[Exploiting supernormal stimuli]

How could a beer bottle lead to the near extinction of the Australian jewel beetle? If you are thinking toxic chemicals or the destruction of the beetle’s habitat, you are on the wrong track. The answer is that the beer bottle was just too sexy! You simply have to watch this amazing 3-min clip:

So, there you have it: the perfect example of a ‘Supernormal Stimulus’: the bottle was just as orange as the female jewel beetle, but it was much bigger and it had many more dimples. Supernormal stimuli are things which trigger certain responses in the way that natural stimuli do – only much more so. Here are three examples:

·       We have evolved to find ripe fruit deliciously sweet, but fruit cannot compete against cheesecake which (in the words of Steven Pinker) ‘packs a sensory wallop’.

·      Men have evolved to find pretty women sexually attractive, but even top models cannot compete against the digitally enhanced images we are exposed  to today.

·       We have evolved to crave belonging and acceptance, but no social circle can compete against the social media which can deliver more pats on the back in the form of ‘likes’ in a single day than some people would normally get in a lifetime.

OK – so what does all this have to do with EL teaching? Well, in her excellent book ‘Supernormal Stimuli’ (p. 159) Deidre Barrett mentions one more type which is of particular interest to us: ‘humans were rewarded by nature for seeking novel, challenging problems and attacking them […] the intellectual curiosity generates its own ‘supernormal stimuli’ – problems more intriguing than real life’.

Think about sudoku puzzles or crosswords; these do not exist in nature and they can be extremely addictive. Of course, sudoku puzzles will not help you improve your English, but crosswords most certainly would. Here are three more ideas (answers below):

·       Logical puzzles: e.g. ‘A baseball bat and a ball, together cost $ 1.10; the bat costs $ 1 more than the ball. How much does each of them cost?’

·       Lateral thinking puzzles: e.g. ‘There are a carrot, a pile of pebbles, and a pipe lying together in the middle of a field. Why are they there?’

·       Riddles: e.g. ‘If I have three, I have three; if I have two, I have two, but if I have one, I have none. What is it?’

So this is the moral: use puzzles in class. Students simply love them – and the same is true for teachers. I often finish a presentation with some rapid-fire questions like the following: ‘How many times can you take 4 from 33?’ And my absolute favourite: ‘What do you sit on, sleep on and brush your teeth with?’ Enjoy! 😊

The Moral: For top motivation, use puzzles and riddles in class.

[ Answers: $ 1.05 and $ 0.05  / They are what is left of a snowman / Choices / All the months naturally! / a chair, a bed and a toothbrush of course! 😊 ]