Did you ever wonder how big box store employees don’t murderize people during the holidays, given the constant repetition of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You?” We’ll explain. You can thank a principle called habituation for the lack of ax blade in the back of your head as you hunt for Cards Against Humanity expansion packs in aisle 37.
Remember when you thought that co-worker was funny or sexy or cool and then one day, after knowing them for a while, you just kinda blinked yourself out of it at the copy machine? You could look at them and say, empirically, that sure, they’re attractive, or bright, or that they’ve got a good sense of humor—but the package just doesn’t tempt you now it’s not so fresh.
Or let’s say you’ve got a neighbor whose chickens squawk every morning at 5 a.m. It ruins your life for the first eight or nine days, then suddenly it starts to bother you less. Eventually you sleep through it. Only remember it’s even happening when a hookup sleeps over one night and wakes up flailing.
City-dwellers experience this exact same thing. They get used to the street noises, and eventually don’t even notice. In fact, if you send them off to the woods, they can’t fall asleep for the terrible, terrible silence. Import a garbage truck and some honking cabs, and it’s off to the land of nod.
These are all examples of habituation, the decrease in responsiveness upon exposure to a stimulus over time. So it’s not just getting used to something. It’s getting so used to something that we stop clocking it’s even there.
Which happens more often, and in more arenas of our daily lives, than we might figure. Sex, work, the smell of our own breath—everything but chronic pain, to which we never habituate, instead remaining in the Poe-like grip of it.
These things are so mundane, and have elicited so little consequence over the long run that our brains tell us no harm will come of ignoring them. Tells us we might in fact be better off keeping our eyes and ears open for bigger, better, meaner things.
So we tune them out.
Psychology Today covers a study in which a patient’s head is held “in a comfortable vice” while drugs are administered that temporarily paralyze the muscles of a single eye. With that eye just staring blankly at the same spot in a room for just a few minutes, without any sort of action unfolding before it, the eye eventually stops seeing anything at all. Our brains are programmed to be on the lookout for new, opportunistic, potentially threatening stimuli. Period.
If, after a while, our brains feel they can rest assured that nothing interesting is likely from a given direction, they literally go blind to that vector of stimuli. Reallocate that focus toward something else.
Which isn’t an inherently bad thing. It keeps our brains from overloading on a surfeit of stimuli. Self-preservation and, as mentioned above, a basis for opportunity.
Let’s say you’re sitting at home waiting to hear the jingle of the Good Humoresque truck that crawls through the neighborhood sharpening knives (it’s a real thing). But the smoothie machines in the store downstairs run nonstop. Imagine if your brain was perpetually fixated on that blender drone. You’d have no room to think about anything else, to notice anything else. But, eventually, your brain tunes out that continuous sound. Now your ears are open to catch the knife truck’s jingle, and you can go stand on the lawn and have your butcher knives sharpened. Just in time for your Christmas Eve shift at the store.
Great. But see a potential hazard to habituation?
As author Neil Swidey points out in his book Trapped Under the Sea, most workplace accidents – whether you’re painting the breakroom or building a skyscraper – take place toward the end of a project.
“The more people do something without suffering a bad outcome, the harder it becomes for them to remain aware of the risks associated with that behavior.”
Remember that kid who lops off his own arm with a buzz saw in that Robert Frost poem they made you read in junior high? Or that noise of the lawnmower that becomes conspicuous only after its absence.
So the real risk of habituation is that things do come up with whatever it is you’ve told yourself is fine and static and safe. You need that occasional spike, that occasional rhythmic disruption, to keep your head in the game.
In the next blog, we’ll delve more into how Focus@Will was designed to circumvent habituation. The playlists you listen to are crafted to have a kind of ebb-and-flow that’s just steady enough to fall into the background but just punchy enough to hook your brain now and then, remind you that it’s there.
See you next week, Mateys. But, if you can’t wait, check out focusatwill.com