HE’S the web-slinging superhero whose aerial antics and sixth sense for trouble have attracted millions of comic book fans.
But now city scientists have shown that lesser mortals can imitate Spider-Man’s survival instincts by spotting when danger is brewing without even realising it.
This human “spider sense” may not have the same crimefighting potential as super-human strength or invisibility on demand, but the ground-breaking research is raising eyebrows among leading academics in the field. Spearheaded by university scientists from Edinburgh and New York, the study could shed new light on the differences between conscious and un- conscious learning.
The trials involved an “awareness’ group who looked at pictures and were given mild electric shocks whenever particular images were shown.
The other group were shown the images with just one eye – the other eye distracted by vibrant, colourful pictures that would dominate their perspective – and again given electric shocks when corresponding pictures were shown.
Testing the body’s fear response by measuring the amount of sweat on a person’s fingertips, the research found that people quickly learn to recognise a threat even when they are unaware of it, while people aware of the threat took longer to learn to be afraid of it.
David Carmel, of Edinburgh University’s department of psychology, who jointly led the study with Candace Raio, of New York University, said: “How the brain reacts to threats is key to understanding how human beings function.
“This study shows that we are capable of learning very rapidly that something is a threat, even when we don’t perceive it consciously.
“Such learning, however, is fleeting. With awareness, learning is slower but more stable. Conscious processes might therefore be less automatic, but essential for forming stable impressions that allow us to hang on to what we learn.”
The findings could help to influence how patients suffering anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress are treated.
Mr Carmal said: “The way to teach people with these disorders that there’s nothing to be afraid of is by showing them the very thing that they are afraid of, which can often cause some distress. Using these techniques, we could show these things to them without them even knowing it.”
He insisted that despite the Spider-Man analogies there was nothing in the research that was either supernatural or corroborated any notion of a sixth sense.
And he added: “That instinct could now become switched on when we hear our boss’s footsteps in the hall, for example.”