Definitions

habituation

habituation

[huh-bich-oo-ey-shuhn]

Reduction of an animal's behavioral response to a stimulus, as a result of a lack of reinforcement during continual exposure to the stimulus. Habituation is usually considered a form of learning in which behaviours not needed are eliminated. It may be separated from most other forms of decreased response on the basis of permanence; the habituated animal either does not resume its earlier reaction to the stimulus after a period of no stimulus, or, if the normal reaction is resumed on reexposure to the stimulus, it wanes more quickly than before. Vital responses (e.g., flight from a predator) cannot be truly habituated.

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In psychology, habituation is the psychological process in humans and animals in which there is a decrease in behavioral response variation to a stimulus after repeated exposure to that stimulus over a duration of time.

Background

Habituation is very similar to acclimation, in that repetition of certain behaviors that are rewarding to a life form will likely be continued, or ingrained in a habitual manner. For example, for all life forms on Earth, obtaining life-sustaining matter that exists externally from those beings, such as food, water and shelter, is an habituated behavior. The learning underlying habituation is a fundamental or basic process of biological systems and does not require conscious motivation or awareness to occur. Indeed, without habituation we would be unable to distinguish meaningful information from the background, unchanging information. Habituation has been shown in essentially every species of animal, including the large protozoan Stentor coeruleus.

Psychological significance in humans

Habituation need not be conscious - for example, a short time after a human dresses in clothing, the stimulus clothing creates disappears from our nervous systems and we become unaware of it. In this way, habituation is used to ignore any continual stimulus, presumably because changes in stimulus level are normally far more important than absolute levels of stimulation. This sort of habituation can occur through neural adaptation in sensory nerves themselves and through negative feedback from the brain to peripheral sensory organs.

Habituation is frequently used in testing psychological phenomena. Both adults and infants gaze lesser at a particular visual stimulus the longer it is presented. The amount of time spent looking at a new stimulus after habituation to the initial stimulus indicates the effective similarity of the two stimuli. It is also used to discover the resolution of perceptual systems. For instance, by habituating someone to one stimulus, and then observing responses to similar ones, one can detect the smallest degree of difference that is detectable.

Dishabituation is when a second stimulus is presented in unison with a primary stimulus, and may briefly increase habituated response toward the primary stimulus until an organism distinguishes, or discriminates the differences between two different stimuli. Dishabituation has been demonstrated as being inherently different than psychological sensitization.

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