Survival of the least stimulated

If you watch nature documentaries, you notice there’s a certain logic to animal behavior. The peacock with the biggest tail gets the female. Female barn swallows prefer males with browner chests. 

The animals are oblivious to this logic but they follow it nevertheless - and for the most part, this arrangement works fine. Until someone figures the logic out and starts exploiting it. Nikolaas Tinbergen, a Dutch biologist in the 1900s, started noticing such patterns, and exploit them he did.

He noted that songbirds seemed to give more attention to eggs that were bigger and bluer than others, so he placed a huge, bright blue dummy egg close to the bird nest. The mother bird would abandon their real eggs and sit on top of the dummy instead.

Tinbergen also noticed that the birds would give more food to children that had the widest and reddest mouths. So he placed dummy children with abnormally red and wide mouths, and these dummies got all the food. 

Experiment after experiment, it became clear that you could find the logic in an animal’s behavior, then exploit it. Tinbergen demonstrated that you can hijack evolutionary instinct with exaggerated versions of the real thing. In the 1950s, he came up with a name for this pattern-hijacking: supernormal stimulation

How supernormal stimuli are used against you

You’d think that surely humans were harder to fool than songbirds, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Wherever you look, you see we’re progressing towards more stimulation. From text to pics to short videos on social media. News from once a week to once a day to 24/7. Toys and animated characters were once realistic, now they come with extra big eyes. Movies are extra fast-paced, showing more explosions, more drama, bigger stakes. YouTube videos must now have a cut every 5 seconds to keep us interested. Mobile games have become slot machines with extra steps. 

The logic of our behavior is being exploited, and like Tinbergen’s birds, we don’t seem to realize what’s going on. 

Human extinction is an inside job

If you ask people how they think humans would go extinct, they’d probably reference nukes, malicious AI or maybe some climate change -induced fight for resources. However, I fear not that we’ll destroy the world but that we create a fake world we prefer over the real one. I fear not that our survival instinct won’t be enough to save us, but that we will create so strong stimuli and pleasure that our survival instinct becomes secondary. In Australia, beetles would hump a beer bottle until they die because the bottle had just the right color of brown and texturing to hijack their brain.

Pleasure is the silent killer, the path nature hasn’t got a plan for. Nature has planned how to survive conflict and violence and war - that’s pretty much the thing it has best prepared us for. But it never created a plan on how to avoid too much pleasure because, until very recently, the entire concept of “too much pleasure” hasn’t existed. As we’ll explore in this post, not only is chronic overstimulation a health problem, it’s also an existential one.

Dose makes the poison

Hormesis is a phenomenon where a low dose of x produces an opposite effect as a high dose of x. For example, low doses of stress energize you and increase your performance. Very high doses of stress paralyze you and decrease performance. Low stress on your muscles (working out 3 times a week) strengthens them, while very high stress (working out 3 times a day) leads to injuries.

We must be careful with doses. There’s nothing inherently wrong with salt or fat or pepperoni - these things are needed for survival (maybe not the pepperoni, but the salt and fat in it). But if you eat two pepperoni pizzas a week, you’re in trouble. 

There aren’t necessarily “harmful” and “harmless” things, just harmful and harmless doses of things. Dose makes the poison. A funny video here and there is good for you, makes you laugh a bit, helps you release stress. But 2 hours of TikTok a day is poison for you mentally.

This is a key concept for understanding how overstimulation hurts us. Compare yourself to your average hunter-gatherer. You can easily get 1000x more flavor in one bag of Doritos than they’d get in a year. One visit to PornHub (even a rather short one) will show you more naked bodies than a hunter-gatherer sees in a lifetime.

The gap between normal and natural is ever-increasing. The “normal” dose of anything is now higher than it ever was in nature. The floor keeps on rising, and it’s rising exponentially. A teenager today is surely getting exponentially more stimulation than a teenager 20 years ago, and I bet we can say the same thing of teenagers in 2040.

We’re getting close to poison levels on all fronts.

The digitization of homo sapiens

The human mind developed to care about the physical environment. Increasingly, digital environments are overtaking the physical in importance. Given that dose makes the poison, and digital supercharges the dose of anything, I’m worried.

In the physical environment, abundance is rather rare. In the digital environment, scarcity is rare; in fact, scarcity is the archenemy of most digital innovations, the very thing they wish to eradicate. Facebook, Netflix, Spotify, Amazon, Tinder, news sites, porn sites… they all remove limits and unleash the beast of abundance in different domains, “empowering” you with unlimited friends, entertainment, music, products, information, mates.

