When we see a hamburger, it is supernormal stimuli, or when we see any food item that does not exist in that form in nature especially if it combines any form of fat and carbohydrates or regular sugar together it is supernormal stimuli. Primal urges or instincts affect our behavior and our reptilian brain and basically control us more than we would like to admit forcing us into binge eating disorder.
Extremely sweet or fatty food that we have today but were not present in nature, captivate the brain reward circuit in much the same way that cocaine and gambling can do. Even just seeing the food will trigger the brain response. As quickly as such food meets the tongue, taste buds give signals to different areas of the brain. That will result in a response that will trigger the release of the neurochemical dopamine. Frequently overeating highly palatable foods saturate the cerebellum with a significant amount of dopamine that forces the brain to ultimately adjusts by desensitizing itself, decreasing the number of cellular receptors that identify and respond to the neurochemical. High and constant dopamine level is the form of stimulus that is over-excessive, something called supernormal stimuli.
There is a problem with conditioning too. When you spend years working on that promotion or spend years in college and finally get that job or diploma you feel great. It takes time and effort. But when you go to the fridge and open a bag of chips you feel great too. However, there is a problem. In nature, we would have to work very hard to get that bite, and it was not salted or filled with fat and sugar. Alternatively, when we wanted to find a mate, we had to be able to fight off other males. We would have to work for it hard for any reward. It would take significant time and effort.
However, in the modern era, it is effortless. One phone call to the pizza place and that is it. Instantaneously we can reward ourselves with pleasure no time or effort needed. Moreover, there are drugs, movies, video games, alcohol, gambling. These things are all forms of instant gratification. There are too easy to obtain, and they provide short bursts of pleasure. This conditioning alters our perception and reconfigures our reward centers in the brain. Modern environmental stimulants may activate instinctive responses that evolved before the modern world. When we can get supernormal stimulation all the time effortlessly our brain downregulates the receptors, and we have a problem, we need more. Also, when we do get more, the brain will downregulate the receptors some more, and we again need more. It becomes an addictive behavior before we overdose.
In the book, Wasteland: The (R)Evolutionary Science Behind Our Weight and Fitness Crisis, Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett had analyzed very well how junk food triggers exaggerated stimulus to natural cravings for salt, sugar, and fats. The issue is that most of the regular people are not psychologists and can’t detect this in their own behavior.
Supernormal stimuli exist in nature too. When scientists isolate the traits that can trigger certain instincts like colors or shapes or patterns and then applied them to animals, they go behaving extremely instinctively and outside of the normal behavior. Instincts had no bounds. Once the researchers isolate the instinctive trigger, they can create greatly exaggerated dummies which animals would choose instead of the realistic alternative. For example, seeing red male stickleback fish would ignore the real rivals and attack wooden replicas with brightly painted underbellies and were even reacting aggressively when the red postal van passed the lab window. Songbirds would abandon their eggs that are pale blue dappled with gray and sit on black polka-dotted fluorescent blue dummies so big that they would continuously slide off. They would prefer to feed fake baby birds with more full and redder mouths than their real ones and the hatchlings would ignore their parents to beg for food from fake beaks with more dramatic markings.
It is easy to assume that these kinds of behaviors reflect some mistake or manipulation but it is far from the truth. The truth is that this is an entirely evolutionary justifiable action and will contribute to the survival of the species. The big colorful egg is a symbol of health for a bird so her instinct is correct and it is conditioned to force her to spare more of her time to go to sit on a black polka-dotted egg because that egg is having more chances for successful hatching. In nature, there are no mistakes only in the human interpretation of nature.
Birds will never be exposed to technology, so the supernormal stimuli are positive conditioning for the survival of the species. In a technologically driven modern environment, it is a different story. We have not been adequately adapted in the evolutional sense to our modern environment, and the consequences are terrible.
For example, obesity is an epidemic and not just obesity, most of our other health problems as well. All of the so-called diseases of affluence are physiological maladaptations in essence. Why? Because pleasure-seeking actions in all forms drive most of our behavior. It will make us eat even when we are not hungry in pursuit of pleasure and satisfaction. It will make our brain overstimulated in any possible form and way we can think of. The problem is significant on a population scale and can become even worse in specific individuals that have levels of dopamine receptors that are less expressed. It can make them susceptible to compulsive behavior.
Our physiology is not adapted to be continuously bombarded with supernormal stimuli, to have instant gratification in all forms, never to feel hunger, never to have to do any physical activity, to have a never-ending stream of animal products, sugar, and fat. We act impulsively, emotionally, and instinctively like most other animals because we are condition to do it for survival. Like it or not, in the end, this will have lasting health consequences.
Psychophysical dependence on supernormal stimuli is real. Human beings are evolutionarily conditioned for extreme eating because of the scarcity in nature.
For every animal in existence in nature, hunger is the normal state of being. Alternatively, a constant struggle for food would be more precise. For every animal that lives on this planet, food obsession is a daytime job. Most of the time during their lives animals spend searching for food. There are no supermarkets and cans of ready to eat meals. It is the struggle. Moreover, that was a normal condition for humans even today. Well, at least the body physiology part.
1.Venus of Gagarino, Russia 20,000 BC; 2. Figurine féminine dite manche de poignard de Brassempouy, 23,000 BC; 3. Venus de Losange Italy 25,000 BC; 4. Venus of Tepe Sarab Iran 6500 BC; 5. Neolithic Hassuna Princess „Idol,” 6500-5700 BC Mesopotamia; 6. Malta Venus 4500 BC; 7. Venus of Willendorf Austria 24000 BC; 8. Venus of Moravany Slovakia 23000 BC; 9. Ceramic Figurine of a Woman 5300 BC, The British Museum; 10. Venus from Hohle Fels, Germany 38,000 BC; 11. Cave Ghar Dalam, Malta 5400 BC; 12. Catalhohuk 6000 BC; 13. Venus of Monruz 10,000 BC, Switzerland; 14. Venus of Dolní Vestonice, Czech Republic 29,000 BC; 15. Venus of Anatolia, Turkey 6000 BC; 16. Inanna (Ishtar) Mother Goddess, Mesopotamia 2000 BC.
Our desire and pleasure-seeking behavior are what make us sick. Evolution did not predict electricity and microchips and cars. We are maladapted to our habitat. We have underlined mechanisms that force us to act in an evolutionary protective manner such as overeating on food. The not so unique obstacle now is that there is no scarcity anymore. Also, even worse, we eat stuff like meat that is not congruent with our physiology. And what is worse we eat it every single meal. And what is even worse we are surrounded by all of the toxic chemicals we never had to deal with in the past, and we do not exercise and move anymore and do not have enough sunlight and do not have normal relations to other species and other humans. We are technology dependent, atrophied, and poisoned. We are dependent on our food to be supernormal stimuli and everything around us to be supernormal stimuli. Supernormal is the new normal. Everything has to be supernormal now to be normal. From video games to movies, to drugs to game addiction, to porn addiction, and sex and violence in every frame. Eating kale is not for us anymore. Eating fruit is not for us anymore. The fruit was once upon a time the highest treat we could find in nature. Ultimate dessert. What is fruit today? The hybrid derived from selective breeding to be sweeter. Had we ever in our life tried real wild fruit without altered genes? Even that over hybridized variety is no match to pure refined sugar, so we are going to drink colored sugar water like Coke and sodas.
Passages selected from a book: “Go Vegan? Review of Science: Part 1” [Milos Pokimica] (p36)