Real Spider-Sense Training for Lightning Reflexes

By on May 8, 2018

So, I saw Avengers: Infinity War the other day and as predicted, it was incredible.

This has therefore inspired me to dive into some of the abilities of the individual Avengers and whether or not there’s any way we could potentially develop something similar.

I’m starting with Spidey because I’ve always thought he has one of the most awesome, unique and interesting power-sets out there. In future, I’d like to dive deeper into his agility but for now I’m going to focus on one specific area: his spider-sense.

Is spider-sense real? Is it something we can develop? Can we heighten our reflexes to the point where they are almost preternatural?

The Closest Thing We Have to a Spider-Sense

First, the bad news: there is no such thing as a spider-sense. We cannot sense danger that we aren’t aware of on some level, or dodge pumpkin grenades being throw at us from behind.

But with that said, there is a kind of spider-sense that we do all have: the ability to react to dangers that we are only unconsciously aware of. The human senses take in a huge amount of information at any given time, far more than we can attend to at once. For the most part then, this information is sifted and discarded in order to allow us to focus on what’s important to us at any given time.

However, should some form of threat appear within the periphery of our vision, then we will very often immediately attend to that thing and experience a sudden sympathetic response.

This was shown relatively recently in a study called ‘Non-Conscious fear is quickly acquired but swiftly forgotten’, wherein participants were shown faces that they had been conditioned to fear while being distracted from looking at them consciously and still demonstrated a fear-response. There are issues with this study, but it does seem to confirm something we are intuitively aware of.

And it turns out that there are certain things that we are more likely to respond to than others. One example is ‘gaze perception’, which is the human ability to quickly calculate what another person is looking at. There are highly sensitive, dedicated brain regions that exist specifically to enable us to detect the direction of others’ gaze (study).

There are countless other types of ‘sense’ that we are not consciously aware of too. For instance, did you know that we have the ability to ‘smell’ emotions? Or that menstrual women have a heightened gaydar?

On a fascinating side note, ovulating women are better at spotting hidden snakes!

This information is coming in, even if we aren’t consciously aware of it. So, it’s no surprise that we might sometimes feel as though someone is watching us and turn out to be right, or that we might detect the presence of someone standing behind us. Maybe we smelled them unconsciously? Or perhaps we unconsciously detected a slight change in room temperature? Or felt movements in the air…

How to Detect Danger Faster

So, with that in mind, how might you go about developing reactions so fast that they’re almost supernatural?

Well, one option would be to train your peripheral vision. By enhancing your ability to detect movement, colour or faces in the very edges of your vision, you can react more quickly to things even before you’re consciously aware of them. This becomes even more important when you consider that your peripheral vision reaches your brain 25% faster than your central vision, and that peripheral vision also plays a role in balance and proprioception – helping us to orient ourselves in space. This is becoming more Spider-Man-esque by the moment.

The good news is that it actually is possible to enhance your peripheral vision through visual plasticity (brain plasticity for the eyes!). This can not only lead to alterations in the visual cortex to provide greater visual processing, but also potentially the formation of entirely new photoreceptors (study).

There are plenty of ways to train and improve your peripheral vision. I’ve talked in the past about using ‘wide angle vision’ (straighten your arms out to the sides, wiggle your fingers and watch them while looking directly forward – then maintain this state) and how this can improve reaction times and even help to lower stress and put us in a state of flow (due to the two-way correlation between stress and tunnel vision). This is also called ‘Owl Eyes’ or ‘Scatter Vision’ and is used by special forces operatives to scan crowds, and by survivalists in order to look out for food and danger.

Ancient Hawaiins used a similar technique called Hakalau medittion. This would involve picking a spot on a wall (or anywhere else) to look at at eye level. Then allow your vision to ‘spread out’ by focusing on the peripheral vision. Give it a try and you’ll likely be surprised at how much easier it is to clear your mind and attune your senses.

A technique used by some athletes to sharpen their peripheral vision is to position a straw in the center of the vision with a line marked in the precise center. You then attempt to insert chopsticks into either end while focusing on the central point.

Another option is to use computer games that simulate a similar experience. Practice this and you can potentially increase your reaction time to the point of being almost superhuman.

During a fight, common advice is to rest your gaze on the upper chest of the opponent. Don’t try to look for telegraphed movements, or fixate on eye contact. Just rest your eyes and trust in your peripheral vision and central nervous system to do the rest.

Diet and Myelination

Ever wondered why cats have such incredible reflexes? One possible explanation has to do with the superior myelination of their visual networks, which would allow action potentials to travel more quickly from the eyes to the brain (study). Myelin is the ‘sheath’ that covers the axons of neurons to protect and insulate them. The more myelin, the faster signals travel.

