In an earlier piece Chasing The Dragon, we outlined Nikolaas Tinbergen’s concept of the supernormal stimulus (or superstimulus), which he characterized as an exaggerated environmental stimulus to which there is an existing tendency in animals to respond, or a stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which it evolved.
Tinbergen demonstrated the phenomenon by placing a larger artificial egg in the nest of an oystercatcher bird which lays several eggs and then chooses the largest one to incubate. The bird made fruitless attempts to retrieve the oversized egg and place it in the nest, while neglecting its own real, normal-sized egg. Even though giant eggs never occur in nature, larger eggs are usually healthier so the animal generally improves its genetic success by retrieving a larger egg first. In another experiment, Tinbergen placed a football-sized egg in the nest of a herring gull who showed preference for the grotesquely large egg, even though it was unable to move it into the nest and kept sliding off when attempting to sit on it.
Supernormal stimuli are bigger or more intense than normal in color, shape, texture, or smell; eliciting an abnormally exaggerated response from the animal or human. We referred to that exaggerated response as a superresponse; one that, applied to humans, contributes to the increasing discord, unhappiness and confusion among men and women today. Just like the herring gull we are sliding off the egg in every which way, failing to identify the mechanism behind it.
Humans are wired to respond to superstimuli, having numerous biological tendencies that can be misdirected through the deployment of an artificial stimulus. Even in the beginning, human babies will smile at an oval shape cardboard cut-out with two dark circles where eyes would be, providing one of the earliest examples of the human face as a sign stimulus and a ‘releaser’ of the innate response mechanism.
Think also of the nipple to which a human baby automatically gropes and begins sucking, and of the larger-than-normal plastic pacifier that infants will hungrily suck as an early example of the superstimulus at work. No breast, no milk, indeed no mother but it will pacify just the same. Examples of the phenomenon multiply as humans mature, acquiring as they do a habituated attraction to superstimuli that the modern world is now manufacturing on a scale unprecedented in human history. All of this, we think, forments the kind of unsustainable lunacy that now characterizes human interactions — especially those which are sexual in nature.
Attempts to deconstruct the insanity abound but almost none seem to be making a difference to our relational malaise. While offering some sharp observations, the theorizing from gender studies departments, nutty liberals, politicians, religious conservatives or evolutionary psychologists have done little to explain the root biological mechanisms for the madness, and that’s where supernormal stimuli, and their unhealthy growth in the modern world, might provide a new area of exploration and discussion.
One reason for avoiding discussion of the supernormal stimulus theory may be that people like to rest on more mechanistic, determinist and ultimately reductionist explanations for human behavior, preferring as they do a less manipulable ‘lock-and-key’ explanation. That approach eschews the ramifications of supernormal stimulus that would place more onus on a variable environment and its manipulations in regards to human behavior. Those with a reductive bent might like to fool themselves into believing that infant pacifiers, artificial intelligence, silicone breasts, cosmetics and sexbots have been with is since the Pleistocene, but of course such superstimuli are relatively new to the human species.
Evolutionary Psychologists for example, especially those cherishing a fantasy of ‘traditional gender roles’ to guide and ultimately bias their research, tend to omit the theory of superstimuli from their discourse because it indicates primal urges can and do overrun their evolutionary purpose – eg. pathological displays in even ‘traditional’ gender relations as case in point. The operation of the supernormal stimulus reveals their “normal biological response” of “traditional evolutionary sex roles” to be a pathological perversion, in which case the theory is swiftly overlooked. That move however leaves a lacuna in the theoretical base of Evolutionary Psychology, and its research results may equally suffer.
Dierdre Barrett, author of Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose remarks that many evolutionary concepts have been applied to human behavior either formally in Evolutionary Psychology or have just crossed over into popular conversation. “However the importance of superstimuli” states Barrett, “doesn’t seem to have been fully appreciated in either of those arenas.”1 She states (quote);
Evolutionary Psychology has picked up a lot of Darwin’s ideas, and some ethology ideas which is the Darwinian branch of animal behavior that Tinbergen was a part of. But somehow Evolutionary Psychology never adopted the idea of supernormal stimuli, and I really think that of all the evolutionary concepts it’s the most important and the most directly relevant to human behavior.”2
Independently of Barrett we have been applying the concept to human populations, and with her believe it to be the most important and relevant fact to human behavior today, particularly as it shows in the addict-like behaviors plaguing modern humans and relationships.
