The Webs We Weave

Photograph by Tobias Nicolai


words by willow defebaugh

Spiders have much to teach us about extended cognition—and what it means to be part of a larger web.

“Is there anything in the universe more beautiful and protective than the simple complexity of a spider’s web?”


Dear reader: may I spin you a story? Some 400 million years ago, invertebrates produced their first strands of silk. Over time, they learned to use their spindly legs to comb this substance into threads, weaving singular whisps into complex webs. Millenia later, more than 48,000 species of spider have spawned—one of the most successful lines of evolution. They have adapted to architect not only their signature orb-shaped artistry, but balloons and bubbles, booby traps and tunnels. Most marvelous of all is that recent research suggests spiders think using their webs.


A study out of Oxford University found that spiders show sophisticated cognitive functioning by nature of the fact that spinning a web requires planning. They use mental maps to construct their webs, tailoring the tension of each strand as well as the overall size of the web based on available space, how much silk they have in store, size of local prey, and even the weather—all based on what they have learned from past weavings. And so a spider’s web holds its memories; entangled in its strands are its understandings of the world, thus spawning its future actions.


A spider’s web ties it not only to its past and future, but its present. Many webweavers are blind; they interpret information through the vibrations in their webs. And research has shown a direct relationship between a spider’s present cognitive state and that of its web, suggesting that they could be seen as one larger “mind.” If a spider is hungry, it will tighten the strands of its web so that it can be more quickly alerted of snared prey. In a paper published in the journal Animal Cognition, scientists argued that all of the above makes spiderwebs a natural example of extended cognition: the use of tools as a part of thinking, extensions of consciousness. 


In humans, we see many instances of extended cognition. An easy one would be a journal: a place where we store our thoughts and memories outside of our physical brains. I would argue that a more complex example would be the web by which you are reading these words: the internet, a vast library of information that exists outside of us, yet we are able to tap into at almost any given moment thanks to our smartphones. And much like spiderwebs, the online webs we are woven into shape our experiences of the world—for better or worse


In an interview published this week, Stolen Focus author Johann Hari explained to Atmos’s Daphne Chouliaraki Milner how social media companies make money by selling the data they collect from you signing onto the app. Combine that with the fact that upsetting and divisive content tends to keep people more engaged, you get algorithms that favor negativity. I wonder what that might do to our views of the world? Not to mention the future of our world itself; Hari went on to outline how big tech companies are systematically targeting our attention spans, which are critical for movement-building and solving complex issues like climate change.


None of this is to say that technology is inherently nefarious—even if it does easily ensnare us. After all, a spiderweb is a kind of technology. Social media can also be used to disseminate ideas and form connection. As with most things, it comes down to balance and intention. When we begin to see the virtual webs that we engage with as extensions of our cognitive functioning, it can change how we choose to interact with them. Like spiders, we can approach them with forethought; we can sling lines and weave boundaries based on what we’ve found works for us. 


I am weaving a life. In that process, I am learning to be mindful of the intersecting webs I entangle myself in. I am learning that it is possible to spin my own, that my every action is a strand in it. I am learning that tension is to be expected, that my silk can be both strong and soft. I am learning that my being extends beyond the boundaries of my body, that it binds me to a bigger balance. I am learning how extraordinary it is: to be part of this sprawling web of life.

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