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In the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you that my somewhat dramatic title is a mild but actual example of an important and persistent health obstacle I want to discuss with you. This obstacle is a class of evolving, recurring, and sometimes quite powerful natural phenomena known by scientists as supernormal stimuli.
As their name implies, supernormal stimuli are exaggerated variations of normal environmental cues or instinct triggers, and can be found throughout wild nature. An example is the especially bold colors or markings found in certain plants and animals, each specifically evolved to produce strong responses in other animals. But this simple example hardly exhausts the wide range and enormous potential power of behavior-altering influences from supernormal stimuli.
The existence of supernormal stimuli and their powerful behavioral effects in animals has been known scientifically since at least the 1930s. More recently, a similar natural susceptibility of humans to these special triggering stimuli has been hypothesized, investigated, and confirmed.
Newer research on supernormal stimuli effects in humans offers two critical insights related to modern health and quality of life, with implications for both individuals and public policy. The first insight is that humans, when living in wild nature, are at least as vulnerable to unconscious and health-limiting supernormal stimulation as other animal species. More importantly, the second insight is that supernormal stimuli are now likely far more pervasive in the modern world, taking on new and potentially far more powerful forms, than was ever the case for our human ancestors living in our original state in nature.
Why are supernormal stimuli affecting humans increasing in scope and scale? Unlike the more constrained and only slowly-changing state of human life in nature, our modern environment is far less fettered and rapidly and widely evolving. Our dynamic new world of advanced science and technology, combined with reasonably unconstrained industrial markets and information flows, enable entirely new supernormal triggers to introduce themselves (or to be created, as with the simple example of my title) and then spread and evolve quickly in our global society. At the same time, our modern human environment has become significantly insulated from ancient natural forces that shaped us as a species, forces now absent that would naturally limit supernormally-led behaviors and perceptual changes in us.
For these important reasons, it is not an exaggeration to caution that powerful new supernormal stimuli are now swiftly emerging amidst modern life, and these generally unseen and greatly underappreciated influences and motivators increasingly surround us each day. The full result of this trend is still unclear, but there is reason for concern that a modern web of new, industrial-strength supernormal stimuli may be at least partially enveloping us in an instinctively-appealing – but controlling and health and freedom-reducing – virtual reality of sorts. If this idea seems fantastic, it perhaps underscores the special power and essentially counterintuitive nature of supernormal stimulation itself.
Understanding that these initial ideas may strike you as either alarming or incredulous, let me propose that we are all now well-advised at least to better understand what I have provocatively called the new supernormal reality around us all (though perhaps more precisely, it should be called “hypernatural reality”). And let me further propose that salient examples of behavior and perceptual-altering supernormal stimuli are as close as the content of your nearest television screen. In fact, as I will explain, they may even be contained in the screen itself.
In the discussion that follows, I will help you to better understand supernormal stimuli in principle and practice, and to perceive and examine them concretely in your life and the world around you. Then, we will consider specific strategies to promote individual and collective mitigation of supernormal influences – whenever these evolved or crafted triggers are found to have negative consequences and limit our potential for healthier, fuller, and freer life.
Beginning Our Escape
An excellent first summary of recent and still emerging research into the presence and effects of supernormal stimuli in humans, and the starting point for our discussion, is a new book, Supernormal Stimuli, by Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett. In it, she catalogs a wide array of modern supernormal stimuli, ranging from sex and cuteness cues to drama and electronica.
If you are familiar with evolutionary psychology, Barrett’s book will build on what you know to explore one of the most important health-related findings so far in this still developing field. If you are new to evolutionary psychology, Barrett offers a pointed introduction to the study of our evolved psyche, its natural biases and susceptibilities, and our human opportunities to use evolutionary science to create more conscious, informed, and optimal life today.
From whatever starting point you begin your investigation of the health-effects of supernormal stimulation, one important point I would make up-front is that these phenomena are definitely not “supernatural” stimuli. Whether they are episodic or ubiquitous, evolved or intentionally created, and mild or powerful, these proven influences on animals and humans are tangible natural phenomena that occur in the physical world. Supernormal stimuli are real and substantial, can be observed and examined, and involve decipherable and recognizable processes. Supernormal stimuli are not the stuff of science-fiction, even as they initially seem strange and extraordinary, but they can influence us in ways that are potent, counterintuitive, and almost surreal.
On this point, scholars in past decades struggled for a compelling theory or model to explain how humans of the future could be unwittingly pulled into technologically-based virtual realities, and progressively distorted and then dominated by tem. But research into supernormal stimuli offers a compelling mechanism for just this possibility, and provides an understanding of how such co-option might reliably operate in practice. Already, early research suggests that powerful new supernormal stimuli strongly limit healthy balance and progression in specific areas of modern life and society today, and that these stimuli are be self-evolving in ways that could further limit our ability to optimally perceive and act in the world.
Fortunately, and as we will discuss, mitigation of this trend and reversal of current supernormal influences is possible as well. The same research that has uncovered supernormal threats and trends in modern society also suggests that we have the ability, individually or collectively, to overcome or circumvent supernormal stimuli when they appear. As suggested, this counterbalancing is accomplished through new and deliberate effort to observe and understand the manifestations and effects of supernormal stimuli. Since all supernormal stimuli, whether old or new, involve observable processes, with new awareness and care we can mitigate the immediate risks they pose and take care to forestall their seeming long-term natural trend – toward modern, technologically-based life increasingly immersed in unhealthy and externally-created sensations, perceptions, and behaviors.
These new efforts at optimizing our individual and collective health and quality of life require us to use the modern science and technology that have helped to create new supernormal influences around us. To begin this important task, for both our individual lives and global society, let’s consider Barrett’s summary of emerging research into supernormal stimuli in humans and then the opportunities she highlights to use specific research-based techniques to expose and defuse unintended supernormal influences on us.
Discovery of Supernormal Stimuli
Early in Supernormal Stimuli, Barrett reminds us of the psychologist William James’ suggestion that, at least in some respects, the task of psychology and work of progressive self-awareness is a process of making “the ordinary seem strange.”
In saying this, James underscored the need for psychologists, and people working at self-development, to overcome the force of habituation in daily life and thereby to create new capacity to see our world and psyche in more objective and insightful ways. In the case of supernormal stimuli – which are generally unseen even as they reach deep into our natural psyche to influence us – this advice proves indispensable.
