The Atlantic gives us some prime holiday content with a discussion of what a 20th-century Dutch biologist Nikolaas Tinbergen calls “supernormal stimuli”—fake and exaggerated versions of their natural equivalents, which some animals respond to more strongly than they do to the real thing. For example:

Certain types of fish, he found, would become more violent towards dummy fish whose undersides were more vibrant than the species’ usual color; mother birds would ignore their own eggs to sit on a nest of larger, more colorful imitations, or divert food from their children to feed models of chicks with brighter beaks.

For other examples: the fact that we like Twizzlers better than licorice root, and also food porn, and also porn-porn. But of course, it’s not that simple:

On its face, the comparison makes sense: People like sugar and people like sex; candy and pornography are both super-concentrated, turbocharged doses of more natural sensory experiences.

On closer examination, though, one of these things is not like the other: The pleasure of sugar is delivered the same way—taste—whether it comes from a strawberry or a piece of strawberry taffy. Pornography, on the other hand, is a different sensory experience than the real thing, relying on sight and sound in place of touch.

It’s the same with food porn. Eating often begins as a visual experience, but soon gets straight into touch, smell and taste; hot burger pics stop their stimulus at the eyes. The research on how this plays out is conflicting: the Atlantic cites a 2012 study that “found that just looking at pictures of food may be enough to cause an uptick in ghrelin, a hormone that causes hunger.” Another study found the opposite effect, in certain circumstances:

One 2011 study found that looking at pictures of food may turn people off from the real thing—but only if the food in the image has a similar flavor to whatever real item is about to be consumed. When volunteers viewed photos of salty snacks and then ate salted peanuts, they tended to enjoy the nuts less than people who had viewed photos of desserts.

It makes you hungrier, or it turns you off—sounds like porn proper to me. I like reading about food better than looking at it, anyway, as evidenced in this lovingly collected list of Farmer Boy binges that I probably put together while... hungry. Anyway, here’s to supernormal stimuli in whatever form you like it.

Image via Shutterstock


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