Increasing myelination is something that we can do through training (simply re-using the same cortical pathways) but also our diets. Omega 3 fatty acid is well known to promote myelination for instance (study). So too is vitamin D, vitamin C, zinc and several other nutrients.

Several studies have shown supplements to be effective in increasing myelination. These include gotu kola (study), uridine (study), ashwagandha (study), forskolin (study) and lion’s mane mushroom (study).

I also read an interesting article a while ago, about the benefit of ‘planning’ what your reactions would be to certain situations so that they can come as instinct. Potentially, even just visualizing your reaction and the stimulus repeatedly could help you to improve myelination and ‘long term potentiation’. That article advises how important it is not to try and catch a falling knife.

Ever wondered why cats have such incredible reflexes?

I actually once tried to ‘catch’ a pot of coleslaw with my foot and ended up drop kicking it. My Mum had guests round and the stuff exploded all over the dining room. She thought I had gone crazy and anti-social and for a moment I was in a lot of trouble…

Exercise, sleep and possibly even ketosis have also been shown to increase myelination (sleep will also definitely increase your reaction times versus being tired).

Training Reaction Speeds

Of course, in order to dodge like Spider-Man, it’s important to not only detect danger quickly but also to be able to react just as fast. Reaction times generally vary between .1-.4 seconds, with .1 being very quick (around the speed of a professional sprinter) and .4 being very slow. .2-.3 is average. You can test yours here.

Unfortunately, this reaction speed appears to be largely genetic and not easy to speed up. Using stimulants can help to some degree and for activity-specific increases in reaction time, using ‘overspeed training’ can also help. That means performing the thing you want to get faster at, faster than necessary. For instance, driving a simulation at super-high speeds in order to improve your reaction times on the road.

This is why driving at high speeds on the motor and then coming off onto a side road often makes you feel as though you are moving at a crawl during the latter. My best guess for the mechanisms behind this observation is that it has something to do with long term potentiation.

Runners use overspeed training likewise to train their biomechanics for quicker movement and I’ve read recently that one way to do this might be to ‘suspend’ yourself over the treadmill while moving your feet rapidly at high speeds without the weight (note that the studies don’t yet back up this method). Pitchers are able to improve their throws by using ‘overspeed’ training with lighter balls. Again, the point is that you’re cementing the neural pathways and prepping them for faster, more explosive movements.


(Side note: can you improve verbal fluency by purposefully trying to speak faster?)

Trail running may be a particularly effective form of exercise as it forces your body to quickly react to changes in the terrain, while also giving you a perfect opportunity to practice your wide-angle vision. You’ll now be reacting not only to what you can see, but also your momentum and your proprioception/balance. This is again bringing us much closer to how spider-sense would ‘really’ work.

Playing computer games can of course increase your reaction times too (I’ve gone over this countless times), as can playing sports – which will also require you to use your peripheral vision.

The Two Examples of ‘Real Life Spider-Sense’

Berit Brogaard is perhaps the individual with the closest thing to ‘real world’ spider-sense. Brogaard has a unique form of synesthesia that allows her to consciously experience the sense of danger than many of us are not aware of.

Synesthesia is a condition that causes the ‘merging’ of senses or qualia. The most famous examples include people who can ‘see’ music as colour, or who visual numbers as being coloured. But in this case, Brogaard will ‘see’ synesthetic images that resemble innately frightening landscapes overlayed on top of her normal vision whenever she registers danger. This actually once helped her to avoid stepping on a snake which she otherwise would not have been consciously aware of.

Now, whether or not we could develop something similar is questionable. But what we do know is that synesthesia at least in general is something you can acquire through training (study). Perhaps if you were to train your peripheral vision while also visualizing some kind of arrow or flashing light, you could eventually trigger this reaction to occur and create a genuine spider-sense.

Failing that, just wait for transhuman technology to catch up. A real-life ‘SpiderSense suit’ is already in development by Victor Mateevitsi and his team that uses a wearable haptic jacket in order to give everyone the ability to sense their environment. In short, this works similarly to your car’s reverse sensor, but communicates with the body through embedded motors. The result is that you really could feel something approaching you from behind, or navigate a room blindfolded. You can check it out and get on the mailing list to hear of more developments here. I was 40 too late to pre-order…

As well as being useful for the vision impaired, this device could also very likely have benefit for those working on construction sites who perhaps need to be able to dodge falling debris and the like. And perhaps in the future, the technology might shrink to the point that it can be embedded…

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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