Nearly everyone agrees that people are behaving very strangely since the Internet ate our brains. But why is that? Why would this network of bits and bytes cause us all to suddenly act like cracked-out zombies? The weirdest thing about it is it’s not weird at all, it’s actually completely natural.
We’re having a natural response to an unnatural stimulus. Today we’re constantly surrounded by weird beeping blinking vibrating devices. These gadgets are designed to dominate your attention, and they succeed. and it’s so relentless and constant that it’s hard not to become equally weird ourselves.
The scary part is that it’s all completely natural. Scientists have discovered that even animals in the wild can start acting in very strange ways when faced with a stimulus they’re not used to.
One scientist studied mother songbirds who were waiting for their eggs to hatch. In nature, those eggs were typically blue with black speckles. The scientist made a fake nest with fake eggs that were bigger and bluer than the birds natural eggs and placed it right next to the real next with real eggs. What did mama bird do when she saw those to nests? She sat on the fake eggs instead of the real ones.
He studied under another type of mother bird who fed her babies by dropping food into their large red open mouth. He made a fake baby bird mouth that was bigger and redder and put it on a stick. What did mother do? She fed the stick.
Scientists have a fancy pants name for this—it’s called a supernormal stimulus. It’s an exaggerated version of something found in real life. And because nature has wired us to have a certain reaction to those things, we often respond to the fake version more strongly and consistently then we do to the real thing.
Now you might say, “We’re human beings, we don’t sit on eggs or spit in our babies’ mouths.” Or we won’t admit to it, anyway. That may be true. But nature has wired us to do certain things and have certain responses even when we don’t know we’re having them. Many of those responses have helped us survive over thousands of years. Thousands of years ago flash of light used to mean “Danger¾beware!” It might be lightning, or fire, or something worse. Now it’s just a pop-up ad in your web browser. Your rational mind knows that it’s nothing to worry about, but your animal brain sits up, takes notice, and gives that top priority. Every single time, and little by little we train ourselves just stay focused on that thing that makes noise and flashes light. And to keep watching for more. And then we’re hooked.