Manga eyes, Facebook, Doughnuts and Multitasking
“Sola dosis facit venenum”
“The dose makes the poison”. Paracelsus
When you accelerate your car in the red zone, it suffers. If you do it too long, the engine breaks (or explodes). This is because you are pushing it outside its limits.
Humans in 2021 are cars with engines constantly pushed in the red zone. We are much more resilient than cars. But we break all the same. Instead of exploding in the next hour, we get chronic illnesses in the next decade.
Sometimes we don’t realize we are in the red zone. But most often we identify there is a problem. Yet we cannot take our foot off the gas. It’s stuck in the red zone apparently against our intent.
What is the reason?
The root of our problems: supernormal stimuli
A supernormal stimulus is a stimulus that by virtue of being larger or more intense than normally encountered natural stimuli has a greater behavioral effect than the natural stimuli. For example, a gull presented with its own egg and a much larger, artificial egg will attempt to incubate the larger egg. — Definition by American Psychology Association
In short such a stimulus is an exaggeration of natural stimuli.
Scientists have been studying supernormal stimuli in animal perception for a long time. They convince beetles to try to have sex with plastic objects and birds to sit on more vividly colored eggs than their own.
However it is much more interesting to observe how supernormal stimuli move our own human behaviour and are the foundation for most of present society.
Manga characters have excessively large eyes. Why? To hack your unconscious to feel an emotional bond with them.
Babies of many mammals have very large eyes compared to their faces. This is an evolutionary adaptation to force stronger empathy from adults. When we look into another person’s eyes, we identify with them at an emotional level. Bigger eyes, bigger effect.
Manga big eyes are a supernormal stimuli to trick your emotions. There are many other similar tricks used in visual arts.
Fashion and beauty industries
Are all about creating supernormal stimuli from the normal stimuli of your body. Clothes that make the posterior look more curvaceous while making the waistlines appear thinner. Makeup that creates supernormal facial features.
A study of 776 artistic portraits found that the human features were modified to supernormal levels (subtly).
Our problems do not stem so much from art, fashion or manga. They come from addiction.
We get fat and chronically ill because we cannot help ourselves from eating unhealthy food.
We get distracted and feel miserable because we cannot help ourselves from scrolling social media, binge-watching videos, browsing news and playing games.
We get tired and inattentive because we cannot help ourselves from multi-tasking.
We get lung cancer because we cannot help ourselves from smoking.
We become physically weak and sick because we cannot help ourselves from sitting instead of standing and moving.
All of these are supernormal stimuli. They are outside of your brain’s operating parameters.
Supernormal stimuli elicit excessive, addictive behaviour because they overload the senses you evolved over eons to make decisions in the world. They create excessive dopamine surges that prompt unconscious craving for that behaviour.
Supernormal stimuli creating addictions
There are many supernormal stimuli in today’s foodstuffs. I will focus on the most prominent: sugar.
Table sugar is half glucose, half fructose. Fructose was scarce in nature. Our ancestors got it in small quantities from fruits and honey. It is relatively similar to glucose, but processed by our body differently. Why?
Ancestors of our ancestors a long time ago developed a mutation that changed how they process fructose. It made fructose into a signal to gorge on all food in sight and put it all as fat. This came about as an ice age changed the climate and killed the year-long fruits which were their main sustenance. The fructose mutation allowed these primates to eat copious quantities of food in Autumn (when fructose was available in fruit) and put it on as fat. This fat then allowed them to survive the cold and food-depleted winter.
These ancestors had access to very little fructose and only on rare occasions. Our modern ubiquity of sugar is a supernormal stimuli. The same pathways that allowed them to make fat stores for winter, now makes compulsive obese eaters of junk food.
This is why sugar is in almost all packaged food.
Humans are compulsive learners. We crave information that we believe is relevant to our environment, especially the people around us. This information used to be scarce. Think of a hunter-gatherer in the savannah. All the information he gets is from his sense.
Now we drown in information. It’s a neverending stream of data assaulting your senses.
We evolved to crave information. But the modern deluge overwhelms our system by a huge margin. It’s a supernormal stimuli by itself. One that we cannot resist.
Specific digital platforms and content have specific additional supernormal stimuli. Social media uses need for belonging, need to know what the tribe does and random rewards. Video is in itself a supernormal stimulus. Gaming provides hyper-feedback.
Sitting too much
Our ancestors did not have chairs. The ground had insects. When they rested, most of the time they squatted. Their work was all physical. The every day job of survival involved varied physical exercise of many different kinds.
We evolved to like to rest and sit whenever possible. This is because our ancestors had less opportunity to sit and stronger motivation to move (eating).
Now chairs and the fact that physical movement is not needed for survival are supernormal stimuli. Ones that keep you static in your chair even though in time it makes you feeble and sick.
What to do?
Stop feeling guilty for your self-harmful behaviours. It is not you. It your unconscious hijacked by supernormal stimuli.
But then you should not be complacent. We don’t have to be victims of external stimuli. We have enormous power over our own environment.
Self improvement does not come from willpower or positive affirmations. It comes mainly from knowledge and designing an environment which prompts the desired behaviours, not the harmful ones.
Remove or minimize supernormal stimuli that lead you to addictive behaviour. Then you can even use this knowledge to create supernormal stimuli that lead you to positive behaviour.
How about a learning method that you cannot help but do every day, not because you think you should but because you crave it? Or an exercise program that does the same?
If you like this, share it with your friends. If it makes you think, share your thoughts with me.