By opening ourselves to the idea that the ordinary around us may in truth be strange and original, we begin to reframe our surroundings for the needed work of uncovering, examining, and responding to hidden features and unappreciated influences. This reframing specifically encourages us to consider the possibility of harmful effects from powerful supernormal stimuli known already to exist in the natural world. It permits us to look for unseen limitations on our perspective and behavior, limitations old and new that may be subtly woven into the fabric of traditional and modern life. And it helps us better examine and feel our oldest and strongest natural instincts, and to consider that they may serve as a back-door of sorts for unexpected biases to enter our lives and society– as today’s relatively free conditions and rapidly-evolving knowledge and technology foster new pathways for undesirable and unconscious effects on us all.
Many elements of modern human life are truly new and even astonishing from a natural or historical perspective (as examples, air travel and airwave communication), but most find rapid and fairly ubiquitous acceptance soon after they emerge. Wholly novel developments in our surroundings, in fact, are regularly and often quickly assimilated and taken as given by our ancient human brains. Though perhaps startling or curiosities to us at first, these new items routinely lose their novelty through the force of habituation and become accepted by a human nature often poorly adapted for life in a rapidly-changing environment. In this process, yesterday’s innovations often become today’s norms and reset us in a new physiological zero.
According to Barrett’s account, supernormal stimuli were first discovered and explored scientifically in the 1930s by the biologist and eventual Nobel Laureate Niko Tinbergen and his colleague Konrad Lorenz. Their important discovery began humbly enough and yet led to a profound new insight into the workings of the evolved natural world, one that scientists are still grappling with today. In summer fieldwork in Greenland, Tinbergen observed that nesting terns would retrieve nearby eggs of different shapes and sizes (their own eggs and the eggs of other birds) with different degrees of intensity, sometimes more strenuously gathering the eggs of other bird species.
This initial observation led to pioneering research and findings that remain a source of productive inquiry. Tinbergen first demonstrated that various species of birds would reliably prefer to sit on artificial eggs to their own natural eggs, if the artificial eggs included certain “supernormal” characteristics or cues tailored to a specific species. A species of songbirds, for example, would forgo their normally small, pale-blue eggs for the opportunity to care for slightly larger plaster eggs, if the plaster eggs were colored a brighter shade of blue and speckled vividly with black.
Similar research obtained comparable findings for a number of bird species and then for behaviors outside of egg-tending. Certain species of geese, for example, were found to prefer retrieving volleyballs to their native eggs. Later, artificial baby chicks that were slightly larger and that had redder beaks than normal were found to be preferred by parent birds to their own living chicks. And male barn swallows, with their breasts darkened by paint, were shown to receive a greater share of female interest than would otherwise be the case.
Subsequent studies of these phenomena soon expanded beyond bird species. Tinbergen and others found a similar ability to influence animal behavior through various supernormal stimuli in fish and insects, and then in mammals. Soon, the fashioning of these special stimuli was shown to be more than the work of a few scientists shuttered away in laboratories – nature and evolutionary dynamics were found to regularly produce supernormal stimuli as an adaptive strategy for a variety of host species.
As a case study in natural supernormal stimulation, Barrett highlights the reproductive strategy of the cuckoo bird, which has evolved to lay and leave behind a single egg in the nests of slightly smaller birds and to produce hatchlings that are larger and more attractive (through their size and redder beaks) to their adoptive parents. Barrett also introduces research showing that some species of orchids have evolved flowers that are more sexually attractive to male wasps than female wasps, via the use of specific visual cues, co-opting normal male wasp mating behavior to increase orchid pollination and gene transmission (at some cost to target wasp populations).
As suggested, Barrett points to the now many known examples of natural supernormal stimulation in animals, indicating that these stimuli are both a widespread and powerful class of natural phenomena and an inevitable consequence of evolutionary forces acting amidst complexity. Included in this finding is the conclusion that supernormal stimuli influence human populations too, in nature and especially now – in our modern, rapidly-evolving, and increasingly artificial and technological setting apart from nature.
Supernormal Stimuli in Principle
We can define supernormal stimuli simply enough, even as these phenomena are anything but simple, and even as they prove strange and unexpected when we find them working on us.
Distilling down the somewhat technically-oriented Wikipedia definition, a supernormal stimulus can be thought of as an exaggerated version of a natural stimulus or cue that takes advantage of an existing instinct or tendency in an animal, especially a new stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the normal stimulus for which the instinct originally evolved.
The theory of supernormal stimulation explains and predicts the irresistible lure of bigger and brighter eggs, or of darker and redder mates and adversaries in some animal species. It offers a means to make sense of widespread animal preferences for larger and cuter hatchlings and babies. It offers a foundation to understand at least some of the natural emergence of bold and exotic attributes and behaviors in plants and animals (even as predation threats counter this trend and encourage greater anonymity and camouflage).
Supernormal stimuli can explain the intoxicating power of at least some naturally and artificially evolved scents and tastes. The influence of supernormal triggers is likely a driving mechanism behind bigger and more curvaceous flowers, both in nature and at floral shops. And supernormal stimuli are almost certainly behind the ubiquitous trend of industrial-age restaurants and supermarkets offering ever sweeter, fattier, and saltier foods, even as these natural and instinctively-pleasing triggers work to our near-universal detriment.
In all cases where supernormal stimulation in animals and humans can be demonstrated, this co-opting of natural instincts involves harnessing long-evolved, normally-useful, and often far stronger unconscious drives than we may understand – drives that we may be more apt to rationalize than realize when they occur in us. In fact, it is the unexpected and unappreciated strength of our supernormally-triggered natural instincts that makes unnaturally free humans so vulnerable to both evolved supernormal stimulation and intentional supernormal manipulation. In modern times, both can cause us to be led unknowingly and undesirably by new and potent influences in the industrial environment.
In saying this, we should also highlight that the threat of extreme supernormal manipulation has been present in our species for a significant time, notably since the advent of formal language, and may even have been a driver of our long-increasing brain size – providing selection advantages for people better able to observe and counter undesirable or manipulative instinct triggers. As we will see, this important idea and natural capability may prove both true for people living in our natural past and valuable for people living today.
Barrett writes that when supernormal stimuli are at work, we have the potential to be undone by whatever we most strongly desire – by the content of our most firmly established personal habits and by the strong universal pull of our oldest natural instincts, intuitions, and human emotions. All that it really takes is for us to give into these things, to live comfortably with our habits, and to “go with the flow” of unexamined impulses, intuitions, and prerogatives.
