Ever wonder why you don't feel the clothes you wear? Or why do comedy films become less funny the more you rewatch them? Or why does a particular dish always taste better the first time you had it?
These are examples of habituation. Habituation is the automatic process of adapting to circumstances, so they don't affect you like they once did.
Habituation is a powerful concept being applied in treating psychological disorders like Phobia, OCD, and PTSD. Like a brain hack, this method could alter the perception of the mind on various stimuli that otherwise may cause stress or anxiety.
This begs the question, can we use habituation to hack our brains to be more effective in different areas of our lives?
How does habituation works?
There are conflicting ideas about habituation, but the core principle remains. It is the decrease in our response to a stimulus the longer we are exposed to it. When you experience a stimulus for the first time, your response is instant and intense. After repeated exposures, you become desensitized to it as if it is "normal".
As part of our survival, the brain gradually adjusts to the changes in the circumstances in our surroundings. So they don't affect us like they once did.
Habituation works at the neuronal level. When you encounter a new stimulus for the first time, your brain releases biochemicals, including dopamine– a neurotransmitter responsible for strengthening neural formation in the brain. This allows you to feel intense emotions towards a new experience.
However, as you experience an event repeatedly, the brain releases less and less dopamine, resulting in less stimulation of the neural pathways. Hence, the decrease in your response to repeated events.
For example, your first kiss will never be the same as the succeeding ones. However, this is not a negative process. Surely you wouldn't want to be broken-hearted whenever you recall a lost love or feel angry remembering a bad decision years ago.
How can you use habituation principles to your advantage?
Habituation occurs in your daily life even if you are unaware of it.
As you grow older, you acquire habits based on the things you spend most of your time on. Over time, you develop a rhythm in your daily activities, and these habits eventually become your “normal”. You gradually wear your habits like a glove, and with increasing familiarity, it almost literally becomes a part of your persona.
Highly effective individuals operate the same way. They are habituated to stimuli that otherwise may rattle other people – things like challenges, public speaking, negotiating with the client, or dealing with consequences. They are exposed to these events for countless hours, getting used to them and becoming good at resolving them.
Using the same principle, you can learn new things that pose a challenge to you. This could include:
- If you want to learn to speak confidently in public, you must habituate yourself to the experience of expressing your thoughts in front of an audience.
- If you want to eat healthier, you must habituate yourself to the process of cooking and choosing more nutritious foods.
- If you want to build a better physique, you must show up to the gym even if you don’t feel like it. You must habituate yourself to the environment and the contraction of your muscles during an exercise.
At first, doing these may feel awkward and unnatural. But over time, these negative reactions will fade, and the action becomes normal for you.
You can gradually and repeatedly expose yourself to the things that challenge you or cause stress until you overcome them.
How to use habituation to form new habits?
Think about any habit you'd like to adopt: exercise regularly, eat healthy foods, get sufficient sleep, or practice mindfulness. At first, you will have a hard time practicing the said habit - let's use physical exercise as an example.
The first day at the gym may be one of the hardest days in your life. You may be panting, trying to catch up with your breath, sweating heavily, or even experiencing muscle cramps. After about one week of daily exercise at the gym, you'll start to get in line with the routine. Your muscles would not be as sore as before, and you wouldn't be panting like when you started.
After one month of regular exercise, your body becomes so used to the workout routine that you don't feel right when you miss a day without doing physical exercise. That's how significant habituation is in helping us form habits.
However, there's a flip side to habituation.
You'll eventually plateau as you become stronger and better at your workouts. A plateau means your gains will not be as much, and your workouts will not be as effective.
A plateau means that you will not get the same results as before until you modify your workouts and increase the difficulty of your exercises. This is the downside of habituation. Over time, getting used to a habit formed will not give you the same desired results as before.
This is also the case with other habits. Choosing to stick with only one routine will not be effective over time. The key is to mix your habits to maintain their effectiveness.
The great thing is that Ultiself has a library of over 300 science-backed habits where you can choose habits for various areas of your life that you want to improve. You can easily mix and match habits based on your goal and personal preference. It is easy and quick to set up.
The brain prioritizes things that need your attention. After repeated exposure to a stimulus, your response weakens. We stop responding to stimuli we thought were no longer biologically relevant.
However, the brain is good at detecting changes in stimulus. Therefore, it immediately identifies deviations from our "normal".
This is the concept of Dishabituation. It involves changes in the stimulus resulting in heightened responses to events we already experienced as if they were new.
For example, say, you live in a cold region and wear heavy jackets daily. You'll adapt to wearing heavy jackets so that you'll not think about them all the time. Then you go to a warmer region for a vacation and stop wearing heavy clothes. Once the holiday is over, you return home and resume your old warm dressing. This resumption will make you constantly aware of the heavy garments you have on.
This concept can also be applied when you become habituated with bad habits or become too complacent in your comfort zone. Sometimes, we need to change bits of our routines to feel more present and become more aware of our negative patterns.
Habituation is an essential adaptive process. It lets us filter irrelevant stimuli, helping us pay attention to more relevant ones. But, it can sometimes have negative consequences. For example, when you become habituated to the things that make you happy, like your job or spouse. In such a case, giving your senses new stimulation is crucial. This way, you'll get used to what matters most in your life.