Supernormal Stimuli & the Three-Breasted Women


Actress Kaitlyn Leeb in 2012's "Total Recall." Image via Film Actually

The human organism is drawn by certain naturally-occurring stimuli to carry out various functions in our genetic programing to eat, breed and survive. But through our art and technology we've learned to tweak such stimuli into supernormal forms.

And so we live in a world of super-sweet candy, super-fatty fries, super-immerse video games, make-up, Photoshop, cosmetic surgery and unrealistic pornographic visions. We call this supernormal stimuli and it's the topic of our latest podcast episode.

Total Recall

As a child of the VHS era, my mind naturally turned to 1990's "Total Recall." The film positively pulsed with evocative stimuli, mostly in the form of ultra violence and otherworldly visuals, but also in the form of a three-breasted prostitute. I'm sure you're familiar with the scene. The 2012 remake included the above homage.

(Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty)

What better example of supernormal stimuli is there? Supernumerary nipples do occur in 1-6 percent of the human population, but even the most extreme cases are little more than miniature milk-bearing breasts.

We simply don't see such a symmetric display in the natural world. But that's the key here: Art and technology allow us to make the impossible real. If two breasts are great, than three are surely even better.

And, as you can see from the 1400 CE Djenne terracotta figure to the right, the idea and symbolism of a three-breasted figure is hardly a 20th century invention. We've dreamed of such things for ages.

The Realm of Forms

In our podcast episode "Supernormal Stimuli," I spend a good bit of time discussing Plato's forms and how ideal versions of stimuli stand as a sort of pantheon of gods beyond the limits of our material world.

Our super-stimulating art attempts to capture those ideals, but the best we can manage is an exaggerated avatar that approximates unobtainable perfection.

As such, it's interesting to note that a three-breasted goddess exists in the pantheon of Hindu deities. Below we see Minakshi, an avatar of Parvati and consort of Shiva. According to "The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism," she was born with fish eyes and a third breast. This later feature vanished (along with her power as a warrior) when she ventures into the presence of the mighty Shiva.

She is still worshiped to this day in Southern India, a supernormal take on the human form.

The goddess Minakshi
Graham Klotz/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.