The welcoming Spider-Verse: Finding your ‘self’ in a web of others

(Sony Pictures Entertainment)

“Aim with your hips!” yells alternate-dimension Peter Parker to “learning-to-fly” Miles Morales. “Look where you want it to hit!“

Miles acquires his target and leaps into the air. Web securely attached, he swings through the trees, struggling to get his bearings.

“Haaaa, haaaa! You’re doing it!” exclaims Peter. He aligns his trajectory with Miles’ and extends the computer console they recently nabbed from Kingpin. Miles grabs it, and by doing so, aligns his swing with Peters’.  

“I’m doin’ it!” yells Miles, exhilarated.

As they approach the peak of their swing and begin to decelerate, Peter says to Miles, “Double tap to release…and THWIP it out again.”

“OK,” responds Miles. He knows what “THWIP” means because he sees Peter cast another web at the very moment he says the word THWIP.

Then, like a good teacher, Peter synchronizes his swinging movements with Miles’, and says, over and over again, “THWIP…and release…THWIP…and release.”

Miles grunts in synchrony with Peter’s words. Having to focus on this new skill, he can’t quite talk and THWIP at the same time yet.

“THWIP…and release…,” continues Peter. “THWIP…”

“…and release,” responds Miles, in time, gaining confidence.

“You’re a natural,” says Peter encouragingly.

“THIPW…and release,” the two chant synchronously.

“Feel the rhythm?” asks Peter.

“Wooooh, hooh, hoooooh!” exclaims Miles, the thrill of achievement coursing through his movements.

I love this scene in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, both as a fan and as a cognitive scientist. It was remarkable how fluidly the writers and animators captured Miles’ ascent from novice to… well, let’s say non-novice, and how beautifully they portrayed Peter Parker’s expert Spidey skills, his joy at discovering a true protégé, and his fatherly pride in coaching Miles to realize his potential. To be sure, the movie as a whole is amazing. But for me, this single scene thoroughly encapsulates how we learn to be a “self” in a web of “others”, which, in turn, explains why the Spider-Verse is such an inherently social, welcoming place.

“Look where you want it to hit!“

(Sony Pictures Entertainment)

When Peter yells these words, he’s giving Miles the same advice baseball coaches have given batters for years. If you want to hit the ball, keep your eyes on it. When I was teaching my daughters how to ride a bike, I’d tell them, “Look where you want to go, not at your feet. They know what to do!” Common to all of these coaching tactics is the idea that achieving a goal requires focusing on the goal, while at the same time, allowing your body to figure out how to produce the goal. As an example, when you try to walk along a curb, you don’t look at your feet. You pick a spot on your path to focus on, maybe a tree or a stop sign, and you fix your gaze on that spot. As your arms move up and down erratically while keeping your balance, it’s not your perception of the sign or the tree that causes your arms to move. The movement problem is being solved by a different part of your brain. The purpose of fixating on the sign or the tree is to stabilize your body’s relationship to the external world so that your body’s movements have a smaller problem to solve. Have you ever noticed how you tend to move in the direction you’re looking? If you stare at a specific location, like a sign or a tree, your body doesn’t move in other directions. In short, having a goal and focusing on it stabilizes your relationship with the world, and allows you to learn how to deal with the things that are obstacles to your goal.

Synchronized THWIPing I: Social Learning of Goals and Actions

(Sony Pictures Entertainment)

When Peter brings his swing trajectory in line with Miles’, he is actually teaching Miles by taking over his brain. What’d you say? No, seriously. It turns out that when we look at other people, activity increases in areas of our brain we use to plan our own goals and actions. So when Miles “looks at” Peter’s swinging, the planning centers of Miles’ brain are being taken over by Peter’s movements. This, of course, is precisely why your parents told you not to hang around with that troublemaker kid down the street. “Monkey see, monkey do,” is how we refer to this phenomenon in daily culture. And though it may sound like an old wives’ tale, the brain actually seems to work this way, which explains why humans are so good at learning by watching, what psychologists refer to as “observational learning.” When Peter synchronizes his movements with Miles’, his ongoing movements put Miles’ brain in the continuous stream of “planning” it takes to complete a proper swing. In short, “observing” others automatically connects us with them in terms of action plans, which we can then use as a means of learning new skills.

Synchronized THWIPing II: Learning Language Through Imitation

(Sony Pictures Entertainment)

When Peter tells Miles, “THWIP…and release,” Miles quickly realizes that “to THWIP” means to snap your wrist forward while pressing the release valve located in the palm of your hand, thereby shooting a web to the target location. Miles learns this meaning because (1) perceiving Peter’s THWIPing movements puts Miles’ brain in the planning state for producing a THWIP action, and (2) hearing the phrase “THWIP” at the very same moment causes Miles’ brain to form an association between planning the THWIP movement and the sound “THWIP.” As Miles says the word “THWIP” while learning the action, the association between the two grows very strong, and eventually, simply “thinking” the phrase “THWIP” puts Miles’ brain in the planning state for the action. In short, associating words with action plans connects the two, and allows words to help us create and sustain planning states.

Brother, Can You Spare a Console? The Web-Like Nature of the External World

(Sony Pictures Entertainment)

When Peter sees Miles struggling to control his swing trajectory, he calibrates his own swing into synchrony with Miles, and extends the computer console. Miles grabs it, and action coordination becomes much easier. While this gesture might seem trivial, it actually reveals quite a bit about human cooperation. When two people approach a door at the same time, one of them usually slows down and makes a gesture, allowing the other to go first. The gesture is like the console. It’s an object or event in the external world that affords connection and coordination between people.  

