In his book The Tell-Tale Brain, Dr V.S. Ramachandran talks of the phenomenon known as peak shifting. This is whereby an animal's response to a certain stimuli can be increased by changing particular features about the stimulus.
He shows us how peak shifting* is not only relevant to the animal kingdom which we are so often prepared to divorce ourselves from. It is prevalent in human society as well.
*Ramachandran reminds us that the term peak shifting is already used within biology, however he uses it in a slightly different way.
Ramachandran surmises that in n a hypothetical experiment whereby you have trained a rat to associate the outline of a rectangle with food. Perhaps by placing a silhouette of one above a door with food. In such an experiment once the rat has learned that rectangle means food. If you show it a longer skinnier triangle the rat will prefer this to the one you've trained it with.
This is because the rat has learned to associate rectangularity with food. Therefore anything that displays these properties is preferred to the original.
The Gull Experiment
We know this to be true because of the work of Nobel Prize-winning biologist Nikolas Tinbergen, who carried out pioneering work on gulls in the 1950s.
Tinbergen studied herring gulls in particular. The females of this species are known for their distinctive red spot on their long yellow beaks.
When the gull chick hatches, it begs for food by pecking at the red spot on the underside of its mother's beak. She then dutifully regurgitates her food into the gaping mouth of the chick. (Disgusting and beautiful all at once!)
Tinbergen asked the question; Why does the chick beg for food from its mother as opposed to any passing animal?
So he set about answering this by creating a false beak with a red dot on it. Sure enough a newly hatched chick pecked away at the beak expecting food.
Next Tinbergen wanted to see if he even needed a beak. So he got a strip of cardboard with a red dot on it and sure enough the chick reacted to this and pecked it just as vigorously as the beak previously.
Then the real surprise came. Tinbergen got a long thick stick and painted three red stripes on the end to see what would happen.
The chick went mad. Pecking at the stick with much more intensity than ever before, even though the three stripes bore little resemblance to the red spot.
The Ultranormal Response
Ramachandran calls this an ultranormal response to which it would have been hard to predict beforehand. He opines that if seagulls had art galleries they would hang the long thin stick in such places and revere and worship it in the same way humans do with works of art by Picasso.
We can also see this kind of aesthetic in caricatures. A good caricature takes the best qualities or indeed the most prominent qualities of a face and exaggerates them. Hence we tend to find caricatures pleasing to behold, not because they look exactly like the person they are imitating. Rather we enjoy the features we associate with that person being exaggerated.
Even though I find the woman's face on the extreme right the prettiest. I am most attracted to the woman on the extreme left.
I was once having a conversation with my girlfriend and she was talking about how her ex-boyfriend liked women with a longer back to leg ratio.
It suddenly hit me . . .
So do I!
The strange thing about this revelation is that it had hidden itself from me for around forty years! Which if you think about it is pretty strange.
If you had asked me what my preference in women was I would have given you an answer which didn't include the stipulation that they needed to have a long back to leg ratio.
After my mini epiphany I looked back and realised that plenty of things made sense. Right from not finding particular celebrities attractive. To finding certain other women sexually attractive and not really knowing why.
Of course a long back to leg ratio does not mean I immediately find the person attractive, however it is a base where everything else works from.
Perhaps this is a way of making sure that we breed with our genetic opposites (I have a long leg to body ratio), as this is what creates offspring with the highest chance of survival by ensuring they have a robustness to inherent disease.
Or maybe it is something that is triggered in us at a young age, and therefore remains unfathomable.
Whatever the reason is, once you realise what your particular peak shift is, you will see it everywhere. You will understand why you find some members of the opposite sex attractive even though they at first at seem to have no redeeming features. Also you will find other members unattractive even though they have qualities that you consciously admire.
Title image: Bruce Mars on Unsplash
WHAT'S YOUR PEAK SHIFT? IS A LONG OR SHORT BODY TO LEG RATIO (CONSCIOUSLY OR SUBCONSCIOUSLY) IMPORTANT TO YOU OR IS IT SOME OTHER FEATURE? AS EVER, LET ME KNOW BELOW.