While the influence of superstimuli is responsible for a range of destructive and potentially anti-species outcomes, it is not altogether new. Observe for example the Venus of Willendorf whose exaggerated body parts would have elicited a possible superresponse in those who carved and first gazed on her. Think also of the cave paintings in Lascaux with their stylized renditions of animals, or of shaman dressed in animal costumes, not to mention the ritual enactments of animal behaviors in traditional cultures who routinely adorned themselves with animal skins or feathers and engaged in theatric play that would have acted as supernormal stimuli inducing longing, wonder, fear or hunger in the audience.
Mythology itself has been suggested as a form of supernormal stimuli, a position forwarded by the late Joseph Campbell in his Masks of God series. There he states
There is a phenomenon known to the students of animal behavior as the “supernormal sign stimulus,” which has never been considered, as far as I know, in relation either to art and poetry or to myth; yet which, in the end, may be our surest guide to the seat of their force…
Within the field of the study of animal behavior— which is the only area in which controlled experiments have made it possible to arrive at dependable conclusions in the observation of instinct—two orders of innate releasing mechanisms have been identified, namely, the stereotyped, and the open, subject to imprint. In the case of the first, a precise lock-key relationship exists between the inner readiness of the nervous system and the external sign stimulus triggering response; so that, if there exist in the human inheritance many—or even any—IRMs of this order, we may justly speak of “inherited images” in the psyche. The mere fact that no one can yet explain how such lock-key relationships are established does not invalidate the observation of their existence: no one knows how the hawk got into the nervous system of our barnyard fowl, yet numerous tests have shown it to be, de facto, there. However, the human psyche has not yet been, to any great extent, satisfactorily tested for such stereotypes, and so, I am afraid, pending further study, we must simply admit that we do not know how far the principle of the [stereotyped] inherited image can be carried when interpreting mythological universals…
The concept of the sign stimulus as an energy-releasing and -directing image clarifies, however, the difference between literary metaphor, which is addressed to the intellect, and mythology, which is aimed primarily at the central excitatory mechanisms (CEMs) and innate releasing mechanisms (IRMs) of the whole person. According to this view, a functioning mythology can be defined as a corpus of culturally maintained sign stimuli fostering the development and activation of a specific type, or constellation of types, of human life. Furthermore, since we now know that no images have been established unquestionably as innate, that our IRMs are not stereotyped but open, whatever “universals” we may find in our comparative study must be assigned rather to common experience than to endowment; while, on the other hand, even where sign stimuli may differ, it need not follow that the responding IRMs differ too. Our science is to be simultaneously biological and historical throughout, with no distinction between “culturally conditioned” and “instinctive” behavior, since all instinctive human behavior is culturally conditioned, and what is culturally conditioned in us all is instinct: specifically, the CEMs and IRMs of this single species.3
As detailed in Chasing The Dragon, nascent experimentation with superstimuli by our remote ancestors slowly increased from stone carvings, shaman costumes and mythological imagery, and went into overdrive in the Middle Ages with the birth of mass-produced cosmetics, the fashion industry, romantic love tropes, and the invention of the printing press. That revolution has been furthered by the invention of plastic surgery and the harnessing of electricity with its mediums of cinema, radio, television, internet, cellphone and the gaming console; all serving the superstimuli trends of the culture in which they were born.
In Chasing The Dragon we reviewed three domains of human instinct that have been hypnotized by the creation of superstimuli. Briefly reviewed as follows these are:
1. Neoteny and the parental instinct
While there are notable exceptions, adult women are not generally endowed with neotenous features sufficient to provoke men to find them cute in the way of a small child. Artifice however makes up for it by allowing women to imitate the features of children through the application of cosmetics or cultivation of childish gestures, with the ultimate aim of shirking responsibility and being cared for by a man and society with the least amount of effort on her part. Naturally such a routine robs her of agency, parentifies the man, and becomes a drag on relationships.
The following instruction video for women from the Fascinating Womanhood Movement provides an example of how this biological ruse, essentially a feigned neoteny, is a result of cultural learning (1.37 to 2.33):
The instruction for women to feign childlikeness is now endemic in the Western world, which may account at least partially for the tradition of ‘women and children first’ – a statement that captures not only that women look after children, but that they themselves are children in need of saving – in which sense the phrase might be more accurately rendered as ‘Children and children first.’
2. Sexual stimuli and sexual arousal
We regularly hear hand-wringing about the increase in skimpy, sexualized clothing among women and even young girls, along with the booming trend in tummy tucks, butt implants, botox injections, lip augmentation and boob jobs. We are told that women become overly reliant of these powerful methods of superstimulating men’s sexuality, and we are equally told that this makes sex like a powerful drug and leads to sex addiction. In a sense they are not completely wrong – the supersizing of sexual phenomena do result in an addiction-like intensity or what we have called the superresponse.
