By Alexandra Reich
A supernormal stimulus is a stimulus that elicits an unusually heightened response from an animal. Supernormal stimuli can be easily observed in nature. Nikolas Tinbergen first discovered the existence of supernormal stimuli over the course of several experiments. He found that herring gulls, when presented with an artificially large egg intentionally sized larger than what a herring gull could possibly produce, would take care of the fake egg instead of their own. When presented with two eggs in nature, herring gulls are likely motivated to take care of the larger one in order to hatch a larger chick, which would have a better chance of survival. The gulls have not been conditioned to conceive an upper limit of preferred egg size because eggs that are too large for the gulls to take care of are never produced in nature. They are unable to conceptualize the potential disadvantage in taking care of an egg that is artificially large. Tinbergen found trends of supernormal stimuli in other animals as well, occurring in certain kinds of fish and butterflies. Humans, like animals, can be enraptured by disadvantageous supernormal stimuli.
In industrialized nations, one human equivalent of supernormal stimuli corresponds to technological advances, which are relatively recent considering the timeline of evolution. Television, social media sites, and the wide availability of new information on the Internet have the tendency to draw in users for hours every day. According to one study, American adults, on average, spend over five hours total on digital media per day.
Movies and television shows hook the brain through the human capacity for emotion. Essentially, movies and television shows are abstract or lifelike pixilated images moving across a screen, yet people are so allured by the artificial characters’ personalities and struggles that they can react to the show with real emotions. A term coined by Jeffery Zachs, the “Mirror Rule,” explains the human tendency to imitate the facial expression, and to some extent, the emotion, of the human it is interacting with. Zachs argues that this rule can be applied to the characters in movies to invoke emotional responses from audience members. This concept may be applicable to human evolutionary behavior. As television was introduced relatively recently compared to how long humans have existed, human brains have evolved to be wired for face-to-face social interaction. Television shows or movies simulating human interaction that is either more interesting or more desirable than what people normally encounter could serve as a supernormal stimulus, enticing the human brain and drawing that individual away from their less interesting non-televised life.
In moderation, the consumption of imagined situations or artificial worlds is not necessarily negative. However, prolonged exposure to the supernatural stimuli of virtual Internet worlds can result in addiction. Not only is Internet addiction a legitimate condition, it is estimated to affect six percent of the population worldwide. Similar to the herring gull that cannot resist the allure of the artificially large egg, Internet addiction is an “impulse control problem” in which the affected individual prefers the ease of interacting via the internet over face-to-face societal interaction.
Online video games are a major source of Internet addiction. Theoretically, it makes sense that a video game, particularly a violent one, could act as a super stimulus. Players have the heightened experience of dominance by ‘killing’ artificial enemies without actually risking their own lives, social standing, or a potential prison sentence in the process. The only factor at risk is the virtual progress of their electronic avatar. In addition to the dominance factor, Chatfield argues in his TED talk that successful games stimulate dopamine receptors in the brain as a result of the human evolution to appreciate rewards for effort and problem-solving tasks.
Some countries have taken action against Internet addiction. To look at an extreme example, in South Korea there is a functioning summer camp intended to alleviate children’s dependence on the Internet. Jump Up Internet Rescue School is a tuition-free program that offers participants directed physical exercise as well as other offline hobbies in order to show children that they can have fun outside the confines of the online world. Interventions such as these have the potential to work well because they will reduce the sometimes drastic gap between real life stimuli and internet stimuli by having children participate in a variety of activities. Internet addiction has also been treated in the U.S. with similar mechanisms.
Internet addiction is the result of the human brain’s lack of evolutionary adaption to the supernormal stimuli presented by technology. Just as animals are unable to resist these enhanced stimuli, humans follow suit, employing technology to the point of physical health depravity and social isolation. While advancements in technology have proven beneficial to society in a variety of fields, it does present its limitations.
Image by Michael Mandiberg