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Do you actually swallow 8 spiders a year while you sleep?

Offbeat

(WGHP) — Few things will cause nightmares quite like the image of spiders crawling in your mouth while you’re helpless and asleep.

Yet that’s exactly what one of the most enduring urban legends claims: you swallow eight spiders a year in your sleep. But have no fear. There’s no practical or scientific basis for this belief no matter how popular it is in our culture.

If there’s no documented proof of people eating spiders, why does the myth persist and who started it?

Where does the urban legend come from?

Like most urban legends and tall tales, there’s basically no way to learn the exact origin.

In fact, it’s one of those claims that only sounds OK if you hear it quickly in passing and don’t have time to dwell on it. As soon as you start asking questions, the whole thing falls apart.

For example, why eight spiders? Surely, a number so specific would have concrete evidence behind it? And if spiders are bold enough to crawl on you while you’re asleep, why don’t they crawl all over you while you’re awake and sitting still?

And what about all the people who sleep with their mouths closed? There’s no opening to even swallow a spider. And if you do happen to sleep with your mouth open, wouldn’t your warm breath and possible snoring give any spider a hard time trying to get into your mouth? And if spiders…

I can come up with questions all day, but I think you get the point.

Here’s what scientists actually say: the kinds of spiders living in people’s homes are solitary creatures, and they’re more frightened of us than we are of them. Spiders don’t crawl into bed with us because our overwhelming size and movements will scare them off. Plus spiders are unlikely to find any prey in our beds.

Common sense and basic science can disprove the myth quickly, but we’re still no closer to finding out why such an obvious bit of misinformation is so persistent.

Child sleeping (Getty Images)
Child sleeping (Getty Images)

How Snopes conviced us that the urban legend was true

A widely-cited Snopes article claims the spider myth spread online after a columnist named Lisa Birgit Holst mentioned it in an article for PC Professional in 1993 about “facts” circulating through people’s email accounts.

Holst said people were too gullible and would accept anything sent to them as true, so she offered her own list of fake facts which included the urban legend. Her “source” was a 1954 book on insects. The book is real, but it doesn’t mention anything about spiders crawling into mouths.

Ironically, Holst’s fake spider fact is now one of the most popular pieces of misinformation on the internet.

So why would anyone share a piece of false information that’s completely made up by a writer for a PC magazine who’s citing an obscure book about insects when spiders aren’t even insects (they’re arachnids)?

Well, the truth is the entire story about Holst and her list of fake facts is itself a lie. Snopes posted a follow-up article where they revealed “Lisa Birgit Holst” is an anagram for “tHis is a Big troLl.”

Snopes claims to have trolled their readers to show them how easily lies can spread on the internet and ironically ended up spreading misinformation in the process just as they claimed the imaginary Holst had done.

The next time you see a spider crawling around your house, it's probably feasting on insects and providing you with free pest control. A new study says that spiders eat around 400 to 800 million metric tons of insects every year.
The next time you see a spider crawling around your house, it’s probably feasting on insects and providing you with free pest control. A new study says that spiders eat around 400 to 800 million metric tons of insects every year.

A Google search reveals sources that still cite Snopes’ joke claim about the origin of the spider myth.

However, I’m not trying to paint Snopes in a malicious light here. The internet was a drastically different place in April 2001 when Snopes created the Lisa Birgit Holst article as something silly for their long-time readers who would be in on the joke.

The problem comes up when you remove two decades worth of cultural context. What was simple fun then, can potentially put someone in a life-or-death situation now since online misinformation has developed in a way no one running Snopes in 2001 could have predicted.

Person working on a laptop.
Person working on a laptop.

Why do we believe misinformation we see online?

A study posted in vol. 64 of Psychology of Learning and Motivation looked at the eight spiders myth from a psychological perspective to try and explain why people hold certain biases and believe false claims.

Researchers Elizabeth J. Marsh, Allison D. Cantor and Nadia M. Brashier say the mental processes we use to support accurate information can also lead to mistakes such as the false belief in swallowing eight spiders in our sleep every year.

They list five common biases people often face when confronted with new information:

  • People believe new information they hear is true since it often is
  • People judge the validity of a new claim by how easy it is to understand immediately
  • People compare new information against facts they’ve already learned to see if they believe the new claim
  • Since preexisting knowledge has an effect on new information, the new claim can be distorted if the knowledge it’s being judged against is false or misleading
  • Meticulously researching all the new information we learn every day is extremely tiresome and difficult, so people often accept information as “good enough”

As someone who’s been afraid of spiders my whole life, here’s what that looks like in practice for me:

  • I hear someone say the average person swallows eight spiders in their sleep every year. I think “Yep. Spiders are creepy and weird. Sounds about right.”
  • Then I think “Wait. Spiders are more than creepy and weird. They can be dangerous, too. I know they would crawl in my mouth for no reason.”
  • Since my jumping-off point is a biased position about how spiders are strange and deadly, I’m more willing to believe a claim that reinforces my arachnophobia despite the abundant amount of scientific evidence disproving my fears.
  • It’s significantly easier to go with my gut feeling, even though I’m being totally illogical, and just believe an odd claim because the alternative is time-consuming and possibly pointless. After all, is it hurting me or anyone else if I believe I swallow spiders in my sleep? What’s the point in researching the myth when I could do anything else?

The flow of information on the internet is anything but slow, so it’s possible for a person to pass over dozens of false claims a day, think about each one for a few seconds then move after absorbing one or two misguided beliefs.

This isn’t really a big deal when the false claim is something as silly and unimportant as the spider myth.

The problem is with dedicated accounts on social media platforms that spread purposefully dangerous misinformation by taking advantage of a person’s willingness to believe what they read online.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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