Forgot your password?

Surreptitious Supernormal Stimuli

By Edited Jul 16, 2016 1 2

Bigger Brighter Better?

Is supernormal stimuli behind many of the problems of the modern world? The answer is yes according to Deirdre Barrett Ph.D., who is an author and psychologist at Harvard medical School.

Barrett defines supernormal stimuli as "imitations that appeal to primitive instincts and, oddly, exert a stronger attraction than real things." The phrase "supernormal stimuli"  however, was first used by Niko Tinbergen in the 1930s, when he found that certain birds which lay small pale blue, speckled grey eggs, actually prefered to sit on fake giant, bright blue eggs, with black polka dots.

Supernormal Stimuli

Frenzy of Fake

He also found that mother birds preferred to feed a fake baby bird beak, which was larger and redder than their own baby chicks. Tinbergen used the word "supernormal stimuli", to describe these "imitations, which appeal to primitive instincts and, oddly, exert a stronger attraction than real things".

Animals, only experience supernormal stimuli when humans create it. We humans however, have crafted a world of supernormal stimuli around us, which has hijacked our natural drives and is luring us toward  extreme and excess. Think of casinos, sex toys, porn,  junk food, breast implants, video gaming, TV and films; just to name a few. Everything is larger than life and far removed from the life of the humans of the Pleistocene era, where we evolved.

Over Aroused

Venus of Willendorf
Supernormal stimuli is superarousing and overstimulating and can be addictive. Think of the many people who sit on the internet and watch porn, despite being in a relationship with a real, live person. Think of video gamers, who are so addicted to World of Warcraft, they have died rather than take the time to have a drink, eat, or go to the bathroom. Think of the many obese people, who tuck into mega size hamburgers and giant cola drinks. And what about the many people who sit at home, day after day, watching day time TV, where everything is new, shiny and perfect; they begin to believe this is the real world.
Humans may have a primal instinct to  look at the lines and curves of the human body, as it is probably driven by the procreation instinct. Early man too, seemed also compelled  to create his own supernormal examples of the female form, and yet this kind of stimulation is so intense and unrealistic, it can create a situation where reality and real women are not adequate anymore. More and more time is spent, looking at silicon enhanced, photo-shopped "barbie's" to get the huge neurochemical hit, which comes quicker and stronger than the "real life" experience.

 Super Normal Food

Compare the many foods of today, to those of ancient tribes like Australia's indigenous people, who ate foods like: berries, roots and insects. Today we have pizzas, burgers and lolly pops, which provide a huge sugar buzz or fat fest. Until recent times, most human groups operated in situations of scarcity. This created  a drive to eat more than we needed, as a buffer for the lean times. However, in the modern world, many of us can get more than enough to eat and are surrounded with energy laden "supernormal" food like: pies, cakes, ice cream and chocolate bars, not roots and whale blubber. The result is obesity.
We humans, have surrounded ourselves with so much supernormal stimuli, we take it for granted and think of it as normal. But just take some time and consider how pervasive supernormal stimuli is, when you look at the makeup laden face of your neighbour, the bleached white blonde hair and platform heals of the teen down the road, the succulent yellow corn in the supermarket lined up in rows, the buffed bodies of models and actors, with seemingly, ageless, flawless skin, and the giant Hummer which growls past ferrying a wedding party, drinking champagne. Do we really know what is "normal" anymore?


Apr 14, 2012 3:36am
This is so cool -- I had to go with the same Venus de Willendorf mental image for something I'd done recently as well. Good thought provoking piece. Thanks and a thumb.
Apr 14, 2012 4:04am
Thanks. You must admit Venus de Willendorf is fantastic art no matter how old she is.
Add a new comment - No HTML
You must be logged in and verified to post a comment. Please log in or sign up to comment.


  1. by Marnia Robinson & Gary Wilson Psychology Today. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cupids-poisoned-arrow/201106/vibrators-and-other-pleasures-when-moderation-fails: Vibrators and Other Pleasures: When 'Moderation' Fails What constitutes "moderation" for stimuli we didn't evolve with?, 2011.
  2. The Scientist Supernormal Stimuli. By Deirdre Barrett: http://classic.the-scientist.com/news/display/57144/, 2010.
  3. Ruud van der Bos The Evolutionary Perspectives on Eating and Overweight. .: Elsevier, 2006.

Explore InfoBarrel

Auto Business & Money Entertainment Environment Health History Home & Garden InfoBarrel University Lifestyle Sports Technology Travel & Places
© Copyright 2008 - 2016 by Hinzie Media Inc. Terms of Service Privacy Policy XML Sitemap

Follow IB Health