Supernormal Stimuli thoughts

Supernormal Stimuli thoughts
December 2011
Supernormal stimuli two creatures looking at each other with transparent heads, with brains showing through.

Why are we drawn to excessively sweet and fatty foods?
Why do we find it hard to pull our eyes away from the flicker of TV sets in waiting rooms and cafés?
Why are we compelled to check and re-check our inboxes and Facebook pages throughout the day?
Why are we drawn to the magnetic lure of pornography?

An explanation to these questions may be found in my latest comic – Supernormal Stimuli.

Supernormal Stimuli reptile brain raptor velociraptor human silhouette drawing cartoon.

Niko Tinbergen’s research into supernormal stimuli

I first heard of the ‘supernormal stimuli’ concept in February this year. American author Daniel Akst was visiting Australia to promote his book We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess. During the Brisbane talk, Dan mentioned the studies of biologist Niko Tinbergen into the root of instincts. I was intrigued by his stories of animals being fooled into outrageous behaviours, including:

  • Songbirds choosing to sit on enormous fluorescent blue eggs rather than their own small, pale blue eggs.
  • Geese attempting to roll volleyballs into their own nest in preference to their regular-sized eggs.
  • Male butterflies ignoring receptive females to instead mate with wingless vibrating dummies.

Supernormal Stimuli cartoon of Niko Tinbergen scientist looking into binoculars at insects

Akst related the concepts to humanity by discussing armchair sports fans, overeating, gambling and pornography. He quoted a Kurt Vonnegut novel where characters discuss a photo of a sexy French girl (“That’s not a girl. That’s a piece of paper.”) My interest piqued, I decided to investigate the supernormal stimuli concept further.

Researching the Supernormal Stimuli comic

For an intriguing field founded by a Nobel prize winner, there was surprisingly little discussion of supernormal stimuli on the internet. I took it upon myself to fill the gap and relate Niko Tinbergen’s work on animals to contemporary human society.

A major reference point was the 2010 book Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose by Harvard professor Deirdre Barrett. With detailed biographies of Niko Tinbergen seemingly non-existent (in English anyway), the book gave insight into Niko and his life’s work.

Professor Barrett’s book discusses the food/TV/cute characters/pornography examples which I touch upon in the comic. It also describes less obvious (and perhaps more tenuous) supernormal stimuli spin-offs including modern warfare and the concept of money.

Supernormal Stimuli drawings: burger fries soft serve, remote control, PS2 controller, female behind

At 216 pages, Deirdre Barrett’s book is a nice dip into the concept of supernormal stimuli and the role it may play in our lives. Aimed at a popular audience, the book feels a little light in places, but nonetheless is an enlightening read. Although her book has fewer velociraptors than my comic, her conclusion is similar to mine: get off the plaster egg.

Lessons learned

In some ways, publishing Supernormal Stimuli is a little like publishing Amusing Ourselves to Death in 2009. Both comics force us to look into our blind spots and see things that are hidden in plain sight. Which begs the question to me, the artist: “so what have you done about it?”

Supernormal Stimuli cartoon: wild food in forest versus salad bar drawing

In both cases, the main change is awareness. Awareness that the reason we are drawn to sickly desserts is because they are sweeter than any naturally-occurring fruit. Awareness that watching television activates the primitive ‘orienting response’, keeping our eyes drawn to the moving pictures as if it were predator or prey. Awareness that liking ‘cute’ characters comes from a biological urge to protect and nurture our young.

I have not removed supernormal stimuli from my life, nor do I intend to do so fully. The key is spotting the stimuli as they appear, and engaging the mind to regulate or override temptation. I echo Deirdre Barrett’s conclusion that sometimes it can feel more rewarding to say no to the supernormal, than to cave into impulse. Only awareness will help stop the supernormal from becoming what is ‘normal’ in our lives.


Supernormal Stimuli by Stuart McMillen is available as a DRM-free PDF download for US$2.
Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose by Deirdre Barrett is available as a hardcover book new/used (aff).

Buying through those links helps me raise income to keep drawing new comics. If you liked reading the comic, consider supporting me financially or otherwise.
Supernormal Stimuli is the flagship comic that I launched my website with in April 2012. It is also the first ever comic I am offering for sale via PDF files. I look forward to seeing how the experiment goes!