Sitting at my kitchen table, checking email, I suddenly notice that the refrigerator motor has turned itself off. Funny thing about that: Until this moment, I hadn’t been aware that it was on! Something like this happens all the time, to everyone, and herein lies a tale.
Walk into a Starbucks, and you immediately smell the coffee. Stay there for a while, and the aroma vanishes. Well, no: The aroma doesn’t vanish, any more than the refrigerator motor wasn’t working when I didn’t hear it. Rather, we simply become insensitive to stimuli that keep impinging on ourselves, so long as those stimuli are persistent, relatively unchanging and don’t seem to lead to anything consequential. The technical term is “habituation.”
It’s the simplest form of learning: Learning not to respond to something. It happens in animals, too; in fact, some evidence suggests that it occurs even in protozoa: Expose them to a mildly noxious chemical and initially they move away. Keep up the exposure and they often stop responding, as though they no longer “take it seriously.” It is a highly adaptive behavior in nature, too. Imagine, say, a nestling bird that responds every time a leaf or a cloud floats by. When first hatched, baby birds often react to leaves and clouds, but over time they habituate, responding very differently, of course, to a novel stimulus (such as a predator) or a frequently repeated but consequential stimulus, such as the parent returning with a beak-full of food.
Habituation is clearly an important trait. Logic alone, confirmed by its universality in essentially all complex animals, suggests that evolution has favored—selected for—its existence, in human beings no less than in other critters.
Why am I going on about habituation? Because it occurs to me that our species-wide inclination to habituate is probably a double-edged sword. It simplifies our lives, facilitates ignoring irrelevant stimuli. Without it, life for us all would be even more challenging than William James’s account of a baby’s impression of the world as “one great blooming, buzzing confusion.” With it, however, I fear we are at risk of ignoring events that may be highly consequential in the long run, but that are barely detectable, if at all, on a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day basis.
Paul Ehrlich once suggested that if the air pollution in the Los Angeles area had suddenly arrived overnight, people would have run screaming into the hills (or maybe to Sacramento, demanding redress). But as it is, Angelino children grow up thinking the sky is naturally yellow and wonder about the blue stuff that blows in every now and then. It is similarly asserted that if you drop a frog into boiling water, it will jump out and save itself, but if you place it in a bucket of cold water that is heated only gradually, the poor animal won’t notice the slight changes … until it dies of overheating. I’ve never had the heart to find out if this is literally true, but it nonetheless serves all too well as a cautionary metaphor.
For what? Well, for slowly accumulating pollution of all sorts, notably including global warming, but not limited to that particular disaster, unfolding gradually, inexorably, yet almost insensibly. For a wide range of progressively diminished environmental quality, degradations that, arriving slowly and hence imperceptibly, fall under our immediate radar. For the steady accumulation of wealth and income in a decreasing percentage of the population.
Nor are the perils of habituation limited to my fellow liberals/progressives/leftists: Right-wingers worry – wrongly, in my opinion, but they worry nonetheless – about the steady march of “socialism” on our “road to serfdom,” about the ongoing erosion of public morals along with the ostensibly continuing “homosexual threat” to marriage, our steady slide into perdition … all facilitated (insofar as they exist at all), by their gradual and therefore barely perceptible indicators.
With too much habituation, in short, comes the risk of too-easy acceptance of various “new normals,” no matter how degraded or even downright dangerous. But then, we aren’t really frogs … Right?