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Supernormal Stimuli and Our Lizard Brains: Are Humans Truly Ready for Junk Food, TV, Video Games, Porn, or the Internet?


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Awareness is the key.

Thank you Chris Yeh and Rich Hua for bringing this article to my attention.

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 startconsuming 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 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 seems video games may be addictive for some people, and in particular, for certain personalities.

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, 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, it’s a technological one. 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, 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 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 6 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, for some people, may be hurting their 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 ‘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.

freak out and panic keep calm

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.

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: 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 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 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 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.

Chris Yeh put it succinctly, "Only mindfulness allows us to moderate the reptile brain."

There's a lot more in the article, worth reading: http://www.sparringmind.com/supernormal-stimuli/

Chris Yeh is wrong by saying "Only": yes, mindfulness allows us to moderate our reptile brains, but so does our own and other people's creation of environments, events, services and goods for commercial and personal intentions--these also moderate our reptile brains whether or not we are mindful about creating or experiencing them.  

And isn't that the point of this whole post?

Yes Rob. Yes it is. Excellent point.

It is worth clicking through the link for the dinosaur cartoon alone:

Is Your Brain Truly Ready for Junk Food Porn or the Internet

Is Your Brain Truly Ready for Junk Food Porn or the Internet

Is Your Brain Truly Ready for Junk Food Porn or the Internet

Read the whole comic: http://www.sparringmind.com/supernormal-stimuli/

What is meant by the term supernormal stimuli?

Basically, we are bombarded with fabricated things that are more attractive to our brains than reality:

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 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, and which they 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 Barret 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.

Dr. Barret seems to think that the link is closer then we believe, arguing that supernormal stimulation govern the behavior of humans as powerfully as that of animals.

The hypothesis is that just like Tinbergen’s quick introductions of abnormal stimulation to animals, 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 amount of time we’ve had to adapt?

It’s very hard to say—you’ll find excellent arguments from both camps.

Awareness is the key to living with supernormal stimuli.

We need to be mindful of how we spend our attention, our time, our appetites, and our lives.

Or simply deconstruct, marginalize and eliminate supernormal stimuli in our environment wherever we find it...

Who gets to deconstruct, marginalize, and eliminate "supernormal stimuli" in our environment?  Whose call is it?  Is one person's supernormal stimuli another's?  

While I consider myself pretty aware, the awareness of my teenager is questionable.  This is an age old debate.  I don't want arbitrary limits on my freedom of choice and I don't want my teenager exposed to "supernormal stimuli" before he is mature enough if it can be avoided. 

In balance, I prefer to allow more freedom of choice rather than less - teaching responsible behavior.

I would agree that putting your teenager into war because that is what the environment is offering is more freedom of choice.  However, it is not a choice I would make, nor would want my teenager to have to make or consider.

Adults, on the other hand, can most often fend for themselves and make choices with somewhat more cognizant understanding of the consequences... or at least we can pretend that it's so.

I still see many adults choosing paths without knowing why they are choosing.

So espousing awareness is worth doing over again and again.

Yes, seeing things as they are--AND from a frame/perspective that one can understand and use--is helpful.  Yet simply pointing out what seems self-evident to me, might not be the best or most welcome of realities for someone else, especially given their current capacities and readiness.  In other words it might not be that others can recognize what I know as helpful to them, or use my awareness in ways that will advance their own or the greater good.

Likewise, for me personally, I really don't want to know more than I can physically and spiritually handle at any given moment.  Sometimes it is my ignorance, the keeping of veils in place just as they are for however long they might be needed, that is the most welcome and necessary evolutionary skill that enables me most to make progress...where I to have known in advance all that I was only able to discover along the way, well, I would have likely never set out in the first place...

Like Huxley, in my youth I tried throwing open all the Doors of Perception. Sometimes when they felt wide open the wind blew rough and cold.  So what was I to do with that? As in Proverbs 11:29, 

"He who troubles his own house will inherit wind, and the foolish will be servant to the wise hearted."

So at least for me in intending to be helpful for myself and others, it's better to be wise hearted with just in time knowledge of knowing what I need to know when I need to know it, rather than "knowing in advance".  This has worked marvelously for me when I was helping thousands of others in poor and rural communities tackle big shared problems and create social innovations that solved them.  