While gestures and consoles might seem like fairly simply coordination devices, think about the layout of a city street. The stripes down the middle afford cooperation in terms of where cars should drive. Stoplights allow people to coordinate their action plans regarding who should pass through an intersection first. All of these “consoles” were produced in order to enhance human cooperation. Now imagine the vast network of satellites, relay stations, computers, and cell phones that surround us, and just how much human cooperation they afford. Finally, remember how many books, movies, and plays you were exposed to with your peers during your childhood. All of it—the books, the movies, the stage, and even the school itself—can be thought of as “consoles” that afforded you the ability to connect and coordinate with others in the world of ideas. This constellation of “consoles” is what we refer to as culture. In short, the external world we have created for ourselves (i.e., culture) is a reflection of the types of connections and co-ordinations we desire to have and maintain with others.   

Welcome to the Spider-Verse

(Sony Pictures Entertainment)

So, it seems we are connected to each other in many, many ways we don’t actually realize. Simply “looking at” someone automatically connects you to that person’s planning states. Associating words with planning states allows us to connect and coordinate ourselves in bizarre, abstract ways, such as when someone says, “Let’s go see Into the Spider-Verse tomorrow,” and, lo and behold, the group of you meet at the theater the next day. These connections between words and planning states are only allowed to extend beyond the moment however, if we create “consoles” that connect the present to the future. Once someone announces a plan to see a movie the next day, everyone types the date, place, and time into their phone, or says to someone else, “don’t let me forget to mark it in my calendar when I have my phone.” Both of these actions—typing the reminder into the phone, and asking your friend to remind you to do so—are “consoles.”  You are changing the external world in ways that afford cooperation in the future. Seen from this perspective, it seems that all of culture can be thought of as a vast web of consoles, and, as a result, we are more deeply connected than we ever thought. In short, we actually live in a Spider-Verse.

The Dark Side of The Webs We Weave

(Sony Pictures Entertainment)

If we’re so deeply connected, why don’t we think of ourselves this way? I believe part of the reason has to do with managing the web of automatic connections we share with others. When we go to a movie and see an actor cry, it automatically puts in a sad mood. If you pay attention to your body movements during such a moment, you’ll feel your lips start to quiver in synchrony with the actor’s, even though you know the person is an actor. When we leave the theater however, and see a homeless person on the street, we often turn away from their suffering. Why? Because. If we engage them, we, too, automatically feel suffering. Since we have other things we want to do at the moment—you know, get together with our friends and tell them about the amazingly tragic movie we just saw—we avert our gaze. Then, in order to stave off guilt, we attach words to our action plan to avert our gaze. We tell ourselves a story about how the homeless person’s life would be better if they simply got their act together, found a job, and became a contributing citizen.

These stories we tell ourselves to justify our aversion to suffering are “anti-consoles,” what I like to refer to as identity borders. They are straight-up refusals to be influenced by the planning states of others. It’s as if Peter Parker had decided not to extend the computer console to Miles, thereby preventing Miles from having any influence on Peter’s planning states. Using “anti-consoles” leaves us with a visceral, emotional sense of which groups we belong to, and which groups we don’t. All of us use them. Conservatives, liberals, Republicans, Democrats, gay rights, anti-gay, multiculturalism, and racism—all of these “anti-consoles” are identity borders that specify our in-groups and out-groups. Making these distinctions allows us to manage whose hopes, dreams, and suffering we will allow to influence our own. In short, “anti-consoles” (i.e., identity borders) are systems of thought that allow us to manage the amount of suffering we allow others to produce within us.  

Just like “consoles,” “anti-consoles” are part of culture. Most people who live a life of privilege, for example, do so by embedding themselves in a network of “anti-consoles” that prevents them from experiencing the suffering of the non-privileged. Neighborhoods, cars, school districts, clothing, jewelry, dialects—all of these are objects or events we put into the external world in order to sustain our identity of being a particular someone. And at the core of all this identity work, is the decision of who we will, and will not, allow to influence our action planning and emotions. In short, the external world we create and sustain serves as a scaffold for who we want to be, which includes the identities we do not want to be.

(Sony Pictures Entertainment)

So, is the welcoming Spider-Verse a good place or a bad place? These types of binary questions drive me mad, for they completely avoid the complex, social nuance that underlies who we are. While moving into an upper-middle class neighborhood might be a “good” thing because of the opportunities it affords your children, it could simultaneously be a “bad” thing because the increased taxes you have to pay in order to fund the more expensive school district actually help sustain a culture of inequality. While wearing nice clothing might be a “good” thing because it impresses your co-workers and clients, thereby helping you to keep your job, it could also be a “bad” thing because it helps strengthen and sustain the borders between you and people who make less money. My point here is not to admonish the privileged. Rather, what I’m trying to do is clarify just how deeply and automatically we are connected to each other as human beings, and just how hard we work to create external environments that allow us to be a certain someone who, by definition, is not someone else.

Honestly, I believe Shakespeare was right—living in these webs of social tension is the nature of the human condition. Thus, instead of trying to get everyone on board with a common narrative about how to be “good,” we might actually get to a more just society by creating a network of “consoles” (i.e., education) that (1) teaches people about the nature of “anti-consoles” (i.e., identity borders), and (2) encourages the development of identity borders that attach one’s self-respect to an awareness of the suffering one’s identity work generates in others. If we cultivate identities that measure the quality of our “self” in such an other-related fashion, our external world might stand a fighting chance of evolving into a more diverse, inclusive, welcoming, Spider-Verse.

About J. Scott Jordan

J. Scott Jordan
J. Scott Jordan is a cognitive psychologist who studies the roots of cooperative behavior. He often uses popular culture in his classes to illustrate the relevance of social-cognitive psychology to daily life. He is extremely proud of his international comic book collection.