Many men and MGTOW have said NO to the exploitative potential that comes with female use of superstimuli, men who ironically opt out of relationships with real women in favor of more superstimuli in the form of internet porn and neotenous sexbots – superstimuli over which they secure full control. While a certain degree of superstimuli may prove healthy in catering to one’s sexual needs, it is up to each man to determine whether the stimuli are catering to a healthy expression of needs, or into an overly intense superstimulus and unhealthy superresponse.
3. Pairbonding – secure and insecure
In the pre medieval period simple courtship practices and arranged marriages ruled, leaving little room for the supernormal exaggerations of attachment security that we see in practice today. Modern rules for pairbonding are encapsulated in the notion of romantic love, which unfortunately turns out to be a cornucopia of destructive superstimuli. Romantic love is geared to fostering an extreme tension between feelings of possessing and losing a pairbond. It relies on an oscillation between secure and insecure attachment that generates a supernormal intensity of lovers’ feelings for each other, with the downside of inner turmoil and insecurity that feeds relational dysfunction and not infrequently psychological illnesses.
The poets are not lying when they say love is like a roller-coaster ride.
Frank Tallis’ book Love Sick: Love as a Mental Illness elaborates on the kind of pathologies that come hand-in-hand with the romantic-love based approach to pairbonding. From the blurb on Tallis book we read;
Obsessive thoughts, erratic mood swings, insomnia, loss of appetite, recurrent and persistent images and impulses, superstitious or ritualistic compulsions, delusion, the inability to concentrate — that exhibiting just five or six of these symptoms is enough to merit a diagnosis of a major depressive episode. Yet we all subconsciously welcome these symptoms when we allow ourselves to fall in love. In Love Sick, Dr. Frank Tallis considers our experiences and expressions of love, and why the combinations of pleasure and pain, ecstasy and despair, rapture and grief have come to characterize what we mean when we speak of falling in love. Tallis examines why the agony associated with romantic love continues to be such a popular subject for poets, philosophers, songwriters, and scientists, and questions just how healthy our attitudes are and whether there may in fact be more sane, less tortured ways to love. A highly informative exploration of how, throughout time, principally in the West, the symptoms of mental illness have been used to describe the state of being in love, this book offers an eloquent, thought-provoking, and endlessly illuminating look at one of the most important aspects of human behavior.4
Tallis traces the sickness-making version of pairbonding to its origin in the middle ages, and rightly suggests there are less tortured ways to love. Humans have loved less tortuously in the long past, and we might hope it’s possible to relate that way again in the stability and simplicity of a secure attachment. To love in that way however requires a slaying the dragon; finding alternative modes of pairbonding to those we’ve been duped into following.
Recognition of supernormal stimuli and their proliferation in the modern world answers the Why question, which leads us naturally to the question of What – what can we do to manage this biological and cultural travesty? As concluded in our previous article we can begin by recognizing we’ve been hypnotized by a stage show of sound and light, and deciding that we no longer wish to indulge it. As we suggested there it’s as simple as choosing not to chase the dragon, but to slay it. In essence we can say the dragon represents our unmoderated appetite, given freely and stupidly over to the snares of superstimili, and our thus-far untapped discernment and discipline can serve as the sword of redress.
Slaying of the dragon demands we employ our substantial neocortexes which are designed for overriding primitive impulses that lead us willy nilly into pain and injury. With that we can construct a defensive, self-protective approach toward the activities and the people we might choose to associate with, activating the traditional values of restraint, delayed gratification, conservation and self-protection against the arrival of superstimuli in our field of vision.
Think of it this way. By overriding our knee-jerk attraction to the false neoteny created by women’s makeup and sexually exaggerated dress, we build in a defense against gynocentric obedience as well as a protective measure for screening out personality disordered women from our lives. That is one application of many.
By that path we find a way forward, but also strangely a way back – back to the protective values of past cultures; to Buddhist teachings about pleasure as an illusion and potential suffering; to the Christian teachings of the Seven Deadly Sins and how to resist them; or to the messages of classical myth which invite us to hold fast to our values like Odysseus who tied himself to the ship’s mast in order to resist the Siren’s call, knowing that all the boons of Penelope await him at Ithaca as a result of his intelligent avoidance of gratification.
 Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D. Talk on Supernormal Stimuli, at TAM 2012
 Discussion with Dierdre Barrett and Natasha Mitchell, Radio National Science, Technology and Culture Program, 2011
 Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology, Vol. 4 in Masks of God Series, 1959
 Frank Tallis Love Sick: Love as a Mental Illness, Da Capo Press, 2005 (GoodReads synopsis)