The notion of a supernormal stimulus may seem fairly foreign to some, yet a quick look at modern Western society can readily yield recognizable examples. Artificial foods and clothing, beauty treatments, even objects presented as sexual desire online or in a magazine have been criticized by many for their impact on the quality and fulfillment of modern life. Recently, a psychologist with Harvard University has published a book discussing these supernormal stimuli and the role that they play in today’s lifestyles and mental environment. Much of the psychologist’s research is based on animal models, and she points out that supernormal stimuli are absent within the natural environment of animals. Within the human world, however, a large focus on artificial products and experiences can make it seem difficult to escape.
The psychologist points to studies involving animals that, when overstimulated, will begin to prefer items that are not real to those which are authentic, even to the point of what might seem like absurdity. A study involving birds found that those who were over stimulated began to exhibit a preference for over-sized polka-dotted eggs that were vastly different from their own, and the birds even allowed their true eggs to fall from the nest as they worked to protect the artificial stand-ins. Similar studies with a wide variety of animals have showed that when certain instincts involving an item that registers as rare or desirable are activated, strange and potentially undesirable behaviors often result.
The new book explores how human psychology throughout evolution has reacted to supernormal stimuli, and the psychologist makes the argument that in the modern era, when practically anything imaginable is able to be obtained, and commodities that were once extraordinarily rare can be purchased with a fair degree of ease, an overexposure to these stimuli may account for many of the social and personal concerns with which people find themselves grappling.
© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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