Friday, 7 February 2014

Overwhelmed by Supernormal Stimuli

This fascinating article about supersnormal stimuli is copied from Quora...
A wise man rules his passions, a fool obeys them. Publius Syrus
Given the rapid pace of technology, one has to wonder whether or not our brains (and bodies) have been able to keep up with all the new “stimulation” that is available.

Fact is, a frightening amount of research suggests that many of the things we enjoy today would be classified as supernormal stimuli, a term evolutionary biologists use describe any stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which it evolved, even if it is artificial—in other words, are “fake” stimuli like junk food and video games too much for our brains to handle?

It’s a question that deserves investigating.

After all, we’ve become increasingly surrounded by stimulation that wasn’t available even a few years ago. It takes thousands of years for a species to evolve, so are my mind and body really ready for Flavor Blasted Goldfish™ and never ending social media updates?

Before we get into the research, let’s summarize the concept a bit more clearly: what exactly is a supernormal stimulus?
The brilliant comic below will explain the basics, and will take you less than 2 minutes to read.

Supernormal Stimuli

Comic: by the insanely talented Stuart McMillen, published with permission. More about Stuart and his work at the bottom of the post.

The Dangers of “Super” Stimulation

Nikolaas Tinbergen, a Nobel Prize winning ethologist, is the father of the term supernormal stimuli. As noted, Tinbergen found in his experiments that he could create “artificial” stimuli that was stronger than the original instinct, including the following examples:

  • He constructed plaster eggs to see which a bird preferred to sit on, finding that they would select those that were larger, had more defined markings, or more saturated color—a dayglo-bright one with black polka dots would be selected over the bird’s own pale, dappled eggs.
  • He found that territorial male stickleback fish would attack a wooden fish model more vigorously than a real male if its underside was redder.
  • He constructed cardboard dummy butterflies with more defined markings that male butterflies would try to mate with in preference to real females.

In a very quick span of time, Tinbergen was able to influence the behavior of these animals with a new “super” stimulus that they found themselves attracted too—even addicted to—and which they preferred over the real thing.

Instinct took over, and now these animals’ behaviors were a detriment to their livelihood because they simply couldn’t say no to the fake stimulus.

Can you see why it’s important for us to consider what supernormal stimuli may be creeping into our own lives?

Much of Tinbergen’s work is beautifully captured by Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barret in the book Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose. It becomes easy to see how the leap from these findings to human behavior isn’t very large at all.

The general theme is that just like Tinbergen’s quick introductions of abnormal stimulation to animals, rapidly advancing technology has created a similar situation for humans—we can’t be “prepared” for these overly stimulating experiences, because we haven’t had time to adapt to them yet.

Common examples include:

Junk food

1.) The highly addictive nature of junk food is one of our generation’s great concerns—food is being engineered specifically to be more appealing than it’s natural counterparts. Is it any wonder then that when fast food is more thoroughly introduced to other countries, people start consuming it more often?

2.) For thousands of years humans had a relatively stable palette. Now a new food “concoction” comes out every week. Some studies have suggested that foods like processed grain came about far too quickly and are doing quite a number on your mind and body.

3.) Food is one of the toughest things to struggle with because it’s an absolute necessity—the problem with junk food is due to the fact that it is a “super stimulating” version of a natural reward we are supposed to pursue. Food addiction is the real deal, and a tough habit to break because the triggers are ever present.

TV & video games

1.) A quick peek in my home office would show a still functioning Super Nintendo hooked up with Chrono Trigger ready to go. I don’t think that video games cause excessively violent behavior (research agrees), but I do have to admit that it has become apparent that video games do seem tobe addictivefor many people, and in particular, for certain personalities.

2.) Television addiction has all of the classic signs of a behavioral addiction—users often watch TV to change mood, but the relief that’s gotten is only temporary, and often brings them back for more.

3.) You’re likely not surprised to hear that computer games have been linked to escapism, but what you may not know is that recent studies have found symptoms of withdrawal in certain subjects; they became moody, agitated, and even had physical symptoms of withdrawal.


1.) The most controversial of all modern “addictions,” pornography has been described as insidious in nature because it skews an otherwise normal activity (sex). Porn has been shown to change sexual tastes, it’s been linked to a multitude of problems when overused—loss of energy, motivation, social skills, even erectile dysfunction—and can become the equivalent of a never-ending supply of dopamine.

2.) There’s a passage from a Kurt Vonnegut novel where a man shows another man a photograph of a woman in a bikini and asks, “Like that Harry? That girl there.” The man’s response is, “That’s not a girl. That’s a piece of paper.” Those who warn of porn’s addictive nature always emphasize that it is not a sexual addiction, it’s a technological one. The “woman” or “man” you see on the screen is just pixels; the stimulation is coming from a false source, which may impact how you view the real thing.

3.) It’s been suggested that pornography messes up the “reward circuitry” in human sexuality—why bother trying to pursue and impress a potential mate if you can just go home and look at porn? This has been argued as the beginning of porn addiction, as novelty is always a click a way, and novelty is closely tied to the highly addictive nature of dopamine.

