Sunday, August 21, 2011

Deidre Barrett—Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Original Purpose

“Our modern skulls house a stone age mind,” say psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, quoted in Supernormal Stimuli (27). The book's title comes from the work of Niko Tinbergen, the Danish ethologist whose work on animals’ instinctive reactions to external stimuli won him the Nobel in 1973. Tinbergen discovered that much of animal behavior is cued to very particular stimuli—geese are so programmed to sit on eggs with certain markings that they prefer a volleyball to their own eggs if the markings are enhanced (say, black with bright blue spots rather than grey with pale blue spots). The male stickleback fish is so enraged by the red color of other males’ chests that he will ignore actual male fish to attack a bright red ball, or even a passing red van outside the window.

These enhanced versions of evolutionarily developed triggers are, in Tinbergen’s words, “supernormal stimuli,” and Barrett’s book develops the thesis that we are similarly triggered by certain stimuli, evolved over millennia on the African savannah, and that we remain the victims of our stone-age reactions—particularly since we have used our modern skulls to devise a wide array of supernormal stimuli that end up being actually bad for us. The clearest example is our taste for fatty and sweet foods, which had an obvious logic for hunter-gathers but becomes a severe liability in a world of McDonald’s cheeseburgers and chocolate shakes.

Less well known is the interplay between television and what Pavlov termed “the orienting response”—the instinct to pay rapt attention to any new aural or visual stimulus. In Barrett’s description: “The orienting person or animal turns eyes and ears in the direction of the stimulus and then freezes while parts of the brain associated with new learning become more active. Blood vessels to the brain dilate, those to the muscles constrict, the heart slows, and alpha waves are blocked. . . . The effects persists for four to six seconds after each stimulus.”

Television’s increasingly rapid-fire technique of quick cuts plays right into this, essentially paralyzing us on the sofa as our stone-age brains try to process the flood of supernormal stimuli. Eventually, however, the body slips into a lower state—hypnotized but no longer alert, and the metabolism actually drops to a lower state than if one were simply lying in bed.

The concept of the supernormal stimulus explains a great deal of modern behavior. Alcoholism and drug addiction, for one, as well as the tendency of our society to treat as an addiction any compulsive behavior (gambling, promiscuity, overeating) that exceeds the rational mind’s ability to regulate it.

What Barrett doesn’t engage sufficiently, to my mind, is the role of both technology and corporate capitalism in the development of these supernormal stimuli, and while she urges us to begin to restrain and regulate the most destructive of these stimuli, she doesn’t touch the issue of what this means for the twin sacred cows of free speech and private enterprise—both of which presume a rational mind capable of regulating its stone-age instincts without exterior help. Already in ancient Athens, Aristotle pondered why individuals pursued self-destructive behavior, and that was long before there were billions to be made by marketing products scientifically designed to encourage that behavior. The Athenian vices of excessive wine and the occasional hetaera pale before crack cocaine and 24/7 online streaming pornography, or even the less obviously pernicious burger and fries and video gaming.

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