Suprnormal Stimuli comic cover. They Live movie poster drawing cartoon. Sunglasses dinosaur raptor velociraptor.
Velociraptor raptor dinosaur tooth eye claw drawing cartoon. Natural selection. A process which shapes the bodies of creatures. As well as their behaviours.
Velociraptors raptors dinosaurs drawing cartoon. A repertoire of reactions to all environmental stimuli a wild creature will face honed by millions of years of trial and error.
Brain cartoon drawing. Instinct.
Male scientist binoculars man cartoon drawing. Enter: Niko Tinbergen. A Dutch biologist fascinated by the behaviour of animals. Systematically experimenting the triggers for their behaviours.
Bee drawing cartoon. Man with glasses reading paper. The colours, shapes, smells, patterns and sensations which formed the root of instincts. Tinbergen succeeded in isolating the traits which triggered certain instincts and then made an interesting discovery.
Peacocks tail. Peacock feathers cartoon drawing. Instead of stopping at a 'sweet spot', the instinctive response would still be produced by unrealistic stimuli. Once the researchers isolated the instincts' trigger they could create greatly exaggerated dummies which the animals would choose instead of a realistic alternative.
Baby birds. Bird nest puppet cartoon drawing. Songbird parents would prefer to feed fake baby birds with mouths wider and redder than their real chicks...and the hatchlings themselves would ignore their own parents to beg fake beaks with more dramatic markings.
Fish tank windowsill drawing cartoon. Seeing red, literally, male stickleback fish would ignore real rivals to attack wooden replicas with brightly painted underbellies...even reacting territorially when a red postal van passed the lab window.
Bird nest eggs flying. Moth flame candle drawing. Songbirds would abandon their pale blue eggs dappled with gray and sit on black polka-dotted fluorescent blue dummies so big they would constantly slide off. Tinbergen called these 'supernormal stimuli'. A hijacking of animals' instincts beyond their evolutionary purpose.
Niko Tinbergen male scientist glasses painting eggs workbench cartoon drawing. Tinbergen and his students created supernormal stimuli to study the animals they were researching. But there was already a creature actively building supernormal stimuli to use on itself. Human beings.
Africa grassland elephant acacia trees. Busy city skyscrapers crowd signs cartoon drawing. With instincts evolved for hunting and gathering on the savannahs of Africa 10,000 years ago...most humans today find themselves in a very different environment.
Spear brain microscope cartoon. Wild boar forest salad bar buffet drawing. While our technologies and population densities have undergone amazing change in such short time, evolution has not had chance to keep pace. Our brains are the same as our hunter-gatherer ancestors. And the instincts honed to seek rare rewards in a world of scarcity tug at us from all angles in a world of supernormal stimuli.
We can eat refined foods far sweeter, saltier and fattier than anything available to our ancestors. We sit motionless for hours watching flicker shows of imaginary characters' 'lives'...or we jump into their world and try to be them. We can create characters cuter than our pets and babies...pornography available to anyone who wants to see it...and a raft of other distractions eager to hijack our attention.
City nighttime moon stars night buildings drawing cartoon. Certainly we have enough spare time, enough spare wealth to indulge in some of the pleasures supernormal stimuli can give us. But how much is enough?
Velociraptor raptor dinosaur skull brain human silhouette drawing cartoon. Supernormal stimuli work on humans because, like all animals, we have basic instincts hard-wired into our brains. A 'reptile brain' still sits deep within us. And its influence is far greater than we care to admit.
Dinosaurs velociraptors raptors cartoon. Shopping mall drawing. Faced with supernormal stimuli...we often feel like our willpower has been turned to stone.
The Thinker statue cartoon. Auguste Rodin drawing. But we are gifted with another layer above the reptile brain. Another piece of circuitry able to over-ride or redirect the instincts our reptile brain shouts at us. Conscious thought. The mind.
The Thinker drawing. Putting on sunglasses cartoon. We are the only creature that can bypass the unreal and choose the real. A choice that requires a large dose of willpower. A choice only available to those who have learned to spot the dummies that surround us.
They Live movie poster cartoon. Looking over sunglasses drawing. Raptor velociraptor dinosaur. Only those who can see the supernormal can learn to silence the reptile.


Support the artist

Read some reflections and insights into the Supernormal Stimuli comic and the work of biologist Niko Tinbergen in the blog section of this website.

Support the artist, and buy a $2 PDF of Supernormal Stimuli.

  1. Saksham Kapoor says:

    Awesome! Great piece.

  2. Ricardo says:

    Amazing explanation, terrific comic. Thanks for this.

  3. Subha Kumar says:

    Simply Brilliant!

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  5. Keith says:

    Love the glasses/”They Live” reference

  6. David says:

    Thank you,
    Evolutionary biology made simple enough for a child to understand and relate to. Simplicity is a rarity. I’d be interested in seeing more psychological-based comics such as this..
    Anyway time to watch some porn and eat a twix :P

  7. Pingback: Supernormal Stimuli: Is Your Brain Built For Porn, Junk Food And The Internet? | Lifehacker Australia

  8. Dillon Merriweather says:

    Thank you for making this comic. I have never been able to work through this thought process so fully. Thank you for the new word and a more understanding perspective. :)

  9. Gaurav Ramesh says:

    A very thought-provoking comic/article ! Nice work.

