THE BLOG
07/17/2014 12:51 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2014

Supernormal Stimuli: This Is Your Brain on Porn, Junk Food, and the Internet

"A wise man rules his passions; a fool obeys them."
--Publius Syrus

Given the rapid pace of technological change, 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. Some research suggests that a few of the things we enjoy today might be classified as "supernormal stimuli," a term evolutionary biologists use to describe any stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which the response evolved, even if the supernormal stimulus is artificial. Are sources of superstimulation like junk food and porn more likely to hook us into bad habits? It is certainly a very muddy topic, but it's a question that I believe deserves investigating. After all, we've become increasingly surrounded by stimulation that wasn't available even a few years ago. 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 two minutes to read.

Be Aware: Supernormal Stimuli

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(Comic by the insanely talented Stuart McMillen, published with his permission. More about Stuart and his work can be found at the bottom of the post.)

When Superstimulation Goes Wrong

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 were stronger than the stimuli for which responses had evolved naturally, including the following examples:

  • He constructed plaster eggs to see which a bird preferred to sit on and found that they would select those that were larger and 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 superstimulus that they found themselves attracted to and preferred over the real thing. Instinct took over, and now the animals' behaviors were a detriment to their livelihood because they simply couldn't say no to the fake stimulus.

Much of Tinbergen's work is beautifully captured by Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett in the book Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose. One has to wonder if the leap from these findings to human behavior is near or far, but Dr. Barrett seems to think that the link is closer then we believe, arguing that supernormal stimulation governs the behavior of humans as powerfully as that of animals. The hypothesis is that just as Tinbergen's quick introductions of abnormal stimulation to animals produced maladaptive responses, rapidly advancing technology may have created a similar situation for humans.

Can we really be "prepared" for some of our modern, highly stimulating experiences, given the limited amount of time we've had to adapt? It's very hard to say; you'll find excellent arguments from both camps. Here are a few common examples that are often brought into question. (Note: please read the full article. I'm not saying that you should never engage with the following, or that the examples below are conclusive, or that they are the "norm" -- not at all, in fact! I merely bring them up out of curiosity.)

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 its 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) It could be argued that for a large span of time, humans had a relatively stable palette. Now a new food "concoction" comes out every week. How might this be affecting us? 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 that it is a "superstimulating" 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 and 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 (and the research agrees), but I do have to admit that it seems video games may be addictive for some people, and for certain personality types in particular.

2) Television addiction may cause some users to elicit the 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 some studies have found symptoms of withdrawal in a very small subset of subjects; they became moody and agitated and even had physical symptoms of withdrawal.

Pornography

1) Probably the most controversial of all modern stimuli, pornography has been described as insidious in nature because it might skew the otherwise normal activity of sex. Porn has been linked to changing sexual tastes, and some argue that porn can become a "never-ending" supply of dopamine (though there are few conclusive studies done on porn and the mind).

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 but a technological one. But could porn impact the way 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, dopamine does not cause people to experience pleasure but 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 serious consideration to the Web, recognizing that it may 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 six months.

2) Social media has been shown to make many people depressed: They see the highlight reel of others and may 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 may be hurting some people's ability to focus. The quick bursts of entertainment that the Internet provides, and the fact that information is always a click away, may, through overuse, cause a decrease in conceptual and critical thinking. Some have argued that the Internet can become a "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. But before you panic, freak out, and throw away all your Oreos and cancel your Internet subscription, please listen: Everything in moderation, just like your reaction to the information in this blog post. There is a lot of research that counters what we've looked at above. Explore books like The 10,000 Year Explosion for more from that perspective. In addition, consider that resources are all in how you use them.

Take the Internet, for instance. Sure, there are signs that in some ways the Internet might become a distraction, but think about its contributions. The Web is the best source in the world for information and knowledge, so how it affects you depends on how you make use of it. We are all perfectly capable of using and engaging with supernormal stimuli; the only reason I chose to highlight the extreme examples above was to show how things can go wrong with overuse, or misuse. That's right, 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 blog post was simply exploration of the topic.

In fact, the comic above had similar intentions. 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.

(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.)

You Decide What's Normal

The "solution," it seems to me, is to simply avoid habituation. The real enemy here is complacency -- or allowing 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 against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later.

It's my personal opinion that mini-sabbaticals are a great way to test small dependencies on anything. The ability to go without in regard 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 can help you understand its 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 could be your body telling you something 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 there may be many potential sources of superstimulation out there, 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.