NEW ALBUM FROM YOUR BOY MRNES
A wise man rules his passions, a fool obeys them.
Given the rapid pace of technology, one has to wonder whether or not our brains (and bodies) have been able to keep up with all the new “stimulation” that is available.
Some research suggests that a few of the things we enjoy today would be classified as supernormal stimuli, a term evolutionary biologists use to describe any stimulus that elicits a response stronger than the stimulus for which it evolved, even if it is artificial—in other words, are sources of “super” stimulation like junk food and porn more likely to hook us into bad habits?
It is certainly a very muddy topic, but it’s a question that I believe deserves investigating.
After all, we’ve become increasingly surrounded by stimulation that wasn’t available even a few years ago, so are my mind and body really ready for Flavor Blasted Goldfish™ and never ending social media updates?
Before we get into the research, let’s summarize the concept a bit more clearly: what exactly is a supernormal stimulus?
The brilliant comic below will explain the basics, and will take you less than 2 minutes to read.
Be Aware: Supernormal Stimuli
Comic: by the insanely talented Stuart McMillen, published with permission. More about Stuart and his work at the bottom of the post.
When “Super” Stimulation Goes Wrong
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.
Here are a few common examples that are often brought into question:
(Note: please read the full article. I’m not saying that you should never engage with the following, or that the examples below are conclusive, or that they are the “norm,” not at all in fact! They are merely brought up out of curiosity.)
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 start consuming 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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
I echo Deirdre Barrett’s conclusion that sometimes it can feel more rewarding to say no to the supernormal, than to cave into impulse. Only awareness will help stop the supernormal from becoming what is ‘normal’ in our lives.
(Psst… you should subscribe to Stuart’s awesome newsletter to hear about a brand new comic he has coming out in 2014. Also, be sure to stop by his website and check out his other comics. He also has prints available for sale, I’ve purchase one myself and they are great. Well worth the very small price.)
You Decide What’s Normal
The “solution,” so it seems to me, is to simply to avoid habituation.
The real enemy here is complacency—or allowing yourself to become a victim of your habits, instead of the person in the driver’s seat.
C.S. Lewis has some insightful thoughts on this:
Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is.
After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of the wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down.
A man who gives into temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later.
It’s my personal opinion that mini-sabbaticals are a great way to test small dependencies on anything. The ability to go without in regards to things we choose to do is important because it puts you back in control.
Giving something up for just a small period of time can help you understand its place in your life, especially when it’s an optional activity. If you try to stay away from something for just a few days, and you find yourself becoming anxious and agitated, that could be your body telling you something important. If you can give it up “cold turkey” with no problem, that’s important information too!
So no, don’t panic and freak out. Just recognize that your brain can get hooked by the many sources of “super” stimulation we have today, and it’s your job to make sure you are always in control.
Those who do not move do not notice their chains.—Rosa Luxemburg
A wonder device can see the soul of a dead man pass away… or at least that’s what the inventor claims.
A publication of the popular Russian tabloid Life.ru gives a dramatic account of the experiments of an inventor from St Petersburg, who has created a device able to see human aura.
Accompanied by pictures suspiciously reminiscent of a series of thermal images of a woman at different temperatures, the report claims they are made with a special “gas discharge camera” built by Konstantin Korotkov, a professor at the Research Institute of Physical Culture and State University of Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics.The paper goes on to say that the device can register the circumstances of death, differentiating between a victim of a violent crime and a person who died quietly in bed. It also registers the changes in aura presumably made by a strong psychic working on somebody.Disregarding the glib comparison of the religious term “soul” with the new age “aura”, the claims – they can hardly even be expected to get support in peer-reviewed scientific papers in our opinion – prompted RT to take a little investigation into the wonder device.
The instrument, which was presented to us as something involved in the study of death, turned out to have been designed as a medical diagnosis tool. With about 15 years of development behind it, its inventor claims that it’s an affordable early-diagnosis tool, capable of identifying any disease, from an ulcer to a brain tumor, by scanning irregularities in an aura. Sort of a spiritual healer in metal and plastic, available to everyone for a small fee. No mystical stuff here – a patient can see his own aura on the computer screen, all thanks to the “gas discharge visualization” or GDV.
The spiffy name is actually modern application of a well-known phenomenon called Kirlian effect, named after Semyon and Valentina Kirlians, a Russian couple who greatly contributed to popularizing it back in 1960s. Kirlian experimented with photographing objects with high voltage applied to them.
The strong electric field causes faint corona discharges around the edges, which can even be seen with the naked eye. The visual appeal of the effect won the hearts of mystic-oriented people.