What could be an easier way to live, and a potentially more dangerous and unhealthy one too, especially in a modern world newly-filled with powerful and unprecedented technology, resources, knowledge, and freedom?
Supernormal Stimuli in Humans
As suggested before, animals and people living in wild nature will almost inevitably encounter supernormal stimuli amidst the long course of their evolution. Over thousands or millions of years, exaggerated versions of natural anatomical features or behaviors will randomly appear in many species of plants and animals.
Some of these variations in a host will prove especially activating to the instincts of others, whether animals of the same species or another, promoting changes in the behavior of the target animal. And some of the host attributes will prove not just compelling to a target animal, but also will directly or indirectly result in increased gene transmission for their host plant or animal and thus be reinforced. These special cases of random attribute variations prove, for a time at least: 1) supernormally stimulating to a target and 2) useful to the enabling genes of the host.
In this way, a species of insects or birds might evolve markings that make them appear more sexually attractive to potential mates or more fearsome to potential predators. Certain fruits might evolve to become unusually bright, sweet, or large, encouraging an increased scattering of their seeds. Antlers and plumages might grow to supernormally stimulate mates and rivals. In fact, a great many natural variations of this kind are possible, though always subject to specific and discernable environmental limits. Why? Because all attributes are subject to a variety of natural constraints, such as predation pressures, climactic variability, maintaining sexual or social currency, and even the natural mechanics and design of the host species.
The natural evolutionary development of supernormal stimuli is thus inevitable, given sufficient time and environmental complexity, but this development is also always constrained, since it is a time-consuming process and real evolutionary work, and always subject to various and changing environmental demands. And any successful new supernormal stimulus in nature is likely to become normalized in the life of its target species, either through success, ubiquity, and then counter-adaptation, or as other demands and constraints on the host or target force an optimization of the permissible size, shape, color, scent, flamboyance, and power of any exaggerated characteristic or stimulus.
As suggested, people today live in a human-influenced environment that is increasingly freed from many of the natural evolutionary constraints on supernormal stimuli affecting or potentially affecting our species. This trend began with our use of simple technology, increased with the agrarian revolution and rise of Neolithic life ten thousand years ago, and has become especially pronounced with the historic and sudden ascent of scientific knowledge and industrial technology in the last five hundred years. We are now far freer as a species, in principle at least, to fashion our world in less constrained and more instinct-pleasing ways (and in more chosen and rational ones too). We now can introduce new technologies and act on far-reaching ideas in ways not possible before our time, and potentially can evolve our environment and behavioral patterns far more rapidly than we ever could in natural conditions.
For identical reasons, the release of humans from earlier natural constraints is also a release of potential supernormal stimuli affecting humans. Prospective new stimuli targeting our instincts have been similarly freed by science and technology to evolve or be fashioned in new and unnatural ways, and have been made similarly less constrained by natural limits on their number and impact on their human targets. After all, supernormal stimuli, like any other anatomical or behavioral attribute, need only be functional in a species and environment to advance. There is no unchanging standard for or limit on their viability, diversity, or novelty – other than the speed in which they can emerge and exploit niches in a larger environment.
Two critical questions result from this important insight regarding the potential for a modern proliferation of new supernormal stimuli. First, is a radically-accelerated evolution of supernormal stimuli targeting people now underway? And second, is any demonstrable increase in supernormal stimulation actually impacting us, particularly in negative and undesirable ways? The research Barrett summarizes, while preliminary and encouraging of further analysis, makes a compelling case that the answer to both questions is an emphatic yes.
Perhaps the best way to begin to explore and consider the likely scale and impact of emerging new supernormal stimuli around us – powerful new environmental cues already at work on our psyche and lives today – is to consider the essential facts of our earlier and long-evolved life in wild nature. With this earlier natural life in mind, we need only subtract out the key features of this earlier life from the world around us now, producing a relief of what is new around us and potentially containing modern supernormal stimuli. As I have suggested, this exercise recasts our modern world in a new and quite striking light. It moves us beyond our daily intuitions and makes our ordinary world seem immediately and genuinely strange – very strange, indeed.
Let’s take a moment to consider these essential facts of earlier natural human life – facts we must pull away from life as it is today, to reveal our modern world in less-familiar, insight-engendering, and potentially stimuli-exposing ways. If we define the natural human world as our general environment and pattern of life from the emergence of clearly identifiable foraging hominids almost ten million years ago down to our precipitous move to agricultural and then acquisitive life – on the occasion of the agrarian revolution and first large-scale human settlements ten thousand years ago – natural human life can be said to have the following essential features and attributes:
- The development of natural human life (and our evolved instinctual drives) began as part of the larger emergence of more cooperative mammalian life on Earth, a process which started roughly 200 million years before the first humans, and was heavily influenced by the highly social, communicative, and inquisitive life patterns of our tree-dwelling primate ancestors, who first emerged about 50 million years ago
- In wild nature, the ancestors of all modern humans lived and evolved exclusively on the savannahs of Africa – for at least five million years and perhaps for as many as ten million years – in small mobile and foraging bands of perhaps 20-50 people
- Our natural human population density in this time averaged less than one person per square kilometer, and there were no fixed settlements until perhaps 30,000 years ago
- In this time, our human ancestors gathered and hunted socially for our existence, relying on one another and the use of gradually evolving but increasingly complex tools, language, and intelligence for success
- Our human ancestors were regularly threatened by large and formidable animals, and at least occasionally by other people
- Social cohesion was essential for survival throughout this time, and social engagement for cohesion, since there was no individual life possible apart from our hunter-gatherer band
- Responding to short-term threats and opportunities was critical to our survival in wild nature, but planning for the future was not, and our brains evolved in concert with these natural needs
- Language, learning, and astuteness reliably provided survival advantages, as did social and emotional engagement and reciprocity
Let me leave this abbreviated summary of the science of natural human life at this level, but also encourage you to consider and imagine what our natural life was like then – and what our normal range of environmental and social stimuli were – as our ancestors moved in small bands across the vast, rugged, and dangerous African savannah over an equally vast period of five or ten million years.
