Getting off our eggs!

While listening to the radio last week, I heard a description of an astonishing experiment, apparently well known since the 1930’s, but new to me.

Niko Tinbergen conducted experiments in which he replaced birds’ eggs with replicas and then studied how the birds responded to differently-sized replicas with modified markings.

Diedre Barrett describes the results in her book Supernormal Stimuli

Song birds abandoned their pale blue eggs dappled with grey to hop on black polka-dot day-glo blue dummies so large that the birds constantly slid off and had to climb back on.

Hearing this for the first time, I was shocked. But the explanation is simple enough.

The birds are hard-wired to respond to egg-like objects with specific patterns, and Tinbergen’s modified replicas triggered the nesting response more strongly than the bird’s own eggs.

Tinbergen coined the term ‘super-normal stimulus’ to describe stimuli that exceeded anything conceivable in the natural world.

Diedre Barrett uses this shocking experimental result to reflect on some human responses to what are effectively super-normal stimuli in the world around us.

Using this insight, she points out that many of our responses are as simple and self-harming as the birds’ responses to the replica eggs.

The Book

In her short book Barrett writes clearly, makes her point, and then stops. It was a pleasure to read.

I will not attempt to replicate her exposition, but I was powerfully struck by the sad image of a bird condemned to waste its reproductive energy on a plaster egg, when its own eggs lay quietly in view.

I found it easy to find analogous instinctive self-harming patterns in my own life. Surely we all can.

But Barrett does not rant. She is not saying that we are all going to hell in a handcart.

She makes the point that super-normal stimuli are not necessarily negative. The visual arts, dance, music, theatre and literature can all be viewed as tricks/skills to elicit powerful and even life-changing responses to non-existent events.

In discussing television, her point is not that television is ‘bad’ per se, but that the intensity and availability of vicarious experiences exceeds anything a normal person is likely to encounter in real life.

If watching television enhances, educates and inspires, then great. But frequently we respond to the stimuli by just seeking more. In the UK on average we watch more than four hours of television per day.

Four HoursSuch a massive expenditure of time is surely the equivalent to sitting on a giant plaster egg.

Barrett’s key point is the ubiquity of these super-normal stimuli in modern life – stimuli with which our instincts are ill-equipped to cope with.

A rational response feels ‘un-natural’ because it requires conscious thought and reflection. For example, rather than just feeling that an image is ‘cute, are we able to notice our own response and ask why someone might use caricatures which elicit a ‘cute’ response?

Barrett ends by pointing out that we humans are the only animals that can notice that we are sitting on metaphorical polka-dotted plaster eggs.

Even in adult life, having sat on polka-dotted plaster eggs for many years, we can come to an understanding that will allow us to get off the egg, reflect on the experience, and get on with something more meaningful.

I am clambering off some eggs as I write.

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