In other words I never showed up with a ready made answer, I just helped others find an option they could recognize as working better for themselves along their way within their own capacities and readiness to improve their current situation.  And then helped them chose it and do it.

Two sayings come to mind:

1. You can't have everything because where would you put it?

2. You become responsible for what you have tamed. 

awww...  the fox.  you DO become responsible for what you have tamed.

The Little Prince is a wonderful book. It stands up to time pretty well.

a children's book written for adults.  what a great book!

I think the best childrens' books can be enjoyed by adults, too.

Harry Potter... Wizard of Oz... Charlie and the Chocolate Factory... Phantom Tollbooth...

And on and on. But The Little Prince is best of them all!

i agree.  and all those books make me smile!!

Me too. Do you have any others that deserve a place alongside them?

where the red fern grows, a wrinkle in time, matilda, the bfg (really, everything by roald dahl!), bambi (a great book that hardly anyone nowadays has read, but is actually deeper than the disney movie), the cay, charlotte's web, the indian in the cupboard, the twenty-one balloons, pippi longstocking, tales of a fourth grade nothing, mr. popper's penguins... i could go on and on!!  these all were dear to me as a child, and i have recommended these books to adults!  and the more modern book, holes, is also excellent.  

but i am especially fond of the little prince.  (i even made the last page of my book, joone, with her on the cratered moon as a shout-out to the little prince!)

Oh yes, those are all great books of wonder!  

I also suggest more of L. Frank Baum's book series about OZ.  Most people only learn of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz", but the story continues through 13 more wonderful books he wrote about Oz: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Oz_books

i didn't know that!  how cool.

Why so many books?! How many stories did he have to tell??

Even Harry Potter is just seven books!

Emily, is Bambi as sad as the Disney movie?

Adam, Baum was very much like Disney... both were visionaries that invited us into completely narrated worlds filled with magic and wonder... they didn't tell stories so much as reveal what was to them already wholly conceived.

And so how many such stories about worlds of wonder are there in the multiverse that are worth telling?  I imagine if both Baum and Disney were still alive we'd have heard of even more wonderful stories than just the ones they left behind.

I never considered that all Disney stories take place in the same world.

So Baum's work is not one long narrative like Harry Potter, right?

adam, yes, bambi the book is as sad as the disney movie!  i cried my eyes out, but not at the mother's death; that scene just came and went in the book. then there's a huge part of the book about bambi's father and the relationship they have together.  it is his father's death that is so heart-wrenching.

Yes Adam... in Walt Disney World!

Baum's world is Oz.

The first Oz was published in 1900.

It wasn't until 1964 that it was interpreted as a political allegory: http://www.amphigory.com/oz.htm

And Emily, Bambi sounds very sad!

Adulthood doesn't necessarily equate to awareness or maturity.  Each of us has our own capacity.  Some a little and some more.  Most of us have seen "man on the street" interviews.  Frequent reminding to be aware is good.  It helps many.  Still, it is very difficult to set up a system of law that gives society freedom yet protects people from one another without stepping on that freedom.  It's worth the effort.  An easy way out is autocratic government and/or autocratic religion.

Awareness has been a goal since at least the days of Socrates. 

The unexamined life is not worth living. 

Repetition of exposure to that principle makes us more mindful of things. 

If total awareness is self actualization in Maslow's hierarchy then being reminded of awareness as a goal is very useful - especially at difficult times.  I don't think I can go as far as saying an unexamined life is not worth living though.  It may seem to be true to you or me.  Nevertheless we are not that life.  That life may be at the survival level struggling with issues that don't give them the luxury of thinking about awareness/self actualization.  We can't know what another soul is living this life to accomplish.  :o)  But now we are a very long way from the idea of supernormal stimulation.....

Yes we are. Except in the sense that we seek meaning and supernatural stimuli thwart that focus. 

Not to be circular but supernatuaral stimuli CAN thwart our focus in seeking meaning UNLESS we are diligently aware.....and being reminded to be diligently aware is often helpful....

I concur.