If you would like help in this visioning exercise, a quote that Barrett uses in her book might help. It comes from the evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, who previously wrote, “Each of our ancestors was, in effect, on a camping trip that lasted an entire lifetime, and this way of life endured for most of the last ten million years.”
Supernormal Stimuli in Modern Life
Given this general portrait of natural human life and the environment that formed our species and instincts, the modern world around us today can be juxtaposed and seen as the decidedly unprecedented, extraordinary, and increasingly strange and unconstrained new human setting that it is in objective fact.
Our relatively free and greatly-changing technological-scientific state also can be seen as a setting ripe with opportunities for new personal lures and entrapments, for the unconscious and intentional harnessing of our instincts and predispositions in novel ways, and for strange and powerful alterations of our natural outlooks and behaviors. These influences can include compelling new norms for our daily patterns of life, innovative social artifacts and trends, sexual and status symbols, and other artificial cues that trigger latent motivations and behaviors.
As I have suggested, an essential premise in this natural reorientation or reframing of our times is not just the observation that modern life is very different and more complex than that of earlier and natural forms of human life. It is equally that modern cultural and technological evolution is inherently far more rapid and uninhibited than in the past, less subject to the constraints of natural evolution, and much freer to engender new social artifacts on a much wider scale and at a much more rapid rate than in our past. As with genes in nature, new social and technological developments must still find adequate resources and not engender negative instincts or cause an immediate environmental or species collapse to propagate. Now, however, they can propagate in bold and striking new ways.
For this reason, new supernormal stimuli are all now poised to evolve rapidly, unnaturally, and therefore perhaps counter-intuitively, with fewer of the earlier limits and constraints that kept us and our environmental influences in natural bounds. This set of facts also implies that people and social artifacts of our time are more able to evolve principally based on cultural, commercial, and intellectual (sometimes called memetic) success – in ways only tangentially-grounded in genetic success and thus in ways far more difficult before our time.
After ten thousand years of rapidly evolving acquisitive life, scientific knowledge, and human technology since the agrarian revolution – 0.1% of a ten million year natural human legacy – and just over 100 years since the industrial revolution, our modern human setting surely is correctly and productively recast as strange, radically-altered, and broadly supernormal in itself.
Whether we live in an urban center of tall buildings and busy cafes, in any of the many growing mall-studded suburbs of the industrial world, or in the wired and often only outwardly natural life of exurbia, our human life today is far from the lifelong “camping trip” of our natural ancestors and the ten million-years that shaped our inherited instincts. That we often take our unprecedented life today as normal and ordinary only makes the strangeness of our times and workings of our natural psyche more poignant, revealing important limits to our native intuition and the unintentional freedom we may be giving potential new supernormal stimuli today.
With new perspective, we can see that entirely new modern stimuli are many and increasing, and that at least some already successfully compete for our time, attention, and affections. In Barrett’s compiled research, some of these new stimuli have been shown to significantly influence our orientation, attitudes, and behavior – all essential and early measures of the power and potential impact of supernormal stimulation in our lives.
By re-grounding us in the natural life and essential instincts of our ancestors, and offering the lens of new research into the seemingly ordinary (but more objectively strange) new world of ours, Barrett commendably helps us begin to explore and escape from important, overlooked, and health and life-limiting stimuli already in our midst. With these goals in mind, let me highlight some of the key modern supernormal influences summarized or suggested by Barrett’s work:
- Sexual stimuli – given our discussion, it hardly can be surprising that our sexual instincts, and, as we will discuss next, our parenting instincts, are believed susceptible to and now effectively exploited by new supernormal stimuli in industrial society. After all, our sexual instincts are among our strongest drives and central to our natural fitness, and perhaps second only to our most basic survival instincts (which we will discuss as well). In the century-old milieu of industrial society, new sexual stimuli and express appeals to our sexual instincts are of course everywhere – woven into the content of our media and advertising, forming the main elements of fashion and other product designs, and throughout the overtly sexual material of pornography and romance novels. New sexual stimuli are even arguably contained in the lure of recreational drugs, and their promise of ecstatic sensation. An essential question, as with all other newly-created or discovered supernormal stimuli, is whether this stimulation influences us, first appreciably and then negatively. Judging by the success and share of our attention by products, media, and lifestyles using sexual cues to influence our interest in them, and their frequent displacement of socially-oriented and health-promoting alternatives, one would have to conclude yes on both counts. Barrett presents important research and behavioral statistics to support this idea.
- Cuteness – it may be that adult beauty is in the eye of the beholder and involves attributes subject to significant cultural and situational influences, but infantile cuteness is far more universal, shown to be common not only across human cultures but across a variety of species as well. Barrett documents now well-established research demonstrating the cross-cultural and even cross-species nature of cuteness, highlighting specific anatomical and behavioral elements that many animal species have been shown to find “cute” – that is, uncontrollably appealing (supernormally stimulating) to our natural parenting instincts and very likely to influence our attitudes and behaviors. Barrett’s presentation includes a remarkable discussion of cases of infant human adoption by parents of other species, including human babies raised by wolves and monkeys, and the role that the powerful supernormal stimulant of cuteness is hypothesized to play in driving such startling and decidedly unnatural behaviors. Harkening back to the cuckoo bird relying on the special cuteness of her egg and hatchling to enable it to reach adulthood in an adoptive family, Barrett makes a strong case that universal cuteness attributes are widely-evolved and highly influential as supernormal stimuli, both in nature and in human society today. As with the case of sexual stimulation, specific and evolving appeals to cuteness in modern humans can be seen exercising a growing influence on our attitudes and behavior. This includes areas ranging from the content of our media to political life and from marketing and advertising campaigns to philanthropy. Barrett points to areas where cuteness stimuli are now co-evolved or intentionally bundled with sexual stimuli to make people, places, and things especially irresistible to us, objectively influencing and altering our attitudes and behavior. Barrett even suggests that, as we are increasingly released from selection constraints by progressing and insulating civilization and technology, we may even now be actively but unknowingly breeding ourselves to become progressively cuter as a species, though potentially at the long-term expense of other aspects of natural genetic robustness.
