The Embodied Spider

There is more to embodied cognition than that neurocogntion happens within and inseparably from the body. We are bodies. And our bodies are of the world, one might say they are the world, the only world we can comprehend (com- ‘together’ + prehendere ‘grasp’). That is simple enough. But what kind of embodied beings are we with what kind of embodied experience?

How we exist within our bodies… how we hold our physical form… how we position ourselves in relation to the world… how we inhabit our extended selves… All of this and more determines our way of being, what we perceive, think, and do, what we can imagine. It is through our bodies that we manage our lived reality. And it is through our bodies that we are managed by the forces and patterns of society and environment, the affordances of structured existence forming our habitus and worldview. Maybe epigenetically carried across generations and centuries.

We are spiders in webs of our own making but webs we don’t so much see as through which we perceive, as if strands connecting us to the world to such an extent that it is unclear who is the puppet and who the puppetmaster. Social constructivism points toward a greater truth of webbed realism, of what we sense and know in our entanglement. As we are embodied, so we are embedded. Our identities extend into the world, which means the other extends back into us. One part shifts and the rest follows.

* * *

The World Shifts When a Black Widow Squats
by Ed Yong

“The widow’s abilities are part of a concept called “embodied cognition,” which argues that a creature’s ability to sense and think involves its entire body, not just its brain and sense organs. Octopus arms, for example, can grab and manipulate food without ever calling on the central brain. Female crickets can start turning toward the sound of a male using only the ears and neurons in their legs, well before their central nervous system even has a chance to process the noise. In the case of the black widow, the information provided by the sense organs in the legs depends on the position of the entire animal.

“Earlier, I described this as a postural squint. That’s close, but the analogy isn’t quite right, since squinting helps us focus on particular parts of space. Here, the spider is focusing on different parts of information space. It’s as if a human could focus on red colors by squatting, or single out high-pitched sounds by going into downward dog (or downward spider).

“The ability to sense vibrations that move through solid surfaces, as distinct from sounds that travel through air, is “an often overlooked aspect of animal communication,” says Beth Mortimer from the University of Oxford, who studies it in creatures from elephants to spiders. It’s likely, then, that the widow’s ability to control perception through posture “almost certainly [exists in] other spiders and web types, too, and other arthropods, including insects, that detect vibrations along surfaces through their legs.” Scientists just need to tune in.”

8 thoughts on “The Embodied Spider

    • I don’t know. What I took from the article is that spiders sense whatever directly touches the strands of their webs. But those strands are attached to surfaces (walls, limbs, leaves, etc) that also transmit vibrations.

      The perceptual abilities of spiders might extend quite far, depending on what kind of material their web is attached to. It does make one wonder. Maybe a spider can sense the vibrations of an animal walking nearby, in order to quickly go into hiding.

      There are many possibilities in what kind of worldview is formed within the spider’s psyche or whatever is the equivalent of a psyche. What do you think? Do you have any speculations in response to your own questions?

  1. This is fascinating and provokes questions like: how much of the spiders’ detection processing and responses are completely determined by the genetically prescribed neural network layout? My immediate response to that is: nearly all. But then I think about your mention of epigenetic; the spiders’environment is potentially more complicated than that of the nematode with only 200 & something neurons. For example their webs must be effectively and robustly constructed in a particular place yet all places are different! This means the ability to make decisions according to variable parameters is essential.

    I think this implies that they can learn from mistakes made in the construction process but they won’t learn much if anything about variables where the (potential) parameter is not modelled. IMO same will apply to sensory responses. Cheers Mark.

    • I wouldn’t be surprised if even simple creatures such as spiders could learn from and respond in new ways to their environments. They are so attuned to the immediate world around them. And their survival depends on adapting to a diverse conditions. Their webbed worldview is probably quite complex.

      But what interested me is how this might point to how entangled we too are in the world around us. The spider and its web make explicit how perception and behavior operates. That we might be entangled across generations as well makes it all the more intriguing.

  2. This goes very much along with my last comment, regarding the initial establishment of “self” as the boundaries of body and its ability to interact with and manipulate its surroundings. Part of this conclusion is drawn from some very early memories, which would involve a long story. But I remember watching a back-hoe operator who was digging a hole into which he couldn’t see. His movements struck me as very peculiar, so I made a point to walk by the hole. He was digging out the earth beneath an ancient and fragile clay pipe, gingerly “feeling it” through its subtle interactions with the steel bucket and subsequent motions of the tractor. The backhoe had become as an extension to his body and its senses. Likewise, there are stories of knights in the Crusades who had nervous breakdowns after removing armor that had been worn continuously for weeks, or perhaps months. And I can attest to the sense of “disability” that a motorcyclist feels after a summer of riding yields to a snowy winter. The human sense of a separate and physical “self” is an at least somewhat plastic phenomenon. This could have some interesting implications with regard to human interaction with technologies such as VR and the remote operation of a machine.

    • Any technology, even the simplest tool, alters our relationship with the world. And, as an extension of experience and behavior, it alters our relationship to ourselves. That in turn alters identity itself. This is why media technology, as one of the most powerful of tools, so often gets obsessed over. Many scholars (Marshall McLuhan, E. R. Dodds, Bruno Snell, Julian Jaynes, etc) have noted the transformative power of the written text, bound books, and moveable type printing presses (and the further developments of all that has been afforded by the internet, personal computers, tablets, and smartphones). More broadly, linguistic relativity explores this territory.

      I’ve wondered about the affects of new media, specifically in terms of voices. There is a sad example that hits close to home. My mother had to get hearing aids some years back. A new pair she got links directly to the smart tv. This means, no matter where she is in the house, she can have tv voices piped directly into her brain all day long. Much of that time is spent listening to Fox News. She doesn’t think it affects her, as she states she barely notices it most of the time. But my father and I regularly observe her repeating Fox News talking points, indicating she is unconsciously internalize the voices of others and can no longer distinguish them from her own voice.

      Battle of Voices of Authorization in the World and in Ourselves

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