For me one of the most beautiful sights is a spider’s web glinting in the sunlight or covered in frost. The patterns that the arachnid weaves are mind-boggling and I rarely have the heart to disturb them. Of course, if I was a fly I would have a different perspective. But, ignoramus that I am, it has never crossed my mind that a spider’s web could be a key to diagnosing schizophrenia.
Fortunately, there are some in this world who are able to make what to many of us would seem a major leap into the logical void. One such was a Swiss biologist called Hans Pieter Rieder from the Friedmatt Sanatorium and Nursing Home in Basle who conducted a bizarre series of experiments in the 1950s to further human knowledge.
The starting point, though, was some work carried out by a pharmaceutical researcher, Peter N Witt, in 1948 who discovered that spiders whilst high on drugs wove different types of web than when they were straight. Quite how he hit on this is anyone’s guess but then we are not scientists. Whilst the cause of schizophrenia is a mystery to this day, healthy patients who had taken drugs such as mescaline or LSD exhibited the same sort of short-term hallucinations and personality disorders as those suffering from schizophrenia. Perhaps schizophrenia was induced by some chemical high generated by the bodies of the sufferers?
Rieder’s genius was to link the behaviour of blissed out spiders and the quest to diagnose schizophrenia. The logic, if indeed it can be so described, was that if spiders were given something from a known schizophrenic and the spiders wove an eccentrically designed web, the conclusion must be that they had received a hallucogenic substance in whatever they had been given. Genius. But what to give them? The answer was as obvious as the nose at the front of your face – piss!
So the intrepid Rieder and his team collected 50 litres of urine from fifteen schizophrenics and fed the urine concentrate to some spiders. The webs they spun were then compared with the webs that spiders fed with urine from the researchers, the assumption being that none of the researchers were schizoid, a conclusion that must be open to some doubt given the bizarre nature of the experiment. Nonetheless they persevered, trying different levels of concentration but to say the least the results were disappointing. Although the webs constructed by the urine-quaffing spiders were different from those created by spiders who had not touched a drop, there was no discernible difference between the webs of spiders who had touched the urine of schizophrenics and those that had drunk the urine of the researchers.
Whilst there may have been a fundamental flaw in their initial assumption, Rieder and his team were forced to conclude that the geometry of a spider’s web wasn’t a reliable clue to the detection of schizophrenia.
But one thing did come from this madcap experiment – concentrated urine must taste unpleasant to spiders. After taking just one sip, the spiders did everything they could to avoid contact with it again. They would only return to their web after they had given their body parts a good rub and removed all vestiges of the urine. So if you are infested with spiders, don’t put a bowl of conkers in the corner of your room, have a wazz. They can’t stand the stuff!
So now we know!