Starting with Kirlians themselves, many people claimed that the electrical phenomena was actually a way to visualize otherwise invisible auras of objects. Korotkov is one of these claimants. According to him, corona discharges around fingertips, which his GDV cameras cause, have information about one’s physical condition and this information can be used for diagnosis. The claim was never confirmed by clinical tests, but it didn’t prevent the device from becoming the cornerstone of a widespread business. With different models costing from $4,500 to $13,000, and official dealers all across Russia and abroad, the invention seems to generate enough cash for Korotkov to travel the world and promote his product.
Not for diagnosis
Meanwhile, critics openly call the GDV “quackery”. Back in 2002, when the device drew the attention of the Russian media, RTR TV channel (now called Rossiya) did an investigation of their own, producing a 20-minute-long report. They revealed that, in the testing of a GDV scanner done in the Military Medical Academy, one of the strong-points trumpeted by the producer was actually its ability to kill bacteria on hands, which it successfully did. It was never used for diagnosis of any kind.
Another selling point – the testing of the device on Russian sportsmen – showed that readings of the device may vary slightly with the state of mind of the subjects. As it does with variations in the environment, like a change of air temperature or humidity.
In an interview given to a newspaper two years ago Korotkov said his invention was like a knife: it could be used for good or for bad purposes. Indeed, the beautiful Kirlian effect can be used for dubious intentions, or for inspiring works of art like those of photographer Robert Buelteman here.
Source: The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace Wattles
“Since belief is all important, it behooves you to guard your thoughts; and as your beliefs will be shaped to a very great extent by the things you observe and think about, it is important that you should command your attention.
And here the will comes into use; for it is by your will that you determine upon what things your attention shall be fixed.
If you want to become rich, you must not make a study of poverty.
Things are not brought into being by thinking about their opposites. Health is never to be attained by studying disease and thinking about disease; righteousness is not to be promoted by studying sin and thinking about sin; and no one ever got rich by studying poverty and thinking about poverty.
Medicine as a science of disease has increased disease; religion as a science of sin has promoted sin, and economics as a study of poverty will fill the world Do not talk about poverty; do not investigate it, or concern yourself with it.
Never mind what its causes are; you have nothing to do with them. What concerns you is the cure.”
“Do not spend your time in charitable work, or charity movements; all charity only tends to perpetuate the wretchedness it aims to eradicate.
I do not say that you should be hard hearted or unkind, and refuse to hear the cry of need; but you must not try to eradicate poverty in any of the conventional ways. Put poverty behind you, and put all that pertains to it behind you, and “make good.”
And you cannot hold the mental image which is to make you rich if you fill your mind with pictures of poverty.
Do not read books or papers which give circumstantial accounts of the wretchedness of the tenement dwellers, of the horrors of child labor, and so on. Do not read anything which fills your mind with gloomy images of want and suffering.
You cannot help the poor in the least by knowing about these things; and the wide-spread knowledge of them does not tend at all to do away with poverty.”
“What tends to do away with poverty is not the getting of pictures of poverty into your mind, but getting pictures of wealth into the minds of the poor.
You are not deserting the poor in their misery when you refuse to allow your mind to be filled with pictures of that misery.
Poverty can be done away with, not by increasing the number of well to do people who think about poverty, but by increasing the number of poor people who purpose with faith to get rich.”
The poor do not need charity; they need inspiration.
Charity only sends them a loaf of bread to keep them alive in their wretchedness, or gives them an entertainment to make them forget for an hour or two; but inspiration will cause them to rise out of their misery.
If you want to help the poor, demonstrate to them that they can become rich; prove it by getting rich yourself.
People must be taught to become rich by creation, not by competition. Every man who becomes rich by competition throws down behind him the ladder by which he rises, and keeps others down; but every man who gets rich by creation opens a way for thousands to follow him, and inspires them to do so.
You are not showing hardness of heart or an unfeeling disposition when you refuse to pity poverty, see poverty, read about poverty, or think or talk about it, or to listen to those who do talk about it.
Use your will power to keep your mind OFF the subject of poverty, and to keep it fixed with faith and purpose ON the vision of what you want.”
Again and again I see talented people with ideas they want to share – books they want to write, talks they want to give, businesses they want to launch – holding back because they think they “don’t know enough” about their topic.
“After all,” they reason, “there are real experts on this out there – and I’m not one of them.” They’re thinking about the people with advanced degrees and decades of deep experience working in the field.
In fact, that’s just one type of expert — “the specialist.” There are three other kinds of experts that make world-changing contributions, without specialist training.
You are likely one of these four types of expert, when it comes to the work you most want to do. As you read, identify which type (or types) of expertise you could bring to the projects you are currently pursuing as well as those that you want to pursue:
1. The Survivor
You’ve been through something, learned a heck of a lot along the way, and now you are on fire to share what you’ve learned. Maybe, like best-selling author Kris Carr, you lived through cancer and want to write about your path to health. Maybe, like Jonathan Fields, you’ve started a few businesses and want to share insights about entrepreneurship.
