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.
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."
Jody Avirgan started two days before The Brian Lehrer Show won a Peabody, and he is taking full credit. He comes to WNYC from WFUV, where he produced "Cityscape" and before that KQED Radio in San Francisco. He's a founder of Longshot Radio, and has produced pieces that have aired here and there and everywhere. Every other month in New York City he hosts the conversation series Ask Roulette, a live audience version of the Brian Lehrer Show's "radio roulette" segments.