Superhero Puzzle #24 — Explain Spiderman’s “Spidey Sense”

Another one of Peter Parker’s abilities after being bitten by the radioactive spider, is that he can sense danger. It’s like a sixth sense, he gets a nervous tingling when there is human danger or crime about to happen.


“That tingling sensation…”

To give this a plausible scientific basis you need to understand a few things. First, the spidey-sense seems to only operate when human beings are involved. Secondly, it has to be local, it has a radius of effectiveness. And third, it is not very specif, it just gives Parker a sense of imminent danger, and if specific at all it is only in that it is normally something sinister, not something like an accident about to happen. So what is your take on the plausible science behind this super-power?

I conjured up a shortlist of candidate explanations, some way are more scifi than sci-fact.

  • Psionic fields?
  • Mind-reading?
  • Thought-wave sensitivity?
  • Precognition, a sense of events in the near future in spacetime?
  • Odour reception sensitivity?

Psionic fields are the most mythical. Their basis in realistic physics is discussed in other Superhero puzzle articles, namely those about Professor Xavier and Jean Gray.

Precognition is not completely outlandish. The past or present is indeed influenced by the future according to modern quantum physics. The trouble with the real science in this case is that quantum mechanics forbids us from using information about the future in any useful way. But it at least provides a cool scifi loop-hole for some sort of low-level precognitive superpowers. The superhero’s mind would merely need to be ultra-sensitive to information encoded in electromagnetic fields on a quantum scale, and there is some cool physics there involving real effects like entanglement and superposed states of systems. But I want to leave that science for another article. It’s not how I would write a good mythical explanation for Spiderman’s spidey-sense.

Mind-reading can be dismissed since that’s not what the spidey sense is about. If it was it’d be a bit weird, like mind-reading without the ability to know the thoughts in the other’s mind, only their vague threatening quality and that alone.

Which leaves thought-wave sensitivity or odour reception sensitivity. These are my two preferred choices. But what are thought waves and how would they work as the means for spidey-sense? why is odour sensitivity on the list?

Odours are the primary means for low level emotional triggering of neural pathways in brains. But my short-list should have used the term “pheromones” perhaps rather than “odours”. This happens in humans as well as other animals and even plants (though not with brains in pants of course! In plants odour reception is not olfactory of course, it is a far more direct cellular-to-cellular response). Odours trigger very deep but very simple and primitive emotions, which is why it matches spidey-sense, since Parker’s sensitivity to threats is very vague and low-level, so low level that he can never pin-point what the threat is exactly, it is just an alert signal like a police alarm bell. Also, insects and arachnids are highly sensitive to volatile chemicals like pheromones. Humans also possess sensitivity to pheromones but this sense is often completely swamped by our other stronger senses. Still, pheromone sensitivity acts pretty much in an olfactory mode, so like a smell in other words, it’s just we have no conscious sensation of the smell of pheromones, they operate on our brains in a more primitive way.

Actually, as an interesting aside, this sort of non-conscious response to environmental stimuli is a god illustration of how it’s possible for animals to look conscious when in fact they are not. Not all animal responses involve conscious activity. So we really can have little idea of the type of level of sentient conscious awareness possessed by other species. Although, it is entirely reasonable to suppose animals that have a sense of smell, taste, touch, hearing and sight experience similar conscious qualia to humans. But the exact nature and characteristics of their conscious inner thoughts is very mysterious. It’s possible most animals have no conscious thought, since if they did then they’d probably be capable of much greater levels of communication and abstract thinking. But this is another topic. Back to spidey-sense now.

Now, to complete the pheromone explanation for spidey-sense we need to just add that plenty of trace volatile chemicals are excreted by human’s when we are under stress or hightened emotional states. In fact, many biologists will tell you that fear can be literally smelled. People who are extremely fearful will excrete volatile hormone-like chemicals, which are really natural by-products of their bodies response to a threat, typical is the release of adrenalin. But although adrenalin might not have a detectable odour, other chemical by-products of the bodies response the fear will have a smell or low-level olfactory receptivity which can faintly, almost subconsciously, be detected by other people, or even the person themselves. I’ve often smelled my own fear or anxiety.

