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Supernormal Stimuli: Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?by@rtheory
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Supernormal Stimuli: Are We Amusing Ourselves to Death?

by rtheory.xyzMay 7th, 2024
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The great challenge of our century is learning to consume less. Who has never killed an hour? Not casually or without thought, but carefully: a premeditated murder of minutes.
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Man dies after 3-day internet gaming binge. Influencer dies after binge drinking on livestream. Fast food is killing you slowly. It is surprising that we have ended up in this place, isn’t it? While video games can’t directly kill you, superstimuli can contribute to your descent. The activity is incidental, so no hard feelings, right? It is weird to see how internet cafes are now closer to the windowless casinos in Las Vegas.


Bright lights. Loud music. People need to yell at each other to communicate. No clocks. No sense of time. No direction.


The great challenge of our century is learning to consume less. Who has never killed an hour? Not casually or without thought, but carefully: a premeditated murder of minutes. The violence comes from a combination of giving up, not caring, and a resignation that getting past it is all you can hope to accomplish. So you kill the hour. You do not work, you do not read, you do not daydream.


If you sleep, it is not because you need to sleep. And when at last it is over, there is no evidence: no weapon, no blood, and no body. The only clue might be the shadows beneath your eyes or a terribly thin line near the corner of your mouth indicating something has been suffered, that in the privacy of your life, you have lost something and the loss is too empty to share.

First Development

A life on the savannah 10,000 years ago shaped people’s instincts for food, sex, and guarding their territory. These instincts were not designed for a life in a society filled with sophisticated technology and a lot of people. Our natural tendencies have not had enough time to adapt to the rapid pace of change that characterizes the contemporary world.


In physiology, which is the scientific study of functions and mechanisms in a living system, a stimulus is something that causes a physiological response and bringing detectable change in the chemical or physical structure of an organism’s internal or external environment. Our ability to detect a change in the internal or external environment is called sensitivity or excitability and has played a huge role in our evolution, as it can produce systemic responses throughout the entire body.


As a sub-discipline of biology, physiology focuses on how organisms, organ systems, individual organs, cells, and biomolecules carry out the chemical and physical functions in a living system. According to the classes of organisms, the field can be divided into medical physiology, animal physiology, plant physiology, cell physiology, and comparative physiology.


In the 1950s, Niko Tinbergen, a biologist and ornithologist, started carrying out a series of studies (later turned into a book) in which he designed what we now call supernormal stimuli. The stimuli consisted of unnatural representations of beaks and eggs, as well as other biologically significant objects that were painted, primed, and magnified.


In these tests, young herring gulls showed greater interest in pecking at large red knitting needles than at adult herring gull beaks. This was likely due to the fact that the knitting needles were more vibrantly colored and longer than the beaks themselves. If you view present-day movies as a herring gull, then sex, violence, and adrenaline are your fake knitting needles. Similarly, if you view present-day junk food as a herring gull, then the multi-colored processed food is your fake knitting needle.


Second Development

Richard Dawkins, a student of Tinbergen’s, gave the dummy a rounder and more pear-shaped appearance, which prompted a bigger amount of desire. He referred to these playthings as “sex bombs.” Outside of the laboratory, male Australian jewel beetles have been seen attempting to have sexual relations with beer bottles made of glossy brown glass, as the light reflections on the bottles match the form and color of female beetles.

Jewel beetles attempting to copulate with beer bottles


Dawkins and John Krebs used the phrase “supernormal stimulus” in 1979 to describe the amplification of pre-existing indicators generated by social parasites, using the manipulation of baby birds (hosts) to show the power of these signals. Normal stimuli are things that animals have evolved to react to in certain ways over the course of their evolutionary history.


Supranormal stimuli disrupt these normal responses because they amplify the features of the stimuli that the animals are adapted to react to. This causes the animals’ normal responses to be distorted.


Even when I go fishing nowadays, I am almost forced to adapt - to buy the right kind of artificial bait to excite the fish. Now, animals routinely change or exaggerate traits in order to attract, imitate, frighten, or defend themselves from members of the same species, as shown by research on the evolution of signaling. For example, female firefly species mimic the light patterns of other firefly species’ females, causing males from those other species to attempt to copulate with the deceptive females, who then eat them.


However, only humans are capable of engaging in conscious manipulation of signals in real-time using customized instruments, as opposed to relying on gradual genetic changes that have occurred over evolutionary time. In the world of humans, the existence of remarkable artificial signals produced by more sophisticated cultural tools is something to be wary of.

