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When in doubt, look to the caveman to gain insight as to why we do what we do. Our ancestral make-up is exceptionally resilient and unchanging and yet our modern world is terribly ill-suited to these ancient behaviors that were critical to our survival.
Recently I was introduced to the term supernormal stimuli. Supernormal stimuli are exaggerated versions of normal stimuli in our modern world that would have attracted us as cavemen. One example of supernormal stimuli are video games that involve hunting and killing targets. As caveman, we received a rush of brain chemicals when we made a kill that resulted in feeding ourselves or are families. Why? So we would pursue our prey and survive.
Our brain releases dopamine in the reward circuit so that we are motivated to pursue this behavior. In the caveman days, we would kill a target every few days or so but in a modern video game, the stimulation is almost constant- several kills in a manner of minutes. The brain chemistry is the same though so we develop an attraction to these supernormal stimuli.
We are bombarded by supernormal stimuli almost constantly. Junk foods are the supernormal stimuli for our ancestral need to load up on fruits and nuts when encountered them in order to survive. Our brain chemistry created a motivational state to consume the extra calories. However in the modern world, food is readily available so there is no need to consume junk food. Good sense says no but our caveman brain says yes.
In short, our motivational circuits were wired in long ago in order to ensure our survival. The modern world fools and tempts us constantly with these same sorts of stimuli in an exaggerated form. Junk food and video games are only a couple of examples. Pornography is another omnipresent example. Is social media a supernormal stimuli that rewards our motivational circuits to be connected?
As I was studying this phenomenon, I wondered how a someone could incorporate these concepts into effective coaching, especially personal development coaching. I came up with a few ideas:
1. It is critical that clients understand the deep-seated nature of our distractions and temptations. We have inherited brain chemistry from our ancestors that makes us seek what was a rare opportunity back in the day. No need to call ourselves weak-willed now.
2. At the same time, realize that distractions do drain our energy. The pre-frontal cortex is heavily involved in redirecting us from impulses. However, it is an energy hog so we have to give it a little help. It is better to remove a distraction than to resist it.
3. Know your unique triggers. Perhaps junk food holds no appeal to you because you have a systems override in place that is effective in dismissing the temptation. What else tempts and distracts you?
4. You can’t live in a constant state of self-denial either. That can also exhaust the brain. What are reasonable substitutes or limitations can redirect your mind but still give you a reward?
5. Explore the practical impact of supernormal stimuli and your reactions to them. The rule of thumb is that if they are having a significant negative impact on your life, perhaps you may need a set of strategies to manage them. One video game night binge with your friends isn’t likely to put you on the bread line. Waking up late for work every day because you’ve been gaming all night could!
Understanding our ancestral brain and how it interfaces with the challenges of the modern world is continually unfolding. In subsequent blogs, I will explore some of the other ways our caveman brains can help or sabotage us.