusing?
  3. Spiders have eight eyes, but none of them actually see particularly well, at least in the way we’d define it.  They sense motion, light and dark, and that’s about it.  If I were a spider, what would be my experience of a beard?  What would I see, with my vastly different perceptual abilities and eight horrible eyeballs?

Since that fateful day I’ve discovered that my head seems to have a remarkable ability to attract spiders.  Time and time again I’ve been sat somewhere only to find a spider suddenly abseiling down from the brim of my hat in front of my face.  They do so casually, as if they’ve got all the time in the world and they’re not the least bit threatened by the massive hairy mug mere inches away.  ‘Oh, hi!’ they seem to say.  ‘What’s happening?  I’m just hanging out — get it?’

‘Yeeearrgghhh’  I invariably respond, slapping them away from my face in a blind panic.  I’m really not very sociable on these occasions, to my eternal regret, but they keep trying nonetheless.

I was thinking about these spider encounters today, and I wondered idly if, somehow, the spiders got wind of my experience in the pub and the thoughts that followed, and every so often they send an envoy down from my hat to check in and see what I’ve decided about those thoughts.  Maybe they want to have a proper inter-species discussion on their experience of spiderdom, and to share with me their well-developed philosophical traditions.  Perhaps, I thought, I’m slapping them away not out of fear — or at least, not just fear — but out of shame for my lack of action on those thoughts.

I’m sorry, spiders — I promise I’ll get back to work on these questions.  I’m not sure what form these explorations could take — a few years ago I’d envisioned something like Thomas Nagel’s famous article “What is it like to be a bat?”, a 1974 critique of reductionist theories of mind.  I doubt that “What is it like to be a beard-spider?” would be anywhere near as influential as that article, but you never know I suppose.

Regardless, I owe it to myself, and to the spiders, to think more about these questions.  Maybe then they’ll stop dangling off my hats and giving me expectant looks.

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2 thoughts on “On spiders and beards

  1. The very different reactions to spiders between different humans have a straightforward explanation, I think. In the distant past, lost in the mists of time, giant spider creatures were our overlords. One race of humans was dominated and enslaved by the spiderlords, and bred to fear and obey them. Another race of humans lived away from the spiderlords, barely knowing of their existence, and living happy and free. It is the descendents of the first race who have a genetic memory of the terrifying hideous master race of spiders, and who wish only to see them destroyed, or at least put beyond reach. Descendents of the second group don’t remember the giant, fearsome spiderlords and don’t know what the fuss is about. What we really need to worry about is the descendents of the collaborators who sold out their fellow humans to the spiders for a few meagre comforts. Or Tories, as they are known today.

    • Well it does seem to be true that ancestral spider phobias could be passed down genetically:

      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/10486479/Phobias-may-be-memories-passed-down-in-genes-from-ancestors.html

      The thing is I don’t think said spider overlords would even have to be giant to take over. Almost any size of intelligent, scheming spider would be enough to subjugate me pretty quickly. Dammit, now I’m imagining what a spider-overlord’s voice would sound like, coming out of those gross jaws of theirs. So much for sleeping tonight….

      Back when I was an undergrad I performed a study about whether people react to natural threats differently from artificial ones — in other words, do people react the same way to having a gun pointed at them as they do to a tiger or something? There was a theory about this by a psychologist called Joseph LeDoux who proposed that ‘evolutionarily relevant’ fearful stimuli have an express pathway from our retinas to our brains, generating that deep, primal fear we get when we see something truly scary.

      Unfortunately, my study didn’t find an awful lot that couldn’t be explained by artefacts in the presented stimuli (scary images). I developed a follow-up which would use eye-tracking software to try and divine whether the images themselves were generating the effects I saw or not, but I ran out of time before graduation.

      Maybe I can revisit that now at Teesside! Alongside manmade threats and tigers, I can add pictures of ginormous spiders and track people’s eyeballs while they stare at horrible spider eyeballs. And David Cameron.

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