- Threats & security appeals – when it comes to modern super-sized houses and cars, and also armies and armaments, do you ever wonder why for many of us enough is often never enough and we perpetually seek more of these things? Possessions and security symbols that from a distance or earlier time seem compelling and more than adequate – to ensure strong feelings of safety and well-being – often are perceived as inadequate once we are in possession of them. If you guessed that supernormal stimuli are at work in this seeming irrationality, and help to explain our apparently unending thirst for bulky and sharp things that create or signal precaution, Barrett outlines considerable research to back your thinking. She presents findings suggesting that we naturally seek out and magnify threats and aggression in our modern environment, unintentionally creating supernormal stimuli (and supernormal behavior) ourselves. She highlights research regarding the now well-established natural asymmetry between interpersonal intent and perception, a facet of our nature that biases us toward inferences of unintended aggressiveness. Barrett also discusses the evolved and manipulative use of threat cues to influence decision-making or market political and commercial agendas in modern society. Her conclusion is that many of us are now strongly, irrationally and even recklessly led by supernormal stimuli into unnecessary security-seeking and threat-mitigating attitudes and behaviors – an unconscious pattern of action that ironically escalates tensions with others, reducing rather than increasing our true level of security, and circularly stimulates further security-seeking behavior by all involved. After all, now well-established analysis shows that people living in the developed world today are objectively on the order of 100 times safer than in pre-industrial societies (principally through rise of modern policing and criminal justice systems), but a great many of us fail to report feeling this fact in our lives. Because of our strong natural security instincts, and the selection or deliberate presentation of threat stimuli in the environment (watch ten minutes of televised or streamed news programming if you need examples), we predictably and regrettably work to surround ourselves with unnecessary and threat-signaling security symbols. As Barrett discusses, this behavior is often vastly disproportionate to and misaligned with our objective state of security and an area ripe for new public policy concern. Until this problem is better recognized and then mitigated, we are likely to continue to find ourselves seeking ever newer and more elaborate security blankets, ones that are only modestly reassuring to us from inside while proving unintentionally menacing (supernormally stimulating) to those outside. Our short-term fate, at least, will be to unconsciously fuel compounding cycles of threat signals, riding on the back of instinctive biases toward threat identification and response.
- Rank & status symbols – related to our desire for security and for sex, and oddly left unexamined in Barrett’s book, is our long-examined and well-evidenced natural desire for status. Our strong natural instinct for social standing and esteem within our clan and band – a phenomenon observable in all human settings – results in our all-to-human susceptibility to stimulation and manipulation by lures of elevated rank and possession of status symbols in modern times. It is true that gated communities and imposing homes, arresting possessions large and small, an army’s desire to shock and awe, and even displays of selflessness and courage might be explained in part as responses to supernormally-activated security instincts. But for me, and perhaps other students of this topic, a range of stimuli broader than security triggers are needed if these contemporary human phenomena are to be fully and predictively explained. After all, if security were solely at the root of these specific examples of human acquisitiveness, many of these items would be far more functionally-oriented and perhaps more overtly bellicose than they usually are, and far less combined with features designed to signal status and taste – and to excite the esteem and envy of others. Of course, though communication of high social status might make attack less likely and increase security, both now and in natural life, the ostentatious display of unequal wealth in society surely must increase its probability to some degree. As such, many of our modern forms of display must be viewed as behavior that is either patently irrationally (which is doubtful) or significantly appealing to natural instincts and supernormal cues other than those involving security and threat mitigation. If we reconsider our long life on the plains of Africa, it is clear that status within and between humans bands had functional dimensions. We are right at least to suspect that strong status-seeking instincts are still with us, and subject to new expression through supernormal triggers. In nature, recognized superiority in hunting and gathering, war-craft, problem-solving, social adroitness and moral rightness, and even music and story-telling surely afforded both immediate personal and long-term genetic advantages to our natural ancestors. We should thus expect that we are naturally and perhaps strongly inclined to seek there and other forms of status, and that we are naturally susceptible to influence by supernormal rank and status symbols. Today, of course, symbols of status are everywhere and appear to substantially influence our behavior, and in ways that are often unconscious, rationalized, and far from optimal, as various studies of irrational acquisitiveness reveal. While differences in human rank and status in nature were more modest and highly nuanced, owing to material equality in earlier foraging life, in industrial society there is now the possibility of greatly divergent status and vast new outlets available to committed seekers of ever higher status. Indeed, at least one writer has characterized modern corporate life as “an obstacle course for the status conscious.” We are thus well-advised to look for significant supernormal stimuli and life-altering influences in the trappings of rank and the pursuit of status symbols in our lives and communities.
- Morality & purity appeals – only briefly discussed in Barrett’s book, perhaps because of only still limited research in this area, is the potential for various supernormal stimuli related to our moral and purity instincts, which might be viewed as a form of supernormal stimulation related to status and security appeals. Barrett does include discussion of our frequent tendency to moralize and rationalize our attitudes and behaviors (whether supernormally stimulated or not), especially within our culture or “pseudo-species,” but does directly not take on the idea that many ethical, cultural, and religious appeals for moral conduct and personal and community purity may, in themselves, be evolved or crafted supernormal stimuli targeting our moral intuitions and survival emotions. Special calls to action and selfless behavior – including urgent appeals to personal uprightness, patriotism, the upholding of value systems and principles of fairness, moral correctness and physical cleanliness, assisting less fortunate members of social groups, and even promoting environmental integrity – may aim, at least in part, at instinctive moral triggers in us and ultimately may be shown to be forms of supernormal stimulation. That moral and purity appeals at least periodically influence us seems hard to deny, leading to a variety of behaviors. Some prove universally good and laudable, some are well-intentioned but objectively far from optimal, and some are decidedly undesirable and even immoral. This divergent pattern of effect suggests an only partly rational process and that manipulation of instinctive triggers and susceptibilities is at work. This particular class of supernormal stimuli may prove subtle and more difficult to initially extricate and examine, but perhaps can be uncovered by subjecting instances of moral or moralized behavior to objective testing. By this, I mean seeking transparency of intentions and actual effects, the impact and relative optimality of behavior against alternatives, and the implicit or explicit assumptions and framing used to invoke moral behavior. Where moral action is shown in this way to be poorly conceived or ambiguously connected to effects, the influence of unexamined moral and purity emotions, and then triggering supernormal stimuli, will perhaps be found at their foundation.