  10. Ian says:

    A very articulate and well thought out article, with the added bonus of it being an exceptionally drawn comic strip as well! I’m very curious about anything to do with the mind, be it psychology, psychotherapy, neuroscience, habits & behaviours etc and using a stimuli as captivating as this is a great way to learn basic to complex concepts of the subjects you showcase. Keep up the great work, Stuart!

  11. Akira says:

    Dear Stuart,

    Thank you so much for this mind-opening comic.
    Can I translate it to Japanese?

  12. Tina says:

    First I’ve seen of yours, thanks to a Facebook share. Very impressed. As a psychotherapist, I help people use their rational brain to override the Limbic, (reptilian) brain, so I’m intimately aware of this. Thanks for making it so accessible.

  13. Promythius says:

    This is golder than gold thank you!

  14. Dave H says:

    Facking DYNOMITE! My reptilian brain likes this stimulus

  15. theo says:

    I guess in humans the primal brain part also gives us searching for super stimuli in greatness such as in gods and miracles, no?

  16. Tim Wheaton says:

    That was fantastic! I was already familiar with the science, so I’m talking solely about the way your art made me engrossed in something I already know. :)

  17. Kris says:

    This is the best one of yours I’ve read so far! Well thought out, funny and thought provoking, and don’t think I didn’t catch the They Live reference!!

  18. Victor says:

    As many others have posted…

    Thank you, thank you, thank you Stuart!

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  20. Louis Dam-Mikkelsen says:

    A very good read. Bookmarked.

  21. max says:

    GOOD STUFF!!!

  22. Pingback: Supernormal Stimuli reflections - Stuart McMillen blog

  23. Pingback: The Comic Art of Stuart McMillen: Supernormal Stimuli

  24. Pingback: Supernormal Stimuli thoughts - Stuart McMillen comics blog

  25. Elaine says:

    Thank you, Stuart. Thank you. You made me think!

  26. Elise says:

    Well done Stu! Loved it.

  27. anon says:

    oooh shiny colorful icons… must… buy… pdf…

  28. hum says:

    we sleep – THEY LIVE

  29. Paul & Deb McMillen says:

    Great to be with you on your new site. Exciting to see the evolution of your work over the past 20 years – can you believe that! As thought provoking and informative as ever. We await the next. Warm wishes.

  30. Nick says:

    Excellent work, Stuart. Quite thought-provoking :)

  31. Arne says:

    Absolutely amazing! Great artwork and story! Very impressed!

  32. Tureczek says:

    Unbelieveable! This is fantastic!

  33. cameron says:

    excellent as per usual Stubart. I await the next.

  34. Jason H says:

    Great work. Best yet. Cheers J

  35. Emily R says:

    Great work Stu, I loved it. You are truly gifted.

  36. ryan says:

    Its exciting to see some new work from you. Great as always. I like the new site too.

  37. Emme says:

    This installment of You Are Not So Smart (http://youarenotsosmart.com/2012/04/17/ego-depletion/) is extremely relevant to the issue of primal stimuli and the reserves of willpower we need to resist them. I encourage you to take a look at it.

  38. Sam says:

    After having read your research section, I had to add that I loved the solution to this problem of supernormal stimuli, which is ‘Get of the plaster egg’ !!

    Well said. :-)

  39. Sam says:

    *Loved* this one. Brilliant! But oh-so-many philosophical and scientific issues it brings up… for example, is it realistic to argue that we can over-ride our instincts and attraction for the supernormal stimuli when the planet is groaning under the weight of the west’s obesity, and porn makes up an absurdly high % of web traffic? All signs point to ‘no’ I think ;-) …but then again a small percentage of people do seem to be able to ignore the fast food and porn… and yet… one of the defining characteristics of Homo sapiens is our curiosity and thirst for knowledge… who’s to say that the internet, and libraries before that, are not to be considered ‘supernormal stimuli’ -i.e. the web as information-porn…. I’m certainly guilty of that ‘abusing’ that instinct!
    The other issue is the rigidity of our brains… I’m not arguing against this attraction to supernormal instinct, but I did read a book recently called The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, and it argues that our brains are far more ‘plastic’ than medicine or science previously thought… and that we’re far less ‘hardwired’ than we ever thought. Which is good and bad news perhaps, in hat if those supernormal attractions do manage to reel us in, they really could shape our brains to be far more ‘maladjusted’ (I would argue), than if we *were* more hardwired…. if that makes sense. Anyway, I really enjoyed this, and keep up the good work!

  40. Luke says:

    Nice one!!!

  41. Jason says:

    I love this. Real life makes for good comics!

  42. Jenna says:

    I like the way you philosophically present facts without forcing an agenda down anyone’s throat. It’s lovely food for thought :)

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