As psychologist Susan Weinschenk explained in a 2009 article, the neurotransmitter dopamine does not cause people to experience pleasure, but rather causes a seeking behavior. “Dopamine causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search,” she wrote.

It is the opioid system that causes one to feel pleasure. Yet, “the dopamine system is stronger than the opioid system,” she explained. “We seek more than we are satisfied.”

The Internet

1.) Unsurprisingly, psychologists are now giving very serious consideration to the web, recognizing that it can be a very addictive outlet. It allows unfettered control to engage in nearly anything, and some countries like Japan and South Korea have had serious problems with reclusive, socially inept individuals who have a very unhealthy internet obsession—one story I read detailed a man who hadn’t left his apartment in 6 months.

2.) Social media has been shown to make many people depressed—they see the highlight reel of others, and feel worse about their own life. These pruned and often misleading looks into others lives was never available before the web. In spite of this, people can’t stop checking them, thinking that they might be missing out on something.

3.) Internet overuse is probably making you dumb. The quick bursts of entertainment that the internet provides, and the fact that information is always a click away, can (through overuse) cause a decrease in conceptual and critical thinking. Some have argued that the internet can become ‘chronic distraction’ that slowly eats away at your patience and ability to think and work on things for extended periods of time.

What Should You Do?

This can seem like a lot to take in at once.

Before you panic, freak out, and throw away all of your Oreos + cancel your internet subscription, please listen—everything in moderation, just like your reaction to the information in this article.

You should never feel ashamed for indulging in a piece of cake or a game of Mario Kart once in a while, it’s perfectly okay to use “unnatural” stimuli as an occasional reward.

That’s right folks, you can put away your torches and pitchforks! I’m not the enemy of junk food, the Internet, and everything awesome. My one and only goal for this article was awareness.

In fact, that was the original point of the comic above. The artist, Stuart McMillen, articulately describes why you shouldn’t be afraid of information like this. In many ways, it should be comforting:

In both cases, the main change is awareness. Awareness that the reason we are drawn to sickly desserts is because they are sweeter than any naturally-occurring fruit.

Awareness that watching television activates the primitive ‘orienting response’, keeping our eyes drawn to the moving pictures as if it were predator or prey. Awareness that liking ‘cute’ characters comes from a biological urge to protect and nurture our young.

I have not removed supernormal stimuli from my life, nor do I intend to do so fully. The key is spotting the stimuli as they appear, and engaging the mind to regulate or override temptation.

I echo Deirdre Barrett’s conclusion that sometimes it can feel more rewarding to say no to the supernormal, than to cave into impulse. Only awareness will help stop the supernormal from becoming what is ‘normal’ in our lives.

(Psst… you should subscribe to Stuart’s awesome newsletter to hear about a brand new comic he has coming out in 2014. Also, be sure to stop by his website and check out his other comics. He also has prints available for sale, I’ve purchase one myselfand they are great. Well worth the very small price.)

The Solution

The “solution,” so it seems to me, is to simply put yourself to the test every once in a while in order to avoid habituation.

The real enemy here is complacency—you needn’t feel guilty engaging with supernormal stimuli, but you should feel guilty if you never push yourself, or allow yourself to become a victim of your habits, instead of the person in the driver’s seat.

C.S. Lewis has some insightful thoughts on this:

Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is.

After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of the wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down.

A man who gives into temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later.

  • Ask yourself: “Could I skip Facebook for a week, sit down and finish reading a book?” If you can’t, it may be time to re-evaluate your ability to focus.
  • Ask yourself: “Could I go a week sans junk food, eating nothing but meat and vegetables?” If you can’t, it may be time to re-evaluate your diet.
  • Ask yourself: ”Could I stay away from my Xbox for a full 7 days and exercise a little more instead?” If you can’t, it’s time to start wondering why not.

There’s no shame in saying ‘No’ to any of these, but then you have to ask: are you okay with it?

Are you okay with being so dependent on social media that you can’t give it up for a week to read a book? These things might seem hard, but if they are, it’s only because these supernormal stimuli have you in their grasp.

Don’t be discouraged if change is difficult starting out, struggle is the evidence of progress.

Mini-sabbaticals are a great way to test dependency of anything. The ability to go without in regards to things we choose to do is important because it puts you back in control.

Giving something up for just a small period of time really helps you understand it’s place in your life, especially when it’s an optional activity. If you try to stay away from something for just a few days, and you find yourself becoming anxious and agitated, that’s your body telling you something very important. If you can give it up “cold turkey” with no problem, that’s important information too!

So no, don’t panic and freak out. Just recognize that your brain isn’t built for the many sources of “super” stimulation we have today, and it’s your job to make sure you are always in control.

Those who do not move do not notice their chains.
—Rosa Luxemburg

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to wasting time on the Internet. ☺

Read more on behavioral psychology at Sparring Mind

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