- Drama & entertainment – in her book, Barrett offers an extended and eloquent discussion of the vast artificial dramas that now fill and supernormally stimulate many of our lives, and that have been shown to tether and occlude life alternatives for many modern people. While no doubt true, we must also make note that these materials are primarily variations on dramatic themes which have stimulated our psyche to some degree since before the first human words were spoken. Now, however, the sources, extent, and volume of manufactured drama in our world today go far beyond that of natural life and earlier civilized conditions (even those of a century ago). Barrett points to our greatly increased exposure to supernormal drama through theatre, cinema, performing arts, television, and internet, stimulation that includes large portions of our modern news media and intellectual dialogue. Common to all these contemporary sources of supernormal drama are clear and highly repetitive patterns of artificial stimulation, invoking natural human instincts and emotions related to romance, social interaction, adventure, threat resolution, games and play, and gossip. While some of this content is arguably of a heightened caliber, enriching or informing us and creating new human understanding, a great deal more of the produced drama around us today fails to ascend to this level and is merely space-filling and mind-occupying content, evolved or designed to supernormally stimulate and command more and more hours of our lives each year. Such material has been shown to frequently and actively keep us from important life opportunities, including our stated goals, as individuals and a society. Judged solely by the amount of time we on average spend consuming what are artificially-created and inconsequential dramas in our lives today, this particular area of supernormal stimuli seems among the most obvious and easy to discern, and a key area from which to begin movement and progression out of supernormal reality and passive patterns of life. If you suspect supernormal stimuli are reaching and limiting you in this way, you can start by simply switching off your television or other media, feeling and observation carefully your perhaps strong feelings of separation, and then watching the impact of this freed time and attention on your life over the course of a week or more.
- Television, internet & electronica – leaving aside the content of both the established and emerging electronic media that increasingly fill our time and lives, Barrett summarizes important research suggesting that electronic media on their own are perhaps a quite powerful new form of supernormal stimulant – emitting patterned visual and auditory sensations that, with ongoing tuning for appeal by producers, can quickly consume our attention, pull us from essential dimensions of healthy and socially-engaged life, and even manipulate our brains, discernibly clouding our thoughts and emotions. The total effect of our exposure to these devises may be to make us less adaptive and naturally well, though the quality of streaming media no doubt will prove an influential factor (in addition to quantity of exposure). Barrett takes us through brain scan, and cognitive and behavioral research regarding the effects of television and computer use that is at least unsettling and even alarming. It encourages us to reconsider the unnatural existence and likely mind-altering and supernormal nature of all electronic media in our lives, and what its optimal role might be. As people continue to increase time spent interacting with electronic devises – adding to and not replacing television with internet and electronic game use for example – another important and quite express opportunity to examine and recalibrate the place of supernormal stimuli in our lives presents itself.
- Intriguing problems – Barrett discusses at length the place of problem-solving opportunities as a particular class of supernormal stimuli in modern life, harnessing our natural instinct to resolve predicaments on the African savannah to drive impassioned explorations of both beneficial and arcane topics in the arts and sciences – whether involving nuclear physics, genetic engineering, or poetics. Of special note is what I think is Barrett’s correct and cautionary observation, relevant to governments and funding organizations of all sorts, that many pressing and quality of life-impacting problems of our time may go unattended to today, simply because they are not intriguing or compelling enough to our most brilliant scientists and academics (compared with other supernormally stimulating and status-enhancing problems available to them). This second class of problems are typically those that are prized within specific fields of study, but often are valuable only when judged according to internal and self-referential criteria evolved within the discipline, and thus predictably often having limited practical application in the world at large. This now fairly ubiquitous trend toward insularity, impracticality, and focus on intrigue in modern academia may also be linked to supernormal stimuli driving unnatural and unhealthy desire for career security, but in any case offers an important window into the general nature and overall impact of supernormal stimuli in our lives and society. Many of these stimuli appear to work to pull us from essential and more functional aspects of human life and work in favor of endeavor that unconsciously and dysfunctionally seeks to resolve artificial and irrelevant, but more immediate and compelling, prompts and triggers of our natural instincts. In the case of our most brilliant intellectuals, this may be a far lower overall contribution to the advancement of human welfare and understanding than is possible.
- Calorie-rich foods – if our discussion of supernormal stimuli in modern life so far still leaves you unconvinced that we are collectively surrounded by newly-evolved and potentially very powerful instinct-triggering cues – and that the cumulative effect of this industrial-age stimulation may be a new mind-altering and life-curtailing supernormal reality – I would encourage you to at least look at our ever-increasing collective waistline. Barrett, in fact, previously wrote an entire book exclusively in on the presence of supernormal stimuli in our modern food supply and the deleterious effects these stimuli are now having on our health. To put our modern food crisis in context, we again need only consider our long human life of foraging on the African savannah and our dominant food supply for the last five million years or more – edible shoots and roots, lean game and fish, nuts and seeds, and fruits, especially tart berries growing on the plains and away from heavy forest cover. We of course enjoyed and still enjoy these foods, but have never required special instincts to pursue them. On the other hand, calorie-rich and gene-advancing sweets, fats, and salts were hard for us to come by in the wild, and we evolved special instincts to pursue foods containing these compounds with special relish. Fast-forward a few thousand years from our life in wild nature and we find ourselves now surrounded by fast-food – by a ready supply of sugar and salt and fat-rich foods that were previously rare for us and that we are naturally evolved to crave – with disastrous results for our health and demanding urgent individual and public health action. Notable in this section of Barrett’s book is her observation that free market forces and industrial technology have quickly and perhaps largely unconsciously co-evolved to produce quite similar and highly appealing low-cost junk foods across a range of venues in the last few decades. This fact pattern underscores the speed and precision with which supernormal stimuli of all sorts might evolve whenever well-aligned with strong human instincts and unfettered by natural or imposed constraints. The easily-observable, quite specific, and patently unhealthy trend toward junk food suggests a need for equal vigilance, and personal and societal care, in many other areas of our lives – care with modern junk sex, junk cuteness, junk security, junk status, junk morality, junk drama, and junk problems.
Escaping Unhealthy Stimuli
As we better understand the origin, scope, and potential power of supernormal stimuli, we of course begin essential steps to increase our daily awareness of these stimuli and to reduce their unconscious and undesirable effects in our lives and society.
In an important sense, we initiate a needed process of natural renewal and self-assertion in the face of the rapid and unprecedented human transformation that marks our modern age. We begin to move from the artificially-stimulated and unconsciously-led forms of “junk life” that are reasonably common in our times to more freely-chosen, more-objectively optimal, and more humane life. We become healthier, and perhaps in new and unprecedented ways, taking advantage of and yet rising above our inheritance.
