Experiencing Spidey-Sense in Spider-Man: The Science Behind Science Fiction

Spider-Man. Is he strong? Listen bud. He’s got radioactive blood. He‘s agile too, these things go without saying. Under the mask, Peter Parker is a spectacular scientist and engineer as well; having developed countless inventions and gadgets, including his signature Web-Shooters, to take down an unending gauntlet of super villains. Spider-Man works tirelessly to save every life he can using everything he has at his disposal, but it might all be for nothing without his amazing Spidey-Sense. 

Spidey-Sense is Peter Parker’s ability to sense and react to danger before it happens. Spidey-Senses may even be responsible for the quick reflexes necessary for safely Web-Slinging through Manhattan at death defying speeds and heights. Spidey-Sense is on display in Spider-Man: Homecoming as Spider-Man casually breaks up an Avengers themed bank robbery, taking fighters from all sides effortlessly. Spidey-Sense can go so far as to guide Spider-Man’s movement, acting as an instinct, allowing him to focus his mind on larger problem solving.

How does it work? Peter’s Spidey-Sense detects otherwise imperceptible micro changes in his environment. These micro-changes register as electrical impulses which are picked up by antenna-like hairs on Peter’s arm and sent through the nerve endings at the root of the hair follicle. The electrical impulse is fired to the brain where Peter instinctively responds with either a fight or flight response, often before he is consciously aware of danger or even his own physical actions. 

In The Science of Marvel: From Infinity Stones to Iron Man’s Armor, the Real Science Behind the MCU Revealed! by Sebastian Alvarado, Ph.D., Alvarado describes a portion of the airport fight scene in Captain America: Civil War. In This Scene Spider-Man surprises The Winter Soldier, a cybernetically enhanced super soldier, by easily catching a powerful haymaker punch. At first it may appear that The Winter Soldier is shocked by the strength Spider-Man is showing by defending his attack, but closer inspection reveals that Spider-Man is reflexively blocking the punch well before The Winter Soldier begins to throw it. Alvarado explains that as The Winter Soldier winds his arm he is contracting muscles proportionally to the force of the punch and that this contraction carries an electrical impulse. This is the electrical impulse that Spider-Man detects in his attempt to block the punch. Alvarado argues that The Winter Soldier’s actions may be more easily detected by Spidey-Sense, due to the electronic nature of his cybernetic arm, but points out that the muscles in a non-superhero human arm would register a similar, albeit lower, bio-electric impulse.

But what does any of this have to do with actual spiders? Spiders are covered in tiny hairs called trichobothria which grant them their own version of the Spidey-Sense. These hairs, just like Spider-Man’s, detect micro shifts and vibrations in the environment. Some spiders even amplify their own abilities by feeling changes and vibrations against their webs while they patiently wait for their next meal. All of this is used to help spiders avoid predators before they are seen, and to catch prey before it could potentially escape the web. 

Peter Parker possesses a truly uncanny ability to perceive danger before it happens. In Avengers: Infinity War Peter Parker’s Spidey-Sense alerts him to a global threat during his bus ride to school. Peter develops goosebumps and the hairs on his arms stand on end. He instinctively turns to face the threat only to see a massive rotating spacecraft menacing the Chrysler Building across the East River. Goosebumps and raised hairs are often linked to fear and danger, but why? It is theorized that, in nature, human hairs stand on end to make us look larger to predators. As humans evolved we lost most of our body hair but were left with the goosebump/hair-raising reactions when put into a fight or flight situation. Goosebumps also raise body hair in low temperatures to help insulate the body against the cold.

Think about the science behind spidey-sense as you watch Spider-Man: Far From Home, in theaters July 2. If you want to read more from Dr. Alvarado’s book, The Science of Marvel: From Infinity Stones to Iron Man’s Armor, the Real Science Behind the MCU Revealed! by Sebastian Alvarado Ph.D., is available now in the Connecticut Science Center’s gift shop.

Zac Zemantic is a Group Sales Representative at the Connecticut Science Center. He has a B.A. in Visual Design with a specialty in Illustration from UMass Dartmouth and he wants to talk to you about comic books.