Supranormal stimuli

The pornography of high speed internet is changing men, their brains, their moods and their sexuality. In Japan the country with the best high speed internet 36.1 percent of Japanese males, aged 16 to 19, had no interest in sex whatsoever — up from a 2008 record of 17.5 percent. We live in an era of “supernormal stimuli.” As Dr. Deirdre Barrett explains in her 2010 book of that title,

The most dangerous aspect of modernity arises from our ability to refine things. This is the link to drug, alcohol, and tobacco addictions. Coca doesn’t give South American Indians health problems when they brew or chew it. No one’s ruined his life eating poppy seeds. When grapes and grains were fermented lightly and occasionally, they presented a health pleasure, not a hazard. Salt, fat, sugar, and starch are not harmful in their natural contexts. It’s our modern ability to concentrate things like cocaine, heroin, alcohol—and food components—that turns them into a menace that our bodies are hard-wired to crave.

The answer is not shame for these instincts. Appreciate these instincts, because they are the reason our ancestors got us here today. But realize we now live in a world we were not made for and use that powerful cortex to adapt. In the 1930s Dutch Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen found that birds that lay small, pale blue eggs speckled with grey preferred to sit on giant, bright blue plaster dummies with black polka dots. He coined the term “supernormal stimuli” to describe these imitations that appeal to primitive instincts and, oddly, exert a stronger attraction than real thing.

If we’re not careful we’ll trade what’s real for plastic.

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