Escaping supernormal stimuli ultimately involves and requires new awareness, responsibility, and choice by individuals and communities. While this is real work, the choice to be more aware of our times and escape the attraction of new unconscious influences it contains is ours to make. The benefits of this effort can be enormous differences in our quality of life, and in the course and tenor of our global society and even our species.
If we are each subject to varying degrees of supernormal stimulation and have at least some natural susceptibility to these stimuli, all of us seeking healthy and progressive life can begin a process of better perceiving these stimuli in our lives and replacing their negative and unintended influences with more informed and chosen attitudes and behaviors. We can begin our escape from supernormal reality. To do this, we can and must use the same tools of science that make this strange new form of human life possible – but now to create new awareness of ourselves and the seemingly ordinary modern environment around us.
An experienced psychologist, Barrett offers us help in this critical process, first by explaining supernormal stimuli and how they can affect us, and then by outlining specific research-based strategies to reduce the impact of newly-appreciated supernormal stimulation in our lives. These strategies begin from the idea that all influential stimuli ultimately play to our instincts – to specific and long-evolved activation or pleasure centers in our brain. Scientists have confirmed this important idea by examining a variety of stimuli, and resulting brain activations and outward behaviors, using both high-tech instruments and some revealing but not so high-tech experiments.
An essential insight in brain-activation research is the finding that very different stimuli – whether supernormal or otherwise – can produce nearly identical physical responses in the activation and pleasure zones of the brains of different people. Different things, in other words, can make different people equally excited, focused, angry, or happy. While this is an intuitive idea, it is a common misconception to attribute these differences to innate or character differences within people. Correcting this misperception, in fact, proves critical to understanding how our general orientation and affections are formed, and to mastering unintended supernormal stimulation.
As Barrett points out, considerable research shows us that widely different stimuli can produce comparable activation and pleasure in different people, primarily through the force of repetition and familiarity itself – that is, through the processes of habituation and fixation. With these terms, I mean the active structuring of our brains, by our brains, to view a specific set of stimuli, behaviors, or patterns of life as exciting and pleasurable, and thus to potentially become increasingly pre-occupied with them. While there is significant research showing that innate differences do exist in the brains and temperaments of people, the force of habitation (that is, repeated exposure to and familiarity with specific stimuli) appears to be a more powerful determinant of our personal preoccupations and sources of daily happiness.
This model of active stimuli-mapping and happiness-making by the brain – of individual habituation to and fixation on whatever available pleasure-inducing environmental stimuli are available – explains why so many things in life are “an acquired taste,” whether broccoli, in-laws, or film noir. Brain habituation and stimuli fixation explains why billionaires and people of average means are about equally content with their lives and prospects. And it explains the quite counterintuitive but now well-established fact that new lottery winners and recent quadriplegics on average experience about equal amounts of daily happiness and pleasure (after a few months of habituation and stimuli-seeking within their new circumstances and environment).
This important research leads to the conclusion that daily happiness and simple pleasure in life is organically created, rather than exactingly constructed, and offers two important lessons related to the mastery of our natural instincts and the new supernormal stimuli they are likely to encounter in modern life.
One lesson is that recurring supernormal stimuli have the potential to quickly and unconsciously re-pattern and co-opt our brains to seek and derive pleasure from them. While this may be true of “normal” stimuli as well, supernormal cues appear to have a special and more potent ability to co-opt our brain and control behavioral patterns in this way. Without our realizing it, supernormal stimuli can interact powerfully with our brain to cause us to find and cultivate happiness from their specific content – in effect, pushing away other stimuli and behaviors and co-opting us in proportion to the relative strength with which the supernormal stimulant unconsciously triggers our instinctual affections.
Through the force of supernormal stimulation and the natural process of neurological mapping by our brain, we can thus become unconsciously subject to dominating pleasures in (and feel separation pains from) many otherwise entirely exotic life experiences. Such pleasures might include arbitrary styles of dress we have become accustomed to and that trigger our sexual or security instincts, the vagaries of a mercurial but highly engaging co-worker, ambling sitcoms that provide a familiar ebb and flow of dramatic tension and resolution, or the sweet and fatty but unhealthy smell of hamburgers and french-fries. Left undirected, our evolved brains will automatically and unintentionally tend to make these and other unnatural but instinct-triggering pleasures an increasing part of our lives and the sources of daily happiness, displacing alternatives that are healthier and even preferable to us (if we could chose objectively and without unconscious natural biases).
A second lesson about active happiness-making by our brains is that we can change. Through new awareness and specific circumvention strategies, we can “re-remap” our brains and alter the ways we make pleasure and happiness in our daily lives. Research shows that just as our instincts and brains can cause us to slip accidentally into unhealthy and dysfunctional pleasures and fixations, we can also more consciously choose and re-habituate ourselves in new life patterns. In fact, we can be confident that we will soon enjoy our newly-chosen behaviors, as we repeat new behaviors and steadily increase our distance from and lessen the pull of even strong habituated stimuli in our lives.
We can steer clear of fatty foods, addictive drugs, dangerous relationships, or the painful pull of status symbols of others. It may be unsettling at first, but many have done and soon report equal happiness from healthier and more chosen patterns of life.
Out of the Modern Labyrinth
Barrett suggests several specific strategies for countering supernormal stimulation and other undesirable patterns of habituation in our lives, and for re-making the way we live in more chosen, more optimal, and healthier ways.
The strategies are supported by extensive research and can be expected to reliably succeed, if we use them in a sustained and attentive way. None of the techniques are complicated, but all do require honesty with ourselves and a commitment to sustained action. And they suggest a universal modern need for us all to commit to envision and pursue life beyond the things that immediately stimulate us and, personally and collectively, to quest for fuller, more engaged, and more conscious life:
- Goal-setting – though Barrett focuses primarily on the how of pursuing new attention and focus beyond entrapping stimuli in our lives, rather than the what of might be included in our goals and life visions, implicit in her recommendations for leading a consciously-chosen life is that we become quite clear about what we want and do not want in our life. There are many sources of information on the process of goal-setting and here I will say simply, regardless of who and where you are: know where you want to stand, make a list, have a plan. In seeking new clarity on what you want in your life, you may find that you struggle with certain areas of your goals and personal vision, and perhaps will discover through this struggle that supernormal stimuli are at work – clouding your feelings and orientation, influencing your thinking and judgments, altering your daily behavior and opportunities, and limiting your growth and life trajectory.
