So moving on from learning, we are going to look at a type of learning known as habituation. Habituation is essentially when your response to a repeated stimulus declines over time.
So, let’s give it a real life application; babies. Babies seem pretty impressed with a great deal of things, and why shouldn’t they be? Everything is new to them. However, let’s say you introduce something to them, like a jar of strawberry jam. You show it to them, they are greatly impressed with your find and stare at it for about 30 seconds to a minute. Now, if you take it away and reintroduce it in the general area of 4-5 times (depending on age and stage development) the little one will pay less and less attention over time, many calling this “bored” (what we call habituated, yay!). This concept of becoming “bored” by mundane things like a jar is a key to how we survive. The jar of jam obviously presented no real threat, thusly although the baby will acknowledge that “yes it exists” each time you show it to them they will assume that it is unthreatening (which it is). Another example of habituation is the olfactory (or smell) responses we have. My friend studies at UNSW with mice, and obviously the offices surrounding it smell of mice. She is used to it, I however almost died from asphyxiation when I walked in to have lunch with her. I thought to myself, “how the hell does she sit here all day with this smell?” then it dawned on me. Her scent of smell has become so accustomed to the smell of mice that it doesn’t bother her at all.
I bet you are thinking “so it is just adaption that you are describing”.
Hmm… Not so much.
Adaption is a change in function, structure or behaviours yes, but, it is that which a species utilizes to improve the survival in a specific environment; Habituation however, is more like forming a habit or an accustomisation to a stimuli.
Blah blah blah. What is the difference?
The difference lies in the fact that habituation is learning, whereas adaption is evolutionary/biological change. For example, fish don’t just suddenly become incapable of breathing underwater. However, they can become less startled over time should they be habituated by a sound under the water. So habituation can be more likened to a thing we call “reflex”.
A reflex is essentially an action that is performed with conscious thought as a response to a stimuli. I could go into a really lengthy explanation here, however this YouTube clip does a far better job of showing you the functions (and hilarity) of reflex actions http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-i2aYahxz8
So how do we tell the difference in terms of adaption and habituation in science and experimentation? We use a thing called “dishabituation”. Dishabituation is where the stimulus that was habituated becomes sensitive again (pretty much, reacting to an old stimulus as if it were new).
Ok then, but what do you measure? As mentioned in the cognitive psychology post we need to measure the behaviours. We measure behaviours because habituation and dishabituation is a form of learning and (if you read the previous post about learning) we measure that by what people do.
So these mechanism that help us process our environment are those which keep us safe (relatively) and help us to continue to thrive on this little rock flying through the nebulously amazing masses of our universe (one thing I doubt I will ever become habituated to).