Superstimuli and Beauty

All we need to do is compare photoshopped images to the unretouched originals, the perceptions of the same face with and without cosmetics. Artificially created exaggerations can be quite effective in eliciting heightened positive responses that may be consequential such as making one buy a specific product. A growing body of evidence suggests the way women’s beauty ideals are constructed and prescribed varies with such factors as socioeconomic status, gender role stereotyping, and sexual orientation.


By contrast, research on what constitutes an attractive male body has not received the same level of attention despite evidence that both women and men hold strong beliefs about male attractiveness. Indeed, women tend to prefer men whose torso have the shape of an inverted triangle, that is a narrow waist and a broad chest and shoulders, in keeping with physical strength and muscle development in the upper body and with the societal internalization of muscularity ideals.

Superstimuli as Food

A cereal bar is a superstimulus. It has a higher concentration of sugar, salt, and fat than anything in the environment of our ancestral hunter-gatherers. The flavor of a cereal bar resembles the taste buds that evolved in that hunter-gatherer environment but in a much more intense way than anything that really existed back then. The original signal connecting taste to nutrition has been hacked - masked by a point in taste space absent from our evolutionary history.


This proves almost irresistible to humans. Now, tech companies use subliminal advertising to collect personal data and serve you the optimal cereal bar. Even if you dislike cereal bars, they’ll push another product, since a few companies own the world’s most popular brands. Not a cereal bar fan? Try a chocolate chip cookie. On a diet? Have some nutritious water. Maybe with some Honest Tea too.


Now that we can get far more than we need with little effort, our evolved neediness serves us poorly, but there is no evolutionary mechanism to rid ourselves of these powerful desires, so we become fatter and fatter, along with the profits of fast food corporations. The Heart Attack Grill: You don’t simply want to eat at a restaurant anymore. What we now have is a combination of eating, entertainment, and even punishment. You feel like a rock star. You are receiving all of these stimuli just by eating food.

Superstimuli in Tech

In tech, there’s a whole new level of superstimuli. Oftentimes, when I stare almost mindlessly into my tiny phone doing things, I feel like I’m having an out-of-body experience. The world fades away, and I lose track of where I am. Then, when I look up, I’m astonished to remember I’m still in the same world. Sometimes, it can feel like everything happening to you is not actually happening to you, but rather to an alternate specter version bombarded by superstimuli.


This specter lives inside your password-protected device, in the world of data. You rarely have to resurface to the real world just to maintain a conversation, check the traffic light, or pay as you’re next in line. But that’s not the real you for now - that’s just a superficial copy willing to give the real world a chance. And if the world’s not that interesting, you retreat back into your device. But when you wake up, the specter, the ghost does not suffer, as everything transfers over. So you get to pay. You slowly become the projection.


Your urge to check Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and other future platforms. Devices become faster, with slower queue times and fast responsiveness. No more button pressing and feeling there’s a layer you have to pass. The touch screen is fast and makes it more addictive. Knowing that whatever you can do, you can do it fast, makes you more willing to stay there and do more. Sometimes, it feels so random that you have to follow random threads.

Randomness Is Addictive

Randomness is addictive, in rats.

Sometimes employees at Netflix think, ‘Oh my god, we’re competing with FX, HBO, or Amazon’ … [W]e actually compete with sleep. ~ Reed Hastings, Chairman of the board of directors of Netflix


And randomness is addictive, in rats. Addiction is also fueled by randomness, a characteristic that’s not only cherished by humans. Burrhus Frederic Skinner, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, discovered that - yes, randomness is addictive - by simply studying the minds of rats. Skinner developed boxes with levers attached so that when the rat pressed the lever, food pellets were dispensed.


Rat happy. He also developed another set of boxes where when a lever got pressed, the result was not one pellet, but it could also be none, or many pellets. Sounds familiar? This is the heart of gambling. This is why TikTok is recommendation-based. You do not know what you are going to get. And this is why other digital casinos switched their strategy as well. Recommendation based, not chronology based. These companies generally decide what you can get. They also decide if you can decide or not.


TikTok engineers have created an app that is extremely bingeable. It caters to interests you had no idea you had. It sifts through an infinite ocean of content to find the videos that will make you say “just one more.” It is the equivalent of a dopamine drip. TikTok, on the other hand, wants me to believe that my willpower and their timer are all I need to limit my usage. You can do a quick exercise right now and look at the app usage on your smartphone. Most of you probably won’t do it, as we are inherently afraid of the truth.