- Rapid change – Barrett points to important and somewhat counterintuitive research concluding that we should pursue fairly rapid change – whenever we move from any “as is” state of our life to the next more consciously-chosen “to be” stage. This strategy involves freeing ourselves from whatever stimuli and fixations currently and pleasurably plague us, and moving as swiftly as we can to the new life patterns that we want for ourselves and thus must establish and habituate to in our lives. This advice is rooted in the idea that we and our brains will quickly and naturally re-map to enjoy our changed circumstances with repetition and new familiarity, and that this re-mapping will also greatly lessen the pleasure and pull of old habits and stimuli if they are quickly, completely, and consistently purged from our lives. The strategy of rapid change allows us to leverage the strong natural bias of our brains toward a happy state and to use its processes to actively redirect it pleasure centers to enjoy new life patterns and surroundings – consciously-chosen instead of externally-stimulated ones. I would add that the work of rapid and significant change equally allows us to more expertly master the process of deliberate personal growth and is thus useful and desirable in itself. After all, with change and arrival at a new life pattern, additional opportunities for further improved life will inevitably present themselves, and we can and should prepare ourselves today to pursue these opportunities tomorrow.
- Cognitive therapy – as we all can see in others and yet sometimes fail to fully acknowledge in ourselves, how we intend to behave and how we actually do behave often can be two very different states. But when we can see such “intention-action” gaps for ourselves, we make what was unconscious more conscious, creating new awareness and opportunities for change, and frequently revealing unseen influences and stimuli in our lives. Barrett highlights research showing that tools from the field of cognitive therapy work well to reveal and narrow the gap between what we want and what we do, and between what we perceive and what actually is. Though there are several techniques we might use in this effort, one in particular is representative and I have found it to be quite effective – list-making. As Barrett discusses, the making of fairly detailed lists or reports on our actual behavior can lead to important insights into the unseen ways we behave and do not behave. Lists can reveal the unseen stimuli and triggered instincts that may be operating unconsciously in our lives. For example, a list of what we actually ate in a day may be at odds with what we intended to eat, possibly leading to insights into what foods and events triggered this departure from our goals. A desire to reduce senseless shopping can confront a weekly review of store receipts, perhaps with a close friend for added objectivity, creating new awareness of our behavior and new capacity to re-pattern ourselves away from unintended (and perhaps unconsciously-triggered) acquisitiveness. Similarly, reviewing our browser’s list of the websites we visit, and estimating the time spent on each, may lead us to question and begin to consciously redesign the role and place of electronica in our lives. List-making, in a variety of forms and used to gain insight into a variety of areas of our lives, can be an important tool to make the invisible visible, our behavior more chosen, and often, the seemingly ordinary truer and more strange.
- Hypnosis – a fourth strategy Barrett encourages us to consider for overcoming strong effects from supernormal stimuli is hypnosis (by a licensed psychologist or psychotherapist). While hypnosis in itself may not drive long-term changes in our lives or make our lives more chosen, research indicates that hypnotic suggestions can make runaway or entrenched stimulus-response cycles in our lives immediately less pleasurable and compelling, helping us to create new reflective space and ability to make the transition to more chosen life patterns and the superior personal habits and preoccupations we want.
I suspect I have given you much to consider, and hope our extended discussion of critical research into natural and modern supernormal stimuli creates new paths and opportunities for added health and freedom in your life, and in the lives of others in your care. Let me end our discussion as Barrett does, in her valuable and thought-provoking book, by encouraging you to “get off the plaster egg” and to begin to examine your behavior and goals more deeply, and what is driving both of these things, beginning today.
I will recommend Barrett’s Supernormal Stimuli to you, as long as the time that it takes to locate and read her book does not delay you from starting the work of seeing and acting on what may be a great many unconscious, wholly artificial, and powerful life-limiting stimuli or instinct-triggers in your life already. Whether in the form of fatty foods or comforting possessions or in hours adrift in televised or streaming melodrama, your personal work to escape from and live beyond unexamined and supernormally-stimulated reality can and should begin right away.
You can start this process of self-discovery and progression anywhere you want, but you must begin. If I might help you in this task of beginning, I would suggest that you start with the most obvious and indefensible instances of “life on autopilot” you have today. This work of examining behaviors and checking for unconscious attitudes and choices is done, quite easily and insightfully, simply by asking ourselves “Why am I ___________?” for any behavior or attitude in your life that is unexamined, troubling to you or others, or objectively unhealthy. In time, this self-questioning can expand to touch the totality of your life and personal choices.
In this way, Barrett encourages us to grow beyond a life of listening to our instincts. She challenges us to exercise our will, to seek new awareness, and to chose and pursue the life we really want. She suggests that we more deliberately use the top part of our large brains and not be used by the middle parts of them, or by the brains of others who intentionally or haplessly manipulate us with attractive traps of the kinds we have discussed. “In a world increasingly designed to stimulate hunger, sexual arousal, and acquisitiveness,” she reminds us, “chasing the supernormal is a losing game.”
With relatively unrestrained industrial and information markets now using modern science and technology to rapidly and ceaseless evolve – principally seeking financial rather than genetic fitness – we all must now take new responsibility for our individual lives and support more enlightened public policies to regulate unhealthy social practices. We must actively pursue and encourage new understanding of ourselves and the world, and use science to escape and not be held by the growing and enshrouding supernormal reality that is our modern environment – perhaps the eventual fate of any insular and unmanaged, but adequately-resourced and rapidly-evolving technological society.
To do both these things, we must first see, then see through, and finally defy the supernormal stimuli around us. And we must take on new stimuli as they inevitably arise in an advanced technological society, using science and the counterforce of informed choice and policy. Only in this way can we find our way through the strange and yet ordinary labyrinth of competing and compelling distractions, security threats and status appeals, and pointless dramas that can occupy us in this new world of ours. Ours is indeed a brave new world of industrial-strength stimuli that actively shape our brains and unconsciously distort our attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors – if we allow it.
Instead, we can chose the lives we live and want to live, shape the environment we already actively create with our technology and individual and collective choices, and grow freer and more aware, as individuals and a species suddenly alive in an advanced scientific and technological society.
Mark Lundegren is the founder of HumanaNatura.
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