Spending more time on the digital than physical world flips the switch quite dramatically. It used to be that most human problems were created by scarcity. Now most problems are created by abundance. This sudden abundance is counter to our nature so we aren’t equipped to deal with it. Yet, the trend to digitize everything seems positive, because everyone gets more.

Progress that isn’t progress

As “progress” happens, things tend to get more addictive. As “progress” happens, more areas of our lives become digital. We’re told progress is what drives society forward, but in many areas, progress is just a fancy way of saying “we’ve now become better at exploiting your brain’s weak spots”.

Consider the news industry. How much of the “progress” in recent years is actually negative in value? We’ve moved from news once a day to news 24/7, which looks like progress, but in reality, we become overwhelmed with the information. We still receive the most important news like we did 20 years ago, but now we get 100x more of the meaningless stuff on top of that and spend hours doomscrolling.

How much of the “progress” in social media is actually positive to us? The early benefits in connection and relationships were nice. But it feels like the direction in which social media is heading now is away from connection and relationships and towards softcore porn and semi-comatose consumption of vertical video. 

“Progress” is a one-way street towards more stimulation, often at the expense of something else. And I say one-way street because once people become accustomed to this level of stimuli, they will accept no less or they’ll get bored. Try watching a movie made in the 1950s - it’ll feel painfully deprived in action and sex and drama. If you’ve been watching TikToks all day, your standard Instagram feed can’t keep up with the level of stimulation, so the Instagram feed starts looking more like TikTok. 

The benchmark is set in whatever is most stimulating to us, and we expect the same experience everywhere. Social media now trains our brains to expect something new every 5 seconds. That’s the benchmark, and you can see other areas adapting to try and meet this expectation, and so the treadmill accelerates…

You’d think there’d be a limit to how much stimulation our brains can handle, but it doesn’t appear there is. This is due to neural adaptation: over time, our response to stimulation decreases. Try placing a phone on your lap. At first, you’ll, of course, notice it’s there, but in 30 seconds, you’ll forget all about it. Surely, your body has not lost its sense of touch, it simply has adapted to this stimulation and made you forget about it.

Similarly, there won’t be a limit to how many digital women, or news articles, or videos feel too stimulating. It’s not 5, and it’s not 50,000. We are the figurative frog in the pot, with slowly rising temperature until the water’s boiling. The amount of stimulation gradually increases, and we adapt to it, so we don’t notice how crazy this is. If anything, we claim the increase in temperature is progress - give us more of that!

Old drugs, new drugs

Old drugs are easy to classify as drugs - consider pills and bottles and syringes. New drugs are part of our lifestyles. Giving them up seems abnormal, you're the odd one out for not being addicted. You'd never be criticized for saying you want to quit smoking, but if you say you want to quit the news, people try to talk you out of it. “Democracy dies in darkness”, they’ll say, “It’s your civil duty to stay informed.”

It's harder to even spot new drugs, let alone break out of them. But here’s a telltale sign something is a new drug: supernormal stimuli is involved. The dose keeps on increasing until widely-used, completely “normal” things are comparable to a drug.

If you ask a drug addict what it feels to be addicted, they’ll tell you they can’t think of much else than their next fix. Life loses its meaning, nothing else extracts happiness. Aren’t we seeing similar behavior with the new drugs? 

Life is so rich and wonderful, but when you rot your brain with stimulation, you don’t have the bandwidth to notice. We don’t notice how the morning light paints your kitchen yellow, how the sun dances on the flowing river. We don’t wonder at the amazing diversity of life on this planet, nor the craftsmanship and incredible human knowledge embedded in each object around you. On our deathbeds, instead of having memories of a life well-lived, we have memories of us glued to a screen. To us, an ever-changing combination of pixels is all there is to existence. And then we wonder why the meaning crisis exists.

Don’t blame a penguin for not thriving in a desert

For all these problems, we shouldn’t blame the individual, but the system. Modernity is best described as an exploitation of our oldest weaknesses with the newest technology. We’ve discussed what our weaknesses are (particularly, our inability to deal with abundance). We’ve talked about technology (particularly, how it moves towards more stimulation, more abundance). Now, let’s talk about the ever-increasing gap between the two. 

