Habituation: Definition, Technique & Examples

Instructor: Stephanie Gorski

Steph has a PhD in Entomology and teaches college biology and ecology.

In this lesson, we'll talk about why habituation is very important to you! We'll discuss the differences between habituation, dishabituation, sensitization, and food conditioning, and we'll talk about the important impact of habituation on wildlife.

Habituation, Dishabituation, and Sensitization

What would it be like if you couldn't get out of bed without thinking about how the floor felt on your feet? What if you had to consciously think about moving your muscles? What if you kept reacting to the sound of your watch, or the way your chair felt? You probably wouldn't be able to get a whole lot done. That's how habituation helps us.

Habituation is a kind of learning that occurs when you become accustomed to a stimulus and stop reacting to it. Short-term habituation happens when your brain reduces the amount of neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) it releases. Long-term habituation happens when connections in the synapses of your brain (the structures that allow your brain cells to pass information to each other) actually change. If a rat habituates to objects in a maze after being allowed to play a few minutes, that's short-term habituation. If the same objects are in the maze every time the rat comes to play, the rat will experience long-term habituation.

A typical synapse. The little hexagons are neurotransmitters.
A typical synapse.  The little hexagons are neurotransmitters.

Exposure therapy, which is used to encourage habituation, is sometimes used when treating disorders like phobias. One of the benefits of this technique is that the phobia sufferer is in control of how he or she encounters the scary stimulus. A habituation technique called attention modification training is being investigated for obsessive compulsive disorder and social anxiety. The sufferer is shown pictures of stimuli on a computer, some neutral stimuli and some 'scary' stimuli. He or she is asked to find a dot, which may appear after the neutral or the scary stimulus. By increasing the number of times the dot occurs after the neutral stimulus, the sufferer slowly increases their attention to the neutral stimulus and decreases their attention to the scary stimulus.

Dishabituation is when you start reacting to a stimulus again after habituating to it, because something about the stimulus has changed. For example, if you learn to ignore a loud sound, you may pay attention if the tone of the sound changes. This is why the sirens on emergency vehicles change.

One strange example of dishabituation is the 'Bowery El Phenomenon.' The Bowery El was a train that ran through a neighborhood in New York in the 1960s. The train would pass by a lot of apartment buildings at 2am. Then, the 2am train stopped running. For about two weeks, police received a lot of calls from residents of the apartments around that time. Strangely, though, many of those calls were false alarms. It's believed that people woke up in the middle of the night, alarmed, because they were so used to hearing the train pass that the lack of train noises woke them up.

A similar response to dishabituation is sensitization, in which you learn to respond strongly to a stimulus you may otherwise ignore or one that you may respond to, but just a little bit. If you've had a bad experience with a particular kind of alcohol and vowed never to drink it again, you've experienced sensitization. Dishabituation and sensitization may sound like the same thing, but sensitization differs in that the reaction to the stimulus is new, not a reclaiming of a reaction that may otherwise have existed. Sensitization can be very general, meaning that you might be attuned to many stimuli, while habituation and dishabituation are quite specific to a particular stimulus. Animal studies show that dishabituation and sensitization seem to be governed by entirely different neural processes.

Habituation and Wildlife

You need habituation, and so do animals! Birds and squirrels don't have time to re-learn what stimuli to respond to every morning either. Habituation is so important that it's even been found in sea slugs (Aplysia californica), which are not normally known for their intellectual nature.

But more and more, animals are becoming habituated to human-made situations. This can be harmful to them. For example, it's been found that animals near military training activities can become habituated to the noise. This can interfere with their ability to avoid danger or find mates.

However, habituation isn't all bad. Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), for example, are in the process of becoming more habituated to humans. This could be dangerous to the eagles (although killing a bald eagle is illegal in the US). But it also means that the eagles have access to more nesting sites.

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