Deirdre Barrett


On her book Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose

Cover Interview of July 18, 2010


We need to begin to engineer our environment back to something more like what we were designed for and also to notice and resist whatever Supernormal Stimuli inevitably remain around us.  Collectively we can decide to make our environment more walkable, to tax or even ban junk food, to reduce televisions blaring around us.  We can broadcast the opinions, similarity, humanity of people across world, train people to be automatically wary of leaders asking us to fight another group of humans pretty much like ourselves.

Individually, just identifying the supernormal stimuli out there is a crucial first step.  We don’t have to just “listen to our instincts,” we can exercise will power—almost a dirty word in these days, but a trainable skill shown to help habitual problems.  That’s what our giant brains were designed for—overriding reflexive instincts when they start to lead us astray.

In a world increasingly designed to stimulate hunger, sexual arousal, and acquisitiveness, chasing the supernormal is a losing game.  It’s not anti-hedonistic to rein in, or redirect, instincts.

Our pleasure system is robust and very flexible.  Scientific studies show that people experience similar levels of happiness long-term regardless of external events.  Winning millions in a lottery, or getting paralyzed in an accident—these make a modest difference for six months or less.  People in the poorest nations are a couple percentage points less happy than in the most affluent.  People who drink, don’t drink, watch TV, don’t watch TV, eat natural vegetables, eat junk food—all experience similar levels of life satisfaction.  In fact, the only thing that makes a difference is chronic pain or consistent health crises—things our modern pursuit of supernormal stimuli tend to produce.

The pleasure mechanism can be shaped as to what it responds to—it doesn’t have to be other way around.  We understand this more readily when we’re thinking about the evanescent highs of a drug-addicted life vs. pleasure of normal life interactions.  But the same is true for diet or social activities or what you find cute.

People get pleasure from what they have gotten used to getting pleasure from.  Reward circuits in our brain will respond to the sugar in a handful of tart berries or from the whole cake, to the earned rest after exercise or the whole day on the couch, to real friends dropping by or the simulated laugh-track of a sitcom—all depending on what habits we get accustomed to.

We are the one animal that can notice sitting on a polka-dotted plaster egg—and climb off.

© 2010 Deirdre Barrett