A fancier word for this gap is evolutionary mismatch. Our environment changes, but we don’t, so traits that were once helpful can now be harmful. As humans are constantly taken farther and farther from the environment we evolved in, our defense mechanisms stop working, our safety switches become obsolete. We’re facing an enemy we have never seen before.

Many of the modern epidemics are a direct cause of evolutionary mismatch:

  • We evolved to value sweet and fatty foods. This was good. But now this trait is a disadvantage because sugary and fatty foods aren't scarce anymore. So we have an obesity epidemic.
  • Our bodies evolved to be alert under stress, such as when hunting. This made us better at surviving. But now we have chronic stress and urgency - the hundreds of notifications you see weekly keep you alert all the time - and this constant alertness leads to burnout and health issues. So we have an epidemic of mental exhaustion.
  • We evolved to value newness: a new female/male was a new chance at spreading your genes, and new information in the form of gossip was valuable in choosing who to trust or mate. But now we can get 10,000x the amount of newness and stimuli over the internet, so now everyone is addicted to screens.

If you have issues and can’t find meaning in life, that's not necessarily your fault. It's like blaming a penguin for not thriving in a desert.

The paint job of supernormal stimuli

Let’s think about businesses for a second, those who exploit our nature via supernormal stimuli.

There is a financial incentive to make something more stimulating, but rarely is there an incentive to make something less stimulating. So businesses won’t stop thinking "how could this be more engaging" (businesspeople prefer to say engaging instead of addictive). This asymmetry propels us to greater and greater levels of stimulation. 

As we talked about earlier, different industries are fighting for your attention, and to win, they need to make their stuff more stimulating. It’s not enough for a game to be more stimulating than other games - it also needs to be more stimulating than Netflix, and porn, and TikTok, and so on.

So you’re a business, and to avoid bankruptcy, you work hard to create a ridiculously stimulating and addictive thing. How do you sell this new drug without feeling guilty, losing your employees or facing public backlash?

An easy blueprint for a marketer of supernormal stimuli is to position the fake thing as the real thing. After all, the fake thing is merely an exaggerated version of the real thing, so they aren’t technically lying, right? They’ll claim news = information. They’ll say games = fun, and you don’t want to deny that from your kids. They’ll claim that if you’re against porn, you’re against sex.

It’s a simple trick, but quite effective - try not to fall for it. 

Porn, the new drug

Out of all supernormal stimuli, porn might just be the most dangerous. For starters, here’s what we’re looking at:

  • A form of stimulation that hijacks an evolutionarily critical desire.
  • Something where there’s a +10,000x increase in stimulation compared to real life. And there’s huge technological progress in the field (VR/AR, personalization, gadgets…), making it even more stimulating.
  • A drug that is freely and easily available to everyone everywhere, even minors, and one that we are unlikely to seek help for when we get addicted.
  • A drug that is increasingly normalized in society (“everyone watches porn”).

It’s not a nudity addiction, it’s a novelty addiction

With porn, we don’t just want nudity. Otherwise, the same video would most often do the trick. We want novelty because we perceive each new female as a new opportunity to pass on our genes (this is the Coolidge effect). At first, it’s enough to see the same stuff done to a different woman. But then we want new positions, more men and women instead of one, weirder fantasies, more extreme, more taboo. Suddenly we find that incest and bdsm videos are mainstream.

Consider a 12-year-old boy who starts to think girls aren’t yucky anymore. They go online and do a search for porn because the big boys at school talked about it. What he thought he’d see is a nude breast and some skin. Instead, what he’ll see is:

  • Man dominating, hitting the woman, pulling her hair, verbally abusing her
  • “Stuck in the laundry machine” or similar rapey content
  • Multiple, often older men ganging up on a young female
  • Maybe torture/bdsm/bondage videos where the woman is tied up, whipped, electrocuted, hot-waxed…

He’ll see straight up violence against women, and he’ll think that’s what sex is supposed to be like. Porn sites cater to those who are so deep in the rabbit hole that only extreme stuff gets them off anymore. And since the gates are open to anyone who can click “yes, I’m 18”, that sickening content is what kids will consider normal. 

Suddenly we’re raising a pretty messed up generation of kids because we want more, newer, weirder stimulation. We could barely handle early-days Facebook and Pornhub - how are our kids supposed to resist TikTok and increasingly extreme and immersive porn?

