Supernormal Stimuli

The other day in class we were introduced to Nikolaas Tinbergen‘s four questions during our discussion of proximate and ultimate causation. Tinbergen is also known for conducting research on “Supernormal Stimuli” in animals. A supernormal stimulus is defined as a stimulus that elicits a response stronger than the stimulus for which the response mechanism evolved. The blog post, Is Your Brain Truly Ready for Junk Food, Porn, or the Internet? connects Tinbergen’s research on supernormal stimuli in animals to that in humans with the help of a comic by Stuart McMillen, a Youtube video about Nicholas Carr’s research on the effect of the Internet on the human brain, and Diedre Barret’s book Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose. Modern day examples of supernormal stimuli for humans are: junk food, the Internet, pornography, TV, and video games.

I found this topic interesting because I am familiar with the tendency of our bodies to crave junk food based on what was evolutionarily valuable for our species to consume in the past, but I had never given much thought about how our minds may develop addictions to technology based on our evolutionary background. Humans have created their own supernormal stimuli by manufacturing foods that are sweeter and more calorically dense than naturally occurring foods, TV shows and video games that provide us with the ability to enter a world that may be deemed “better” than actual reality, pornography that tends to exaggerate sexual acts and the human body (which does not seem to be a new thing for humans based on the discovery of the Venus of Willendorf), and the Internet which provides access to endless information/entertainment/distraction at the tips of our fingers.

The blog post concludes by providing encouragement that humans are not inevitably doomed by our new environment. Unlike the animals in Tinbergen’s research, humans can differentiate between reality and supernormal stimuli. Humans have the ability to take control of their actions and moderate their indulgence in these behaviors. Could the ability to regulate the time and energy invested in surfing the Internet, watching porn, or playing video games serve as a factor of natural selection in present-day humans?

4 thoughts on “Supernormal Stimuli

  1. It’s interesting to note that what is a super-stimulus for one person holds little influence over another. Humans seem to vary in their susceptibility to addiction – at least only some get to the point where it would be considered a disease or disorder. Thoughts?

    1. Yeah, I think there is most likely some genetic predisposition to addiction. We already refer to it casually in this way in our society by saying things like, “I have an addictive personality,” or “Addiction runs in my family.” I do think that it is interesting that different people are influenced by substances or activities in a variety of ways, it is just another example of how people are so diverse.

  2. I think our addictions and cravings to junk food make sense. As we evolved, food was scarce so anything calorically dense or that was “sugary” (immediate energy source) was of high value. Today, we still have inclinations to these kinds of foods and so we crave them often and find them hard to resist.

    1. In last week’s class, we talked about how “cultural evolution”, the evolution of technology and medicine and the ever growing human population have made a significant impact on human evolution. This interesting blog is another perfect example of how artificial stimuli like porn, junk food, video games has changed human behavior significantly. It is fascinating to think that we keep creating more and more intense stimuli to satisfy our ever-growing appetite for pleasure. The question is to what point is the supernormal stimuli too much for human to handle.

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