What is a superstimulus and how do I avoid it?

A superstimulus is junk food, porn, hyperfast-and-bright video games, an all-round firehose of sugar you want to avoid before it gives your brain’s pleasure center too-high expectations. When vanilla ice cream doesn’t cut it anymore, you need birthday cake.

So how do you steer clear?

These days, we have endless novelty to satisfy every craving, things our prehistoric ancestors would have never imagined.

Sumptuous sustenance so “sexy” it’s “sinful.”
Desirable dames and dudes doing it on demand.
TV too tantalizing, videos too vivid, to terminate.

(I’ll stop… though I have more.)

Our primitive brain stems evolved to seek the most sugar they could find in the highest concentrations. Life in the African savannah was full of danger, scarcity, and running, after all. Bananas were more potent than dry grass.

Well, now bananas are dry grass and sodas are bananas. Our brain stems never stop yelling “more!” Hence why we have addiction, obesity, and erectile dysfunction. Yes, those are oversimplifications, and there are many more causes, but the effects of a superstimulus contribute to a boatload of cases.

It’s also why I use the word “sugar.” Sugar is my go-to metaphor.

A superstimulus = a firehose of sugar

A fireman wields a firehose on max spray. The cone is taller than the fire truck behind him.
Open wide.

If you remember my Sims metaphor, everyone has things that fill up their bar (“hunger,” for example) with one, two, or three arrows. Watery, leafy salad? One arrow. Overloaded baked potato… and then pie? Three arrows. You can get full on watery, leafy salad, but it’ll take longer and you’ll have to consume more.

No matter what, (I’m not a doctor!) you need sugar. Even no-sugar diets advocate healthy substitutes for your “sweet tooth,” and your “sweet tooth” might just be a craving for concentrated calories.

A superstimulus is like a soda with two hundred grams of added sugar. And keep in mind, 50 grams is extreme. You’ll satisfy your craving quick, but you might get a headache, and too much leads to long-term consequences.

And regret. Lots of regret.

I call it a firehose of sugar because you choose to open your jaw for that flood. You choose a five-arrow fill-up that’s so satiating it hurts. Yes, it’ll eventually drain, and yes, your bar will get bigger over time as your tolerance increases, but your body can’t keep up with your brain stem’s demands. Pain and regret will set in.

The Sims Hunger bar. It's so full it breaks the bar and turns red. Ow.
Ow, my bar!

But as nice as my KolourPaint graphics are, Stuart McMillen’s comic is the best definition I’ve found. (It might be copyright, so I’m not posting it on this page.)

In his words, a superstimulus (or supernormal stimulus) is “a hijacking of animals’ instincts beyond their evolutionary purpose.” That’s why the peahen preferred the wooden dummy peacock with a more extravagant tail than any breathing peacock could ever display.

Think about that for a minute. How many parallels can you come up with?

I came up with fifteen.

And while disgust is a powerful weapon to keep bad habits at bay, some things I’m okay with. Cosmetics, for example. No woman’s shade of lipstick is her natural color, or her rouge an intrinsic blush. What would be the point of wearing it, but to enhance?

Cosmetics I’m fine with. Fashion isn’t much different. Turns out there are a lot of things that function like peacock tails.

The problem is when superstimuli become addictive. That’s why I made notes.

Here’s what I found, based only on my prior knowledge:

Junk food

  • Added sugar is unnecessary except for taste. Is taste that important?
  • Our diets have been relatively stable over the millennia. Yet this neurologist claims processed grains were adopted too fast for our primitive bodies to keep up.
  • Some people call sugar a drug, but that might be loaded language. Addiction to sugar is debatable.
  • I haven’t read enough science on GMO or lab-created foods. They scare me, though.


TV and movies

  • Movies fifty years ago have fewer cuts than recent films, likely to accommodate our shrinking attention spans. Plotlines are also simpler, laughs cheaper, and memes more plentiful.
  • 60 frames a second video mesmerizes. 4320p astounds. At what point will 24 frames a second at 1080p be not enough?

Social media

  • Scrolling is the new smoking.
  • Instagram models are the new wooden dummy peacocks, regardless of gender. Based on looks alone, who can compare?
  • Speaking of comparison, it drives envy, depression, ungratefulness, shallowness, and for me, volatility.
  • Social media addiction is real, likely due to low self-esteem via comparison and a desire to feel worthy.

Video games (some)

  • Fighting, shooting, and action games with replayability are the most addicting, while linear, story-based ones are experiences.
  • Steam lists the number of hours played by your game’s title. Hundreds of hours is sobering.

Outrage news

  • Sensational headlines can reinforce your prejudice, hate, cynicism, or fear. Echo chambers divide and conquer. Do you want the facts, or an appeal to what you already think you know?
  • Hate may be addicting.
  • Politics are so polarized right now that organizations preaching unity are becoming mainstream.

Traditional drugs

  • I know almost nothing about them, and that’s not me being Socratic. But my guess is they release brain chemicals in high concentrations and unique mixes not found in the user’s day-to-day life.

And then there are plenty of superstimuli that are not addicting but still enhanced peacock tails (I’m not for or against any of these):

  • sitting or lying down for hours on end
  • software-created music impossible for any human to play on a real instrument
  • anime (because the colors are more saturated, like the bird eggs in Tinbergen’s study?)
  • endless consumerism in search of fleeting, novel happiness
  • hookup culture (wait, that might be the same thing)

Why the caveat, then?

Because no superstimulus is a bad thing. It’s just too much of a good thing.

That’s why I advocate taming your tech, because although you can go without it, let’s face it, chucking out your TV, phone, and computer is radical for most of us.

It takes time, deliberation, and creativity. According to the two big byproducts of addiction, tolerance and withdrawal, it’s never easy. Whether it’s an addiction or a bad habit, Candy Crush or Facebook, you have to replace your five-arrow fill-up with multiple one-, two-, or three-arrow activities to lower your bar back to normal levels.

So before you cancel your subscriptions and delete your accounts– you’ll CRAVE them later!– remember what Oscar Wilde said.

"Everything in moderation, including moderation."
- Oscar Wilde

A superstimulus doesn’t have to control you.

An 1848 chromolithograph of a Comanche man taming a wild horse by pulling on ropy reins.

If you’re not strong enough, you will be tamed.

(© [Taming Wild Horses] chromolithograph from George Catlin’s Die Indianer Nord-Amerikas. Thank you, Yale.)

You have to control the superstimulus. Back to the title of this article, “how to avoid it,” that’s almost impossible. I have to use Instagram for community and reach, for example. I don’t look at unrealistic babes, though I could. But I’m not going to cancel my account because of that.

Sugar is good. A firehose of sugar will make you sick. If you, like me, have ever gotten a headache from a surge of brain chemicals, you know the feeling.

Start by recognizing which activities you enjoy are too much of a good thing. Which activities do you regret but can’t seem to kick because they’re at least a little fun? (Did I mention I’m not a licensed addiction therapist?)

Disgust works well for me. Get behind the scenes to see if anyone is manipulating you to buy something or sell you an experience that hurts. If it’s deliberate, how dare they! If it’s not, like my one addictive video game problem, recognize problematic use and set some blockers. You’ll want it after being without for awhile. But after some time, it fades.

I’ll leave off with this encapsulation by the comic artist mentioned above, Stuart McMillen:

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.

What superstimulus firehose are you battling?

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