One urban legend matured from shocking information, to common knowledge, to common falsehood, to apocryphal origin story. Critical thinking and investigation fell a few steps short.
Little Known “Fact”
Did you know you eat 8 spiders every year in your sleep?
I knew a lot of people, myself included, who were shocked and disgusted to learn we eat spiders in the late 90’s and early 00’s.
Eating Eight Spiders Becomes Common “Knowledge”
Well circulated throughout the 2000’s this “did you know” about eating spiders in your sleep was at least several years old (I first heard it in the late 90’s).
Popular Enough to Investigate
By 2014, eating spiders in your sleep was widely “known” to the point that even Scientific American checked with Roy Crawford, the arachnid curator at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle.
Three or four spider species live in most North American homes, and they all tend to be found either tending their webs or hunting in nonhuman-infested areas. […] A slumbering person breathes, has a beating heart and perhaps snores—all of which create vibrations that warn spiders of danger.
“Vibrations are a big slice of spiders’ sensory universe,” Crawford explains, “A sleeping person is not something a spider would willingly approach.”
Thanks to Scientific American (and others), now I know a lot of people who recognize it is false that we (as a collective species) eat large amounts of spiders in our sleep every year, having heard from expertise and even reason.
An Unlikely Pairing
Snopes was founded in 1994 to investigate and fact-check urban legends and the “email forward” that was so pupular at the time. Also in April 2014, Snopes debunked the spider statistic, referencing the above Scientific American article and adding some background color:.
So how did this claim arise? In a 1993 PC Professional article, columnist Lisa Holst wrote about the ubiquitous lists of “facts” that were circulating via e-mail and how readily they were accepted as truthful by gullible recipients. To demonstrate her point, Holst offered her own made-up list …
The trail of information becomes circular at this point – the references to PC Professional and the supposed author appear to be copies or references to the Snopes page.
All well and good, except that a web search doesn’t turn up much of anything about Lisa Holst or PC Professional that isn’t directly related to the genesis of the spider myth […]
The columnist, the column and the magazine don’t seem to exist, […]
Even the Library of Congress said they had no record of the magazine […]
The reality: we don’t know the true origin with a meaningful confidence, and likely never will. A willingness to admit “we don’t have sufficient information to know” is a powerful compliment to life long curiosity, thinking and learning, regardless of how many people you know believe something.
So today I know a lot of people who believe a you won’t believe how ironically gullible people are apocryphal story, which originated from a person, article and magazine we cannot find.