“Survivors” often worry that their personal experience is not enough to earn them credibility or allow them to make a meaningful contribution, but consider these powerful strengths of this source of authority: You have an ability to move and connect with your audience that most formal experts on your topic don’t have. You can provide inspiration and role-modeling– not just information. You have insider insights that will help you create a more compelling offering for your audience.
But, be careful, here’s where you could get in your own way: it’s easy to over-generalize from your experience to that of others. If “survivor” is your source of expertise, tell your story as powerfully as you can, and pass on your lessons learned as just that – without making claims on having the truth or the solutions for everyone. People will listen up simply because you are honestly sharing what did and didn’t work for you.
2. The Cross Trainer
When an athlete cross-trains,they “train in a sport other than the one that they compete in, with a goal of improving overall performance.” In our context, the “cross trainer” is the physicist who takes a look at a problem in medicine, the family therapist who writes about fixing dysfunctional teams at work. Cross trainers have deep expertise in field “x,” and bring ways of thinking from field “x” to bear as they look at field “y.” Business leaders Whitney Johnson and Clay Christensen each apply theories on business development to personal development. Tom Ford applied his expertise in fashion design to cinematography when he created the stunning film, A Single Man.
Cross trainers make interdisciplinary connections and drive innovation. They see the blind spots of the conventional thinking in the field they’ve turned their attention to.
However, if you are a cross trainer, here’s where to watch out: you may miss seeing how insights from your field of expertise are not applicable to your new topic. For example, many MBAs have hindered nonprofits by assuming that all the planning tools and metrics used in a business should be applied to nonprofits to make them more efficient.
For cross-trainers, the charge is to be bold in asking provocative questions and making interdisciplinary leaps, but humble about the applicability of anything across fields. Focus on starting new conversations and prototyping cross-training-based solutions without assumptionsabout what will in fact apply across fields.
3. The Called
Then there are those people that dive into a project out of a sense of calling. They feel an inner, mysterious sense of “this work is mine to do.” Jessica Jackley felt outraged that conventional charity didn’t empower the poor to help themselves, and out of a persistent frustration with that status quo, and a sense of calling, began developing Kiva.org, now the world’s largest microfinance platform.
The called bring many gifts to their work. They have sustainable passion. They have vision and – perhaps most important – ardent dissatisfaction with the status quo where insiders may have become resigned.
The challenge for the called is to trust their sense of calling. That is particularly difficult when they can’t find a logical reason why they’re attracted to a project, or qualified for it. The called generally feel that they don’t have what they need – and they aren’t who they need to be – to complete their calling.
Their charge is to start anyway in whatever partial way they can. They also need to gather mentors to fill in knowledge gaps –those who support (and aren’t threatened by) an outsider bringing new ideas and vision.
4. The Specialist
In our culture, this type of authority is most validated and embraced. The specialist has formal training (degrees, certifications) or lots of work experience in the area of their project. They might also achieve their specialist knowledge by conducting extensive research on their topic.
Brene Brown, a professor of Social Work spent years conducting research on shame and vulnerability and now speaks and writes widely on these topics. Dr. Harriet Lerner honed her expertise with hundreds of clients in her private psychology practice before writing her best-selling books on our emotional lives.
The pluses of this kind of expertise are many: specialists have a sense of the standard industry knowledge on their topic. They have the benefit of industry networks. Because they’ve seen so many examples over the years, they can tell apart the trends and the outliers.
The downside? Specialists often get stuck in inside-the-box thinking. They can also get distracted with the politics of their field or in debates about minutiae. To avoid that, specialists must talk regularly with colleagues from related but different disciplines, and seek out rebels and dissidents at the margin of their fields, listening to their perspectives with an open mind.
Immeasurable contributions are lost because many of us think that #4 – formal training/work experience – is the only kind of legitimate authority. We usually don’t hold that belief when it applies to other people – we are thrilled to read that nonfiction book based on someone’s personal journey or to listen to the interesting TED talk by a cross trainer. But for ourselves? We think we don’t know enough.
To be sure, specialists are extremely important. We benefit enormously from living in an age when there is so much information available, when formal education is becoming more and more accessible, and when there are people with deep, specialized knowledge. All of that is invaluable – but it is not the only kind of value.
Identify which source – or sources – of expertise you bring to your current project. Leverage its strengths. Most of all, trust that it is enough – not because it enables you to know everything, but because it enables you to make the contribution you are uniquely qualified to make.
How about you?
How have you successfully framed your expertise?