The great pornification of society

Consider these changes in different areas of society:

  • TV: from Little House on the Prairie to Too Hot to Handle, Temptation Island, Love Island and other great hits.
  • Video games: from Pac-man and Mario to nearly-naked female characters.
  • Music videos: from videos of the artist singing to softcore porn videos with music in the background.
  • Social media: from pictures of what you ate today to “fitness videos” (softcore porn) and young girls performing trends whose sole purpose is to showcase their body. 
  • Fashion, particularly fitness-related fashion: the clothing becomes more revealing, more skintight, more “sculpting”.

What do you think you’ll find if you make an innocent search on Reddit? Why do you think ASMR videos got popular? Have you seen mobile game ads lately? Everywhere you look, you notice elements of porn have found their way in because it’s so stimulating. Pop culture is shaped by porn culture.

TikTok and Instagram influencers are showing to other women that you can have a career and make money by propelling this porn culture. TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Twitch, YouTube… every place is full of young girls posting sexual content and directing traffic to their OnlyFans, and so we have an entire economy built around the objectification of women, and every place you go gets pornified.

We don’t think there’s anything wrong here. In fact, we cheer how empowering it is that women can succeed with such content. But we’re being played (see the section on “The paint job of supernormal stimuli”). “Empowerment” is marketing speak in the porn industry (and pornified industries), much like “natural ingredients” is marketing speak in the fast food industry. Posting sexual content online isn’t empowering women; it’s reducing them to a hyper-sexualized, male-pleasing persona. 

Imagine you meet a shapeshifting alien who wishes to live on Earth as a human female. They ask you to describe to them what women are. You download every single picture and video of women that you can find on the internet and show them to this alien. How do you think the alien believes they should behave and what they should look like?

It’s not a personal opinion, but fact, to say that porn is a human rights disaster and a public health disaster. Porn promotes violence against women and advances rape culture. Porn funds human trafficking. Porn causes serious mental health issues and addiction. And now porn is taking over mainstream culture, pornifying everything it can. So why aren’t we doing anything about it?

We were able to regulate the old drugs like alcohol and tobacco. At least we’re doing something to prevent minors from being exposed. Why is “are you 18?” the best line of defense we’ve got when it comes to this new drug? My guess is that we are too addicted to it. When countries like Germany or the UK have discussed the possibility of banning porn, people are actively against it.

We need to stop the porn machine, before it consumes our society. But who cares when you can get a bit of dopamine?

Fighting back

It’s not in our biology to resist supernormal stimuli. This resistance must be manually created within the mind - a task that is beyond most of us. Which is why we keep on getting fooled by the plaster egg, and why we don’t do more to regulate industries like porn. 

To be clear, it’s not your nature that you should fight, rather the exploitation of your nature. Don't fight your tendency to seek information, but fight the news. Don't become a celibate monk, but fight porn. Don't make a promise to never eat a slice of pizza ever again, but fight the systematic culture of obesity.

It’s possible to rebel against this exploitation, but it’s hard. And not only because it’s your core instinct to fall for the trap, but also because:

  1. Already addictive stuff gets even more addictive. Some of my friends who were never active on Instagram now spend 1+ hour each day on TikTok. Some friends who didn’t watch a lot of TV growing up now subscribe to Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime…
  2. Stuff that wasn’t addictive before gets addictive. I’m just old enough to remember the early internet. It wasn’t addictive at first, but it became more and more addictive over the years. The classic frog-in-the-pot situation. What’s something we use now that isn’t addictive, but will become so when the technology gets “better” (when “progress” happens)?
  3. Addictive stuff gets more normalized, is integrated into pop culture. Fewer people resist supernormal stimuli, which means you’re alone, fighting both the addiction and the mainstream opinion.

How long can you go without artificially stimulating your brain's pleasure center?

If we are to fight this superstimuli monster, what we want to optimize for is the time we aren’t exposed to it. If you can just stay away, everything else follows. If physical strength is measured by weight (how much you can lift), mental strength is measured by time (how long you can endure without stimuli). Ever been on a flight and realize you forgot to charge your headphones? A flight is unbearable if you don't stimulate yourself. What a realization that we’re so weak mentally we can't do nothing for 2h without significant discomfort…

One criticism of reducing stimulation is this claim that your life becomes dull if you don’t have something very stimulating in it. In my experience though, your life is dull when you overstimulate yourself; the source of “happiness” is predictable. You know that the peak in your life is the thing you’re addicted to. There are few surprises. But when you don’t have a single big source of stimulation, your life is rich and serendipitous. Where does delight come from? You can’t know in advance - it keeps on changing. That’s what makes life full and interesting. 