I am not saying that you cannot learn stuff, but most of it is going to be rather trivial. I remember that at some point someone sent me a 30 to 60-second TikTok video talking about physics and quantum mechanics and the origins of the Universe. And while the intention was good, I could not help but wonder about the percentage of people who actually remember something from that video, as most of us are still struggling when creating spaced repetition decks to remember a few words when learning a new language.


TikTok, and other similar companies, are creating screen time tools as a first step in their journey down the path of arguing that addictions are personal failings and overcoming them is a personal responsibility. The same way global warming is on you. You have to recycle, you have to dim the lights. So you have to fight it by installing blockers, and try to unplug yourself more often. You have to stay on guard, as your persecutors are getting stronger.

Social Media Is Nicotine

I had been equating social media with “digital nicotine,” but the casino metaphor substantially improves upon that notion. Nicotine is a natural substance that triggers parts of our brains that cause us to want more of it. The main point of cigarette corporations is to determine the best delivery platform (shape, size, flavor, etc.) and profit off our brains’ response. We created new types of casinos to be like miniature amusement parks for our minds. They now push buttons like “family,” “status,” etc., instead of buttons like “pleasure” or “relax.”


It seems to me that social media is on a completely new level than the good old nicotine when coupled with instant feedback loops that may optimize the input for each distinct user in real-time. TikTok, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and possibly all upcoming social media apps are worse than cocaine in some ways because cocaine is always cocaine.


The white powder does not track how you use it or change itself so that the way it comes to you becomes more addictive in ways that are purposefully imperceptible to you. And even if you might not fit the type of individual who can easily get addicted to Social Media, that’s ultimately an engineering problem.


“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” one of Facebook’s engineers dryly notes. ~ Jeff Hammerbacher

The Dark Flow

Ultimately, these activities are getting you into a state of flow. In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by the complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting transformation in one’s sense of time.


We also have the dark flow, which is a pleasurable, but maladaptive state where individuals become completely pulled in, providing an escape from the depressing thoughts that characterize their everyday lives. This is most commonly observed in the behavior of slot machine players, who have difficulties remaining on track in their regular life, but the reinforcing sights and sounds of slot machines rein in their otherwise wandering brains and create flow-like experiences.


Is there a difference between dark flow and good flow? Isn’t it the same thing, just in a different context? Well, it is not that simple. Some of the things the “white flow” and the “dark flow” have in common are losing time perception and the out-of-body experience, but the outcomes of being in each state are different.


The dark flow is easier to get into, and it is more predictable, but also harder to get out of. The dark flow surely feels similar to the white flow, with your senses sharpened, fast reaction time, and speedier progress — but you are still reacting to the inputs. You have rules, you have the feedback, but you are missing the challenge-skill balance. You can obtain the flow without skill, this is why it is so addictive, as everyone can do it.


Watching a 20-minute video is harder as it requires large amounts of attention in today’s world, and to get something out of it requires contemplation, thought, and critical thinking, while a 30-second video gives you the illusion of deep learning and does not put any pressure on you. Getting into the flow when, say, writing an essay is hard. You have to prepare your stuff, you have to be organized, you have to collect resources, read, and comprehend. You oftentimes, have to stop and think, read it again, and struggle to keep yourself there.


The activity needs to be balanced so that it is not easy enough but also not too hard to make you stop. It needs to be tuned to give you enough frustration but also enough evidence that you can do it; you can complete the objective. When learning a language using an app such as Duolingo, the basic stuff works great and keeps you in the zone. Because the mental activity is so simple, setbacks and mistakes are minimal and small enough to be assimilated into at least a semi-flow state.


However, it does not appear to work when you get to the rough part of the learning curve, which is more about hard work and clean focus – and there are no apps in that region. Duolingo will teach you a language, but it will end before you get a passing mark. Same with the intro level materials on other learning platforms: you may acquire the basic/starting stuff extremely well, but in any field I’ve seen them handle, they quit exactly when it becomes challenging, at the point of transition from amateurism to beginning professional levels of ability.


In short, the failure of a positive flow state will either make you transition to a normal state, or stop, take a break, and maybe reset.


