If spiders make you bug-eyed, it may be because you're hardwired to notice the little arachnids.
In fact, according to a report published this spring, although we may not be born afraid of spiders, we do seem to have inherited a sort of “brain template"that makes us sit up and take notice the very first time we see one—even if we're just learning to sit up.
Jamie Derringer, who graduated from the U in May with a master's degree in psychology, and a colleague are the first to show that infants may have such a mental template, one that seems to have evolved over centuries as a way to alert us that there's a threat in our midst.
Derringer and David Rakison—an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, where Derringer earned her undergraduate degree—based their conclusions on their study of five-month-old infants.
They showed the babies computer images that were shaped like spiders, noting how long the image held the tots' attention. The researchers found that the babies stared longer at shapes that closely resembled a spider than they did at shapes that did not. And they showed no evidence of having a brain template for a nonthreatening organism.
“Spiders hold infants' attention much more than do flowers," says Derringer, noting that, although they clearly notice the spiders, the babies aren't scared of them. “They learn that,"she says. “What we see is that they seem to have a built-in mechanism that recognizes what might be a threat."
This study builds on earlier work conducted by a variety of researchers pointing to an innate ability of primates and other animals to respond to predators.
The brain template predisposing babies to respond to spiders may be activated by the age of five months. That is when infants are about to start to crawl, explore—and possibly encounter spiders, says Derringer, who is now pursuing a doctorate at Washington University in St. Louis and continuing to collaborate with Minnesota researchers.
Such built-in predator awareness serves a couple of purposes, say the researchers. First, it facilitates learning early in life so that fear responses can be rapidly associated with the stimulus in question when specific behavior is observed. Second, in childhood and beyond it allows for rapid identification of a potential threat. This automatic ‘‘attention-grabbing'' characteristic of fear-relevant stimuli could engender quicker reaction to threatening situations.