Escaping the superstimuli trap

It would be optimal if we could recognize a superstimuli trap before falling into it. But this is no easy task. Like any good trap, the supernormal stimuli trap isn’t obvious when we walk into it. 

At first, you really want it, and you really like it, too. There’s no gap between wanting and liking, so it’s easy to justify the consumption because you gain enjoyment from it. After a while, a gap forms between wanting and liking:

  • You hate that your relationship is going downhill because of porn, but you still really want to watch it.
  • You hate how superficial social media is and how much time you waste on it, but you can’t bring yourself to delete your account.
  • You hate how junk food makes you look and feel, but you’re not strong enough to stop eating it.

The negative consequences catch up to you only after you’re hooked. You’re addicted when you know it’s bad, but you can’t stop it. And this is what happens with so many superstimuli - the gap between wanting and liking isn’t obvious at first, but in hindsight, we realize we’ve fallen for the trap.

The question is how do we escape?

The answer is very simple but very hard to follow:

Step 1: Realize you’re in a trap. (The realization part is crucial because, as any addict would tell you, it’s very easy to rationalize the habit. So unless you realize how dangerous superstimuli is, you will talk yourself out of any attempt of quitting for good.)

Step 2: Quit, and stick with it.

This isn’t a blog post about breaking bad habits and addictions. There are other places you can go for that. This is all the practical advice I feel comfortable giving:

  • No matter how much you stimulate your brain, stimulate less.
  • Make the time you can remain unstimulated as long as possible. Think of it exactly like an exercise - something that feels uncomfortable but something you simply must do. At first you can sustain maybe 3 minutes with your thoughts before you get bored and peek at your phone. Next time you can do 4. 
  • 9 out of 10 times, the superstimuli in your life are digital. So a very actionable way to improve your life is to spend more time with the physical, non-digital portion of life. Make the digital world harder to access for yourself. Make the physical world more interesting (get hobbies, make them easier to do). When you do access the digital world, access it with specific goals in mind, and leave when those goals are accomplished. Don’t get sucked in.

On a more general level, I think a deep understanding of both your nature and how it's exploited enables a good life. If you know where the land mines are, you won’t get your legs blown off.

Survival of the least stimulated

Ultimately, I believe stimulation will be a matter of survival. We’ll start to see more people exit the gene pool, either intentionally or accidentally, as the stimulation addiction displaces survival instinct. Though the extreme case, there are already people who die because they game or masturbate too hard (if you don’t believe me, look it up). There are people who consume so much (sensational) news that they genuinely believe it’s not worth bringing a child into this world.

We're already approaching a point with VR porn and "teledildonics" where one may rather mate the technology than a real person. Some would much rather move a video game character than their real bodies. Some people simply prefer a life of pleasure over the tough job of raising kids. They choose virtual friends over real ones, so never have the opportunity to mate. They become more uninterested in the real world as they become more stimulated in the digital world.

Now it may seem like overstimulation, though not ideal, isn’t that big of a deal. Everyone receives a bit too much stimulation, but that doesn’t mean they’d be evolutionarily disadvantaged, at least much. However, I believe the disadvantage will become material already in our lifetime, so much so that we can talk about the survival of the least stimulated.

It’s important to remember that those born in the 2010s will think the current level of stimulation is natural. In 10 years, the level of stimulation has increased exponentially, but those born now will think that level is natural because they grow up with it. What feels supernormal to us will feel normal to them, so how could they understand the danger? 

I fear we will run out of time to act. The dangers of stimulation aren’t apparent now, so we won’t regulate it. Maybe 10-20 years from now the dangers are obvious, and the evolutionary disadvantage is material. But by then, we’ll run out of people who aren’t addicted or didn’t grow up in a supernormal stimuli dystopia. They’ll be the minority while the majority is addicted to stimulation by the time they can read - they won’t give up their sources of pleasure without a fight. 

I don’t think the train can be stopped. The progress is one-directional, only towards more and more stimulation. Corporations can’t stay in business unless they make their offering more stimulating. The best way to fight back is to get off the train while we still can. Over time, those who can’t resist stimulation will exit the gene pool one way or another, and those who can will survive and (hopefully) raise children who know better. Perhaps they will view these new drugs the same way we view old drugs, and they know to be cautious.

I want to stay optimistic and hope that in 15 years, I’ll look back on this post and think “I couldn’t have been more wrong”. But I fear the opposite.

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