Not just normal… supernormal

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I’ve been catching up with podcasts recently, and was fascinated by For Good Reason‘s recent interview about supernormal stimuli with Dierdre Barrett.  She explains much about our problems as animals living in an artificial world: why we over-eat, why socialising online or by texting is more compelling than hanging out with our friends, why everything is louder and faster these days.

Essentially, Barrett researches the way that animals (including us) respond better to artificial over-stimulus than we do to natural levels of stimuli. We want saltier, sweeter, fattier food, bigger breasts, poutier lips, louder and more driving bass beats, faster cuts in our movies and more exciting roller coasters.  We want everything up to 11.  Hell, we want everything up to, 12, 13, 130 … faster, deeper, harder, MORE!

Two examples of animal responses to supernormal stimuli she cites are birds who ignore their own eggs in favour of bluer ones with bigger, blacker polkadots (how sweet, how stupid) and butterflies who boff card-board cut-outs and ignore the real lady butterfly flapping her wings enticingly nearby. How stupid. How ridiculous. How much does this explain about the porn industry?

Barrett’s soothing mantra is that we are people with brains and free-will, and are therefore able to overcome our response to the supernormal.  I was disappointed that Grothe didn’t challenge her on this. I like the way he inhabits the role of devil’s advocate to draw out his interviewees, but he ducked this one. There appears to be increasing evidence that free will is either an illusion or operates at trivial levels at best, which is something that Grothe is well aware of.  (A search for ‘free will’ in his previous podcasts at Point of Inquiry yields 117 hits). It is of course much easier for everyone if we act as if we have free will.  If we don’t, then all sorts of things about society will unravel. But that is another blog post for another day.

So while none of this was epiphanic, it deepened my awareness of the issues.  And if you don’t subscribe to Point of Inquiry or For Good Reason, and you like that kind of thing, then let me recommend them.

2 responses to “Not just normal… supernormal

  1. SonofRojBlake

    Hmm… Interesting observations, but they’re a tad general.

    “We want saltier, sweeter, fattier food”

    There are perfectly good evolutionary reasons for that one. Then again, I’m finding as I get older that what I actually crave is odd tastes, rather than extreme ones. Flash-fried scallops instead of king prawns, for instance, or tuna sashimi instead of battered cod.

    “bigger breasts, poutier lips”

    Your mileage will definitely vary on this one. I’ve never favoured either.

    “louder and more driving bass beats”

    I was never much the basshunter. Power chords for me.

    “faster cuts in our movies”

    No no no no no no NO! We do NOT want that! We GET that, but who says we want it? Grr.

    Interesting aside:

    One of the most significant things about this fight sequence from “The Matrix” is that, by Hollywood movie fight scene standards, there are very many FEWER cuts, in order to show off the actors’ prowess. Fast cuts would detract from the skills on display. But then (gulp) that movie is eleven years old. It was innovative at the time, but I can have a reasonable conversation about the merits of that fight scene with my girlfriend’s son, who was not born when the movie was released.

    “and more exciting roller coasters.”

    Well… OK, you got me. My adrenaline threshold is getting annoyingly high of late, though.

    “How much does this explain about the porn industry?”

    Not much, I think. Not that I know much about these things, but…

    Ach, who am I kidding?

    A decade or more ago, this might have been a valid point – but one of the biggest growth areas since the advent of the internet is “amateur” porn, featuring, for the most part, men and women who do not conform to the stereotypes. What does THAT say about the porn industry?

    (Then again, my point is possibly somewhat shot down by the fact that most of the people actually making money from being in porn are still exaggeratedly “conventionally attractive” women.)

  2. Yeah, they are general, but go to Blackpool and stroll upon the Prom, Prom, Prom (where the brass bands play: “Tiddely-om-pom-pom!”) and tell me they aren’t valid. Or look at People of Walmat dot com, com, com.

    Cheers anyway. 🙂

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