The Cage of Habituation

not seeing life's wonders

The first time you saw a butterfly you were probably only a year old—still rather new to the planet. You were undoubtedly astonished. This fluttering petal of color didn’t conform to categories you were beginning to understand like “bird” or “bug.”  Your brain and body were surely enchanted.

Science tells us awe expands our perception of time.  Perhaps our early years take up so much more space in our memories because of all those firsts — jumping in a puddle, leaping from a diving board, riding a bike, driving a car, falling in love.

This has to do with habituation. The term simply means we respond very little or not at all to what we become accustomed to. For example, if you move to an apartment near an airport you’ll notice the loud, intrusive sound as each plane passes over. Eventually you’ll habituate and barely notice, if at all. We habituate to minor annoyances like noise pollution (although it can still affect our health). We also habituate to far more serious problems  — unhappy relationships, difficult working conditions, fractious politics.

Our minds habituate in order to make things easy for us. Heck, we can read right through misspellings because we’ve gotten accustomed to letter groupings that form words.

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.

Our eyes march through such sentences and our brains make sense of them, even if they’re nonsense.

Habituation is also what drains clichés of meaning. When phrases like “out of the box”  or”caught red-handed” were first uttered they were ingenious, but repetition means we’re so inured that don’t pause for a moment to consider boxes or red hands.

Our brains gloss over what’s commonplace to such an extent that we’re not really looking as we walk through our homes or offices, not thinking as we open a drawer to take out a spoon, barely aware of the route as we drive the same streets to the same stores.

Patterned behaviors ease our progress through the day. But they make our lives so automatic that they don’t feel lived, either. Sipping coffee after 4,000 cups isn’t the same as sipping it the first few times. Tucking your child into bed becomes routine as putting on your shoes. The more familiar an experience is, the less fully we experience it. That’s true of ice cream, friendships, changing seasons, and marriages. The marvel of a single leaf that feeds on sunlight, breathing out what we need to breathe in, rarely registers as more than an object making up the word “tree.”

We have to allow our minds to habituate, at least much of the time. If we didn’t, if we truly perceived the wonders around us, we’d fall to our knees in astonishment every moment.

But let’s enjoy as much awe-drenched living as we can.  To that end, here are two quick suggestions to get past habituation, when we choose.

The first is developing a gratitude practice. Pause several times a day, breathe in deeply and exhale fully, then let yourself appreciate something right there in the moment. The chewy texture of the bagel you’re eating, the excited chatter of children tussling over a toy, the bliss of a headache gone, the relief of enough money to pay your utility bills, the lovely relaxed feeling of a yawn.  As John Milton wrote,  “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world. ”

The second is noticing moments of wonder. Many of us happen upon moments of wonderment in nature. (Nature isn’t somewhere else, it’s everywhere around us.) But the experience of awe isn’t limited to the natural world. It’s wherever you find it —the riff of a hilarious conversation, skiing on unbroken snow, opening to a spiritual insight, collaborating closely with a team, listening to music that transports you, reading an extraordinary writer’s work, coming across unexpected beauty. Part of this has to do with simply paying attention, but also to leaving more room in our lives for awe-inspiring experiences.

Let’s be as alive to our moments as we can. That way every butterfly still seems new.

 

 

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21 thoughts on “The Cage of Habituation

  1. Why call habituation a “cage?” It’s very unsafe to completely relax without some degree of habituation, just as it’s unsafe to be so habituated that one may fail to notice danger. Mindfulness is a nice middle ground, but it doesn’t seem to reach past today’s technology. I worry about the millennials — when everything is “instant” and not very deep, to what are they really becoming habituated?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps “cage” wasn’t the best way to characterize it. Habituation is necessary, but can also be stifling and shut too much out. Mindfulness helps us reach past it. So can daydreaming, and the soft focus that comes with sleepiness, and the sense-enhancing experience of falling in love. Daily rituals seem like cages to many people but I’m the sort who finds my small rituals delightful, so they’re not cages at all. It may be the thousandth time I’ll walk out to the barn but I’m right there in the experience.

      As for millennials, I don’t worry too much. Despite the quandaries of their elders, the teen and 20-somethings I know are thoughtful, insightful, grateful, and connected people. The world will be in good hands when they take over. I’m starting to think we should hand it over to them tomorrow.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. To train ourselves to have lucid dreams, part of the exercises include looking for contextual oddities. Look for someone each day that shines like diamonds. The next day, look for something that refracts light. The color red. Water running….

    You’ll be amazed what you notice when you intentionally focus on that thing. Just as police see crime everywhere, and doctors see illness everywhere.

    It raises the question, then….what would happen if you looked for beauty everywhere?

    Like

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