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.