What Peter Parker received from the radioactive spider bite is a whole bunch of spider-like abilities, amplified by his human DNA and transmorgrified into super-powers. The spidey-sense is utterly plausible, and perhaps is the easiest to believe.

You can also conjure up an explanation involving thought-waves, wince thoughts are associated with neurological activity, electrical activity, and this is easily detected by medical equipment for instance. Spiderman might have a simple enhanced receptivity and sensitivity to electrical fields, and thoughts will produce subtle qualitatively discernible pattern in electric fields in surrounding space around a person’s skull. The trouble with this as an explanation for spidey-sense is that metals block electric fields, and electric field intensity decays rapidly with distance from the source of the electrical activity. Why is that, do you know?

Paradoxically it is because electricity is a very strong force. Electric charges which are what respond to electric fields, move so fast and are effected so powerfully by even weak electric fields that they all move and accelerate and settle into configurations which rapidly set-up cancellation effects in surrounding space. Electric charges that are free to move thus cancel out effects of electric fields in nearby space.

I like the following analogy for this paradoxical strength of the electric force: a really sexy person attracts people of the opposite sex so strongly that they very soon have a sexual excitement cancellation effect, since who wants to be put under the spell of a sexy person who is already engaged, am I right? You desire someone who is available. Or at least you will if you are sane.

Why do we say thought waves are “waves” by the way? Thoughts are not anything physical really, but they are closely correlated with physical brain activity, neural activity, flows of ionic signals through our brains, nerves impulses. It’s all pretty electricla in nature, but facilitated by chemicals that open and close ion channels in our nerve cells. These facilitating chemicals act very fast, they are called neurotransmitters. But what truly “transmit“ neural messages around in our brains are ionic (often metallic) salts. Sodium, calcium and potassium ions for instance. They aren’t really waves. They are patterns of electrical ionic activity, plus the neurotransmitters emitted rapidly by neuron cells, in the brain. But these patterns of neural activity have been studied and recorded, and you can see wave-like patterns in them, when plotted by computer software they can come out looking like music or voice recordings, they look like sound waves, but only because some computer engineer has graphed them in a similar way. Really they are nothing like sound waves.

It is true that all common signals in nature of any kind can be described by mathematical functions, which mean plotted on a graph on an appropriate scale will look a lot like voice or music signals. Such signals can always be decomposed into simple frequencies, which can thus be termed “waves” even though they might not be generated by anything we would think of as producing waves.

This can lead not an introduction to Fourier Analysis—the mathematical theory of how any signal, no matter how complex, can be decomposed into a bunch of simple waves and thus then can be compressed into a simpler data stream to be broadcast or transmitted efficiently.

But I don’t think thought waves are a good candidate for the medium of spidey-sense. So at another time I might be able to expand upon the topic of Fourier Analysis. Not sure for what Superhero though?

So why not thought-waves for spidey sense? One reason is their complexity, and spidey-sense is, remember, not very complex, it’s a fairly vague tingling produced by people’s thoughts. But thoughts have greater influence over distance on hormones and pheromones than on electric fields, and electric fields are the only sure way to detect thought waves.

BTW: have comic writers ever used the following interesting character of spidey-sense: which is that it’s a totally hidden superpower. No criminal would ever know Spiderman has this power, since it’s not visible, it is never clear in it’s operation, and manifests only as an uncanny ability of Parker’s at being able to be super-frosty and alert. In theory, this is one superpower only Peter Parker need ever know about. I’ve never read of this hidden nature of spidey-sense being used overtly in the plot of a story, perhaps because it is really implicitly used each time Peter Parker feels the tingling sensation. How could you write a plot-line where it is absolutely essential that he uses spidey-sense for it’s hidden character? Maybe when a friend or enemy is so close and insidious or veiled and menacing a threat that Parker cannot do anything other than get a warning out to an ally about the threat.

Actually, when I think about it, I’m sure there is a story where something like this happens. Nice excuse to go and browse a good few years worth of back issues.

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