Habituation is a form of learning in which the response to a specific stimulus decreases over time as a result of frequent repetition or lengthy exposure. After experiencing the same stimulus repeatedly, the subject (human or animal) learns to pay progressively less attention to it until it is completely ignored, and the subject has no physiological response to its occurrence.
An example of habituation is illustrated by an individual who lives near a busy airport: At first, the person is keenly aware of the loud and frequent sounds of jet engines overhead and may also react to the airport smells. Over time, the sounds and sensations fade until they are either background noise or not noticeable. The longer the stimulus is present and the more exposures there are, the quicker the individual habituates. Habituation is specific to the stimulus presented; habituating to airport sounds would not have any impact on the startle response caused in the person by a passing ambulance with its siren blasting.
Habituation is an important aspect of learning, as it helps the subject distinguish between safe and dangerous situations in the environment, differentiating between what is important and what can safely be ignored. Habituation can occur in the brain, when it chooses to ignore a repeated stimulus and ceases responding on a neuronal level or the brain cells can continue to fire to the stimulus without conscious awareness of response.
Habituation is crucial when studying animal behavior in the natural environment. When a field researcher wants to observe behavior without influencing it by human presence, the researcher begins by being a quiet, unobtrusive presence in the field, until the animal subjects eventually learn to tolerate the person's presence and resume their typical behaviors.
See also Approach versus avoidance ; Attention ; Classical conditioning ; Ethology .
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