On the other hand, the frustration you get during a dark flow state will lead the individual back into the game to play harder, and scroll harder — as maybe — just maybe — you will get something astonishing with the next input. The white flow has a clearer endpoint; a clear goal. The chess player will drop out of the flow when the game is over. A climber when reaching the top of the mountain. A surgeon when finishing the surgery. Gambling has no clear finish line. You are playing to extinction.

Superstimuli as Coping Mechanisms

Perhaps we might consider these activities to be instruments that we use for a number of reasons. And other people just keep returning to that easily accessible peak of realization, to the point that that brief significant ascent becomes the structural axis of their life, around which all other priorities are ordered and all other things are appraised.


These superstimuli are coping mechanisms to escape life. What gamification appears to accomplish is to increase an activity’s natural attractiveness; it’s a pleasant façade that occasionally covers the steep slope of the effort/returns function.


Isn’t the “black flow” what happens when a low-effort steam-blowing “fun” pastime becomes the dopaminergic pinnacle of an otherwise bleak existence? Prisons: if you had no super stimuli, would the life of prison inmates be the same? This is a question without a proper answer as I do not have the date outlining the current state of an inmate’s brain distortion due to subhuman prison conditions, but I do know that — generally - the prison system is pretty screwed. A cow uses VR goggles in an attempt to reduce anxiety. How bad is this? It obviously depends on the type of fence you are looking from.


Exaggeration is persuasive; subtlety exists in its shadows.

Is There Such Thing a Good Superstimuli?

Saying “No” is not that easy. But how do you end it?


Resisting any temptation takes the conscious expenditure of an exhaustible supply of mental energy.


  • It is not in fact true that we can “just say no” - not just say no, without cost to ourselves. Even humans who win the birth lottery for willpower or foresight still pay a price to resist temptation. The price is just more easily paid.


  • What gets measured, gets managed.


  • While checking my Apple Watch, I am more inclined to work out as I get rewarded by the small machine. Sure it is not much, but it is still a bump in the right direction. I am still overstimulated by colors and charts to help me move forward.

Start Small

  • Delete your social media apps from your phone to add friction.


  • When working on the computer, install extensions to block superstimuli-themed websites.


  • Scramble the apps on your phone to remove the default process of unlocking the phone and tapping an app without thinking, just by knowing where it is.


If it’s feasible for designers to enhance the addictiveness of gambling machines, couldn’t this same method be employed for other applications? If machines with detrimental effects can be made addictive, why can’t this principle be applied to create addictive, yet beneficial machines?


I have several hypotheses:

  • It’s possible that apps with virtuous purposes do cause addictions, but those addicted haven’t been recognized or quantified yet.


  • Maybe vices inherently have a stronger addictive pull compared to virtues.


  • It could be that all the skilled designers are employed by casinos, leaving those creating virtuous apps with less competent design talent.


  • The designers working on virtuous apps might lack the necessary intelligence to create addictive products. I’m uncertain which of these possibilities holds true.

Addiction to Exercise

People can become completely addicted to exercise. This is especially noticeable in the case of extreme endurance athletes. Take, for example, the individual who chose to have his toes removed surgically to achieve the fastest run across the United States, or Lynne Cox, who endured hours in cold baths daily to prepare for her swim from Alaska to Russia. Indeed, I’ve experienced a strong attachment to exercising in the past.


Taking breaks, however, can expedite healing. I think most people are reluctant to push themselves to such limits - I love running, but excessive running or any kind of over-exercising is physically uncomfortable, which naturally caps its potential for addiction.

We Project What We Want to See and a Few Thoughts on Capitalism

With the rise of capitalism and consumer culture, subtlety has become a powerful weapon. Huge banners yelling at you to buy a product are no longer needed. People have become smarter in that regard. Now, advertisements need to be carefully packaged, polished, and nicely labeled to fit a specific category. There is a category tailored for everyone.


In the late 2000s, Mark Fisher, an English philosopher, and political/cultural theorist also known under his blogging alias k-punk, re-purposed the term “capitalist realism” to describe the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it. He expanded on the concept in his 2009 book “Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?” arguing that the term best describes the ideological situation since the fall of the Soviet Union.


In this situation, the logic of capitalism has come to delineate the limits of political and social life, with significant effects on education, mental illness, pop culture, and methods of resistance. The result is a situation in which it is “easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.”


Fisher writes:

Capitalist realism as I understand it … is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.

