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Why Spiderman is Such a Good Dancer

Friday, June 21, 2013 - 04:00 AM

For over a decade (according to Know Your Meme), Dancing Spiderman has been shuffling and swaying online. Sometimes he dances in obscurity, sometimes people pay attention. I recently noticed him on the front page of reddit, which means a lot of people were watching him again, in the animated GIF below. Warning: you're about to waste some time, but it'll (eventually) be in the interest of understanding the neuroscience of rhythm.

This version of Dancing Spiderman hails from a post by panda_baker on reddit. If he's not moving above, click here for another version of the image.

And it's true. I couldn't stump Spiderman: with my computer's song archive on "super shuffle" he found an almost perfect dancing match every time.

Want to give it a try? Here's a playlist I put together of songs of different styles so you can see for yourself. (Note: if you don't have an Rdio account, you'll only hear the first 30 seconds of each song.)

How can it be that Dancing Spiderman is so dead-on? And more importantly, does this mean that if we all learn the Spiderman dance, we'll be able to blend in at any party?

The Case for "It's All In Your Head"

At Michigan State University, Devin McAuley works in the brilliantly-acronymed Timing, Attention and Perception (TAP) Lab, trying to understand the way humans sense rhythm. He'd never seen this GIF before, but "from a cognitive science perspective" he's not surprised. "Dancing Spiderman highlights the extent to which our perceptions can be constructed." In other words, it's not that Spiderman is a super dancer as much as it is that we mere humans are flexible time-keepers.

"We have a tendency to pay more attention to events that are synchronous than asynchronous events, so this would bias our attention to time points that provide evidence for Spiderman dancing synchronously with the music," explains McAuley. The GIF shows how "auditory rhythms can drive visual rhythm perception, especially when the visual stimuli are continuous, affording a lot of flexibility with where beats are aligned in the cycle."

Another good example? The mid-90s Volkswagen ad "Syncronicity." (Yes, that's a cassette player. Ask your parents.)

Volkswagen wants you to believe their car makes the world click into place, but McAuley loves the driver's disbelief -- it hints at the possibility that it's all in our heads. (It pretty much is.)

The Case for "Spiderman's A Great Dancer"

This is not to say that Dancing Spiderman isn't doing impressive work to match the beat. "The movements of Dancing Spiderman, like movements in most dance, are hierarchically structured," says McAuley. These are called "periodicities" of movement -- various different but related rhythms nestled inside the rhythms of Spiderman's gyrations. There are also these nested rhythmic patterns within any given song. So as we watch, our brain picks out two items to match: one from the menu of Spidey-rhythms, and one from the menu of song-rhythms.*

It doesn't hurt that Spiderman's movements are continuous and in relatively short repetitive cycles, either. In neuroscience-speak, "there are a range of phases within each movement cycle [where] one could reasonably place/perceive the onset of a beat." You can test this out by starting the same song at different points in Spiderman's dance. It may sync right away, or it may take a moment -- but eventually he'll find the groove. If Spiderman's dance went on longer, we might see more "drift" in the synchrony.

The Case for "Just Enjoy It"

The reason Dancing Spiderman's a meme is not because he's neuroscientifically interesting. Like the poster on reddit, I find myself "lauing my ass off" watching Spiderman dance to my iTunes. There's magic in synchrony, even after you know it's mostly cooked up in your head. Actually, that your brain can pick out these moments is a wonder of its own. So, just watch and Marvel.

If you've got more examples of cool musical sync-ups (yes, we've done "Dark Side" with "Wizard of Oz") post them in the comments below.


*Actually, McAuley first put it like this (and I had to call him to understand what he meant): "There are periodicities in the movements on multiple (nested) time scales that are related to each other. If you look closely, you can track periodicities in the movements at different rates and these appear to be related by a simple integer ratio of 2:1; i.e., periodic movements at one level are twice as fast as movements at another level, etc. Music is also hierarchically structured, so beats in music can also be perceived on different levels. Thus, there are both multiple periodicities in the movements and multiple beat periods, which means that there are a number of ways that things could line up."

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Comments [18]

Ramón Peralta

Voices (Feat. Sasha Keable) - Disclosure.

Dec. 14 2014 11:23 AM
djay from nyc

tried it with seven songs from a mixed playlist of folk, latin and gospel. came close on most, but not dead on. interesting, but....

Oct. 27 2014 07:53 PM
Kathy from Like you need to know

He kinda syncs with Fall Out Boy's My Songs Know What you Did in the Dark, but nothing else and only at certain parts.

Oct. 13 2014 01:21 PM
loxxi from england

doens't work to the songs i just tried (love the way you lie P2 and bangarang)

Oct. 06 2014 05:15 PM
Death

I have tried it with over 7 of my songs its doesn't sync up. I thin it only syncs to mainstream music once its slow tempo and Emo it doesn't work.

Sep. 28 2014 04:59 PM
Sankeyao from Wondabyne

I don't if this counts, but Schubert's 9th Symphony (Furtwangler) doesn't quite work. Maybe 1 or 2 notes sync up to move, but not an entire bar or melody.

Sep. 19 2014 04:43 AM
That Guy from Seattle, WA

Doesn't sync up the "THE What"by Biggie Smalls and Method Man

Sep. 16 2014 03:19 PM
Young Based God from Mobbin' with the D.O. double G

You little fucking cumdumpster peace of shit I hate you now. ( Thanks for posting this bro)

Sep. 15 2014 02:10 PM
Ramses

Ive tried Meshuggah..it doesnt work.

Sep. 10 2014 01:06 PM
James

That post is from tumblr not reddit.

Nov. 30 2013 08:16 PM
Jackson from Minneapolis

One of my favorites -- here's another GIF that works for most Mumford and Sons songs: http://www.buzzfeed.com/stacylambe/1-gif-that-sums-up-every-mumford-sons-song

Jul. 18 2013 10:44 AM
William Freeman from Glendale AZ

Years ago I discovered a similar fun time is to be had by watching any "Lord of the Dance" or other Michael Flatly performance on video, muted while listening to basically ANY song of your choice. It doesn't always sync right away, but once it catches you will be laughing till it hurts.

Jul. 01 2013 02:02 AM
ToT

I don't think the nested rhythms is the full answer. As in the VW ad, if two things appear to happen synchronously, our subconscious mind gives it a higher relevance, since it does not always believe in coincidence . That means that those thing that appear to be in unison stand out in our minds.

Jun. 30 2013 08:53 PM
Virginia from Minneapolis

Spiderman looks like he took the same dance class as Napoleon Dynamite.

Jun. 26 2013 09:16 AM
Ashleyanne Krigbaum from Oakland, CA

Funny, the song I chose definitely DOES NOT match Spiderman's rhythm. Devendra Banhart's "Won't You Come Over". STUMPED.

Jun. 22 2013 12:27 PM
Alex from Cincinnati, OH

I had a professor in college who needed to show The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in one of his film classes, and was having trouble getting students into it. One day, he decided to show it with DJ Spooky's Songs of a Dead Dreamer and got much better results. I recommend it, it's a pretty neat way to enjoy the film.

Jun. 22 2013 11:51 AM
Jeff from Maryland

I live an area with lots of farms. Most of the time, when I'm driving the country roads with music on, all the cows, horses, goats, and donkeys are walking/trotting/dancing to the beat. It's amazing how much the animals around here love 80's New Wave music.

Jun. 22 2013 10:43 AM
Matman from Greenest NJ

This never worked for me. But maybe because I'm a musician and pay close attention to time and phase.

Jun. 22 2013 08:50 AM

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