Have you ever felt cheated or betrayed by somebody? How about a group of people? How about the entire humanity? That’s the kind of feeling you get after reading Supernormal Stimuli. The book is based on a theory of Supernormal Stimulus proposed by an ethologist, Dr. Nikolass Tinbergen.
Essentially, the theory and the book explain how centuries of evolution has wired us to be attracted towards certain kind of stimuli. These wirings of desire are inborn. We like to eat sweet things (like an apple) because they are high energy and we need energy to survive. We (guys) like hot chicks because the universe needs us to procreate and hence meddles with our brains and makes us crave for hot chicks. (a Discovery Channel Documentary – The Science of Sex Appeal, covers this in great detail). Similarly, we find babies cute because nature wants us to nurture babies & clean their poop and hence meddles with our brains to make us find them cute. All of these are essentially nature’s ways of incentivizing us to do dirty things, that we otherwise would probably never have done.
This meddling of my brain by nature isn’t what frustrates me. I mean, yeah I feel nature does cheat us big time with Stimuli, but it did, after all help in our evolution so at least some good came of it. What really bothers makes and makes me feel violated, is Supernormal Stimuli – The exploitation of these natural wirings by humans to produce higher levels of sense-gratification for non-evolutionary purposes. As an example, authors use Chocolate cake – a concentrated globule of elevated sweetness which is a supernormal stimulus as compared to the stimulus of a naturally sweet food like an apple. Similarly a hot, pimped up chick in high-heels and a smoldering dress with an unreal figure and ravishing hair & makeup is a Supernormal stimulus against an unornamented yet pretty girl in a simple dress and straight hair. In both of these examples, our natural wires have been atrifically sooper-charged and overheated to support a voltage that they weren’t designed to handle and don’t need to, for any useful purpose. The book describes examples from various spheres in life, where humanity itself has tried to play God or rather Super-God by trying to exploit these wirings created for evolution, instead using them for self-pleasure. Sugary syrups as drinks, fried & salty chips as foods, TV shows as social-contexts and video games as emotion-enhancers are all examples of supernormal stimuli. If I start observing my day-to-day activities, the percentage of these supernormal stimuli as compared to regular stimuli is surprisingly out of balance. That, in essence is what makes me feel screwed by humanity.
The famous philosopher Dr. Daniel Dennett has explained the same in his very popular Ted Talk and given a more detailed lecture on his comprehensive theory of Humor as having its roots in Supernormal Stimuli in these videos. The Hurley Model of Humor as it’s called, is considered the state of the art in the Philosophy of Humor described in another great book – Inside Jokes. Its assertion is that, in order to make decisions our mind has to do something like a depth first search in a large mental tree and that humor helps us eliminate some faulty branches in that tree by producing a nice physiological reaction to some blatantly obvious faulty paths. This physiological reaction of mirth is an incentive for the ‘debugging’ (as the authors call it) of our rational-judgement/opinion-forming mental-models. Comedians and Comedy-shows exploit this by creating a Supernormal stimuli for mirth. They build a mental model and then take/force us to cut some blatantly faulty branches, creating humor in the process. In a morally agnostic world, comedy (or any supernormal stimuli based pleasure) is quite akin to masturbation, in the author’s view.
Imagine a world where exploitation of these wirings would be prohibited or at least controlled. Basic stimuli arguably have a place even in a rational, evolved & civilized world like the one we inhabit, but exploiting them and creating supernormal stimuli is like force-feeding a choking person. Controlled supernormal stimuli also has its uses in some cases. But exploitation by unregulated supernormal stimuli , especially in the Physical and Emotional realms, by the food, entertainment, advertising and so many other institutionalized entities is causing way more harm than good. In my opinion, the world would surely be better off with a lot less supernormal stimuli. The Gita explains how the chains of desires originating from basic stimuli to our senses, mind and intellect are hard to get rid of. Supernormal stimuli add another stronger layer of entrapment to these chains.
So how does knowing all this affect me. Do I feel like Reagan from this scene in the Matrix?
Not really. I feel cheated as I mentioned earlier, but also “Now I Know!”. I can at least keep my eyes open and do a clear headed introspection after getting trapped by supernormal stimuli in the future (better still, correct my course during the action itself). I don’t have to blindly pull myself away from these supernormal stimuli as my Intellect hopefully has a very convincing story for my Mind, for it to willingly stay away from these overcharged wires. And I totally get that the pull of this supernormal stimuli won’t be as easy to get away from, but at least I’ll give it a shot. The next time she walks over in her sexy red dress (yes I’m a sucker for Matrix references!), with her amazing eyes, lustrous wavy hair, perfect body, high heels and that makeup hiding her tiniest blemishes, and asks you if you like her, I guess a more honest answer would be: “You’re a Supernormal Stimulus and the Universe has conspired for centuries & wired me up to like you. Of course I do! (Do I even have a choice ;P ?)”