Capitalists maintain their power not through violence or force, but by creating a pervasive sense that the capitalist system is all there is. They maintain this view by dominating most social and cultural institutions.


Fisher proposes that within a capitalist framework, there is no space to conceive of alternative forms of social structures. He adds that younger generations are not even concerned with recognizing alternatives. He proposes that the 2008 financial crisis compounded this position; rather than catalyzing a desire to seek alternatives for the existing model, the response to the crisis reinforced the notion that modifications must be made within the existing system.


Fisher argues that capitalist realism has propagated a ‘business ontology’ which concludes that everything should be run as a business, including education and healthcare. Productivity is encouraged and cherished, but technology changed the game. You no longer have to go through a difficult or dangerous journey to become an adult; instead, you may avoid danger and have a comfortable life. This is an example of devolution. You can have a good time being a degenerate well into your 60s.


Pre-cooked foods, constant entertainment, and pornography have robbed us of our control over our behavior. Sure, one can blame late-stage capitalism for giving people too much of a good thing. Capitalism is to blame as people are overworked and seek escapism through these comfort devices. But we can see this type of gambling throughout history. You have ancient myths describing people and even Gods gambling to excess. Modern-day China is now a hub of late-stage capitalism. Same for ancient Greece or India.


But maybe capitalism is the starting vehicle through which we can acquire life extension and even immortality. There is - of course - a debate on whether or not acquiring immortality is even what we ought to do. If you are familiar with J.R.R Tolkien’s Silmarillion or Lord of The Rings, you’d probably know that humans have the shortest life span. That makes them competitive, greedy, and weak. Elves on the other hand are one with nature and are not bound to what humans praise. In Tolkien’s world, there was a place where the immortal Elves and Ainur lived:


Men would feel that they were the least and most despised of all creatures, He would not value what he had, but feeling that he was among the least and most despised of all creatures, he would grow soon to contemn his manhood, and hate those more richly endowed. He would not escape the fear and sorrow of his swift mortality that is his lot upon Earth, in Arda Marred, but would be burdened by it unbearably to the loss of all delight.


Saruman said: “A man of Rohan? What is the house of Rohan but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek and rats roll on the floor with the dogs?” Perhaps Tolkien was onto something. Men are weak.


Cutting-edge entertainment technology has the potential to induce widespread sterility, wireheading, population decrease, and extinction. Given the heritability of media consumption habits, any such impact would result in rapid human adaptation, implying that extinction is practically impossible absent an abrupt collapse or, maybe, exponentially expanding addiction.


I sometimes feel that a combination of steampunk tech and hunter-gatherer tech could fit our needs. I imagine being like Donatello from the Ninja Turtles, wearing his rugged but so effective pieces of tech and employing them only during times of need.

I feel like we need a different type of tech to incorporate the poor in the hills. The smartphone/internet seems a decent start. But we need to ask ourselves: can we live completely off-grid successfully by leveraging more portable devices that are not WiFi-dependent? The smartphone will be almost dead without that. What about living completely on the sea? On a macro scale, tech is ruined if you have to connect to WiFi.


Having something like Wikipedia available offline can catapult one forward and allow for faster bootstrapping if, say, you want to rebuild civilization. Let’s aim to decentralize the world instead of creating systems that leak power. Our current systems involve humans & maintenance, but maybe we can solve this with AI?


In the end, evolution is essentially a historical-statistical macrofact about which predecessors truly reproduced. These genes then continue to function as before. Consequently, the organism’s behavior is often better explained in terms of what was successful in the past rather than what might be effective in the future. The organism’s genes are, indeed, the product of past success, not future functionality. Do superstitions contribute to behavioral addictions?


At the very least, they frequently squander time and money with deceptive promises. We find ourselves going down rabbit holes in search of unnecessary information or buying additional items that appear exciting but offer little genuine value. Less obviously, they can negatively impact our responses to natural stimuli, such as prioritizing fast food over nutritious meals, photoshopped models over ordinary people, games and entertainment over the slow pleasures of reading novels and nonfiction, and an unexamined, frenetic lifestyle over a thoughtful one.


Perhaps we should shift our focus away from the ‘supernormal’ and towards the ‘subtle’ and ‘fine,’ encouraging a closer inspection and deeper appreciation of the beauty and benefits concealed within the ordinary. Ultimately, the final question remains: Do you truly understand what you are consuming, or are you simply ingesting whatever comes your way?


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