I'm just raising awareness about being circumspect towards espousing awareness raising as a general, or wholesale, operating principle that's always good for one and all.  How's that for an MC Escher sentence...

I'm compelled to disagree with the above implications, as sometimes being more aware and present in the moment in this dimension does not necessarily result in the greatest social utility or best personal experience possible, or land one anywhere along such a satisficing continuum of idealized outcomes.

Yes to Adam's #2 saying above, and we can also add #3: all miracles have consequences and one will be equally responsible for what one sets free as well as tames...

We are feedback loops. We are the stories we tell ourselves.

Everything we do and say has consequences.  Freedom does not come without a cost.  Too often personal responsibility is avoided.  The blame game becomes a way out and/or the rationalization.  Those without a conscious simply ignore.

Rob, I think you are right on when you state that "being more aware and present in the moment in this dimension does not necessarily result in the greatest social utility or best personal experience".  Too often the result can even be devastating at some level - to one or many.  

But it's still the case that the more aware you are, the better chance you have for social utility and personal experience, right?

Certainly for a better chance of having meaningful personal experiences - yes.   Nevertheless, the result of a meaningful personal experience isn't always something you may want - at least at the time.  For social utility I also agree - at least at a theoretical level - on  a practical level it may not necessarily.

Moreover, awareness in itself isn't enough.  It's only part of the equation.  The other part is our response to the awareness (where we can respond) and (even more important) the motivation driving the response.

What response is the right response?

(I should add that no response is clearly a response in itself...)....to the question you pose....in my life view the right response is based on motivation.  So you would ask, "what is the right motivation?" :o)  This leads for me to a very complex discussion and I prefer to keep things simple where I can.  

Clearly their is a continuum of stimulation:awareness:motivation:response complexity.  Some things we are wired to do and motivation is clear.  I think we're talking here about more complex situations that touch on responses involving values, morals, ethics, philosophy, and perhaps spirituality and religion even where responses are more complex and less clear....or is your question rhetorical?  What do you think?

I think that whatever the response it should be deliberate. 

That is, don't default a response. Instead, make sure the response represents actual want. 

I agree.  Too often the easy way out is to do nothing - to default. 

Still, for me it gets back to motivation.  Are my responses motivated by a core self more like Gandhi or more like Stalin (or pick your pair)?  Both were very deliberate in their actions and responses.

That is a good point but that comes down to values and ethics. 

I'll stop here on this but I think it can be far simpler than values and ethics....values and ethics can be quite daunting....

Choosing to go Gandhi or Stalin can be simpler than delving into values and ethics?

How?

:0) Now there's a debate!  No, you misunderstand me.  I was just using those guys to try and make a point.  

Values, morals, ethics, religion, spirituality can be deep subjects.  My kids already think I'm too serious.  If I were living life constantly going through the stimulation:awareness:motivation:response exercise I think life wouldn't be as great as it is! That's too heavy all the time.  

For me a simpler approach is a quick check on motivation.  If the motivation of my response (to the more complex situations) is not the one I strive to center/ground myself with then I need to examine my response and adjust or even get into that heavier space. Otherwise, I'm good to go!

But how does a person make sure her or his motivation is good?

"Good" by whose standard?

For the stuff that really matters in terms of this life for me I want to look at whether I'm motivated by unconditional love or something else.  For less heavy stuff I still try to be mindful of this to some degree in context.  (I have a long way to go... :o)

Heh. That's good, but what about people who don't have a moral compass they can read?

.....that they can read or that they choose to pay attention to....like so many models we use to construct explanations of things I think we have another continuum.....at one end lies total enlightenment and at the other ignorance.....we are all at some point on this continuum in our journey to enlightenment.....the condition of our world is a reflection of the sum total of us.  (At least this is how I view it :o)

We sure are a long way from the start of this post......

We really are, but I'm glad you went there, because what you wrote is fascinating.

:0)  Thank you!  I am happy you found it fascinating!  There's much more mental wanderings where this came from.  Perhaps for another day and another venue....

I'm sure we'll visit these themes again on other pages.

For example: http://pandawhale.com/post/38060/the-trouble-is-you-think-you-have-time

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