My brain can’t tune things out: a story about habituation

Habituation.

It’s a super-duper important neurological process that most people take for granted. In fact, I bet you didn’t even know you did a thing called habituation.

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If you google the definition of habituation, you most likely wonder who’s responsible for such a thing. Here’s google’s definition:

the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus.

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Ok, ok, we aren’t that brainless. We know what the definition is saying, but, we need to know what it means and how it applies to our beautiful selves.

So, what the heck is habituation?

Picture this: you are in the kitchen preparing a delicious lunch. Outside, someone is mowing their lawn, and cars are rumbling down the street. A bird is squawking; your child is playing in the next room; the television is on. You’re wearing fuzzy slippers and there is a bright light above you. You, however, are able to concentrate on your recipe.

You probably didn’t notice, but you can no longer hear the lawn mower, or your child playing, or the cars, or the birds. You don’t feel the fuzzy slippers on your feet and you aren’t aware of the light shining on you.

Actually, you do hear, feel, and see them, but you are able to block them out and focus on the task at hand. But if you pause and tune in, all that stuff is still there. Must be magic, you think.

Alas, yer not a wizard, Harry. It’s not magic; it’s habituation.

Here’s my less fancy definition of habituation: the brain’s ability to block out stuff by becoming used to it being there.

Your brain can stop paying attention to things that aren’t important in the moment. Hearing the birds outside or the hum of passing cars is not important, so the brain filters them out of your conscious awareness. Notice the word “habit” neatly tucked into “habituate.” Your brain makes a habit of recognizing and tuning out certain stimuli.

What happens when your brain doesn’t habituate well?

Perhaps the most notable side effect is anxiety. When your brain doesn’t have the ability to adjust to a steady stream of information, it reacts by constantly sending up red flags. If it doesn’t know which information is new and which information is not new, it cannot tune out anything because *everything* is new and important and needs to be addressed NOW.

More importantly, it’s something that many people with Sensory Processing Disorder – as well as other neurologically-based conditions like Autism and Schizophrenia – struggle to do.

That’s right friends, I can’t habituate. Or at least, I really stink at it.

Why does your brain stink at habituating?

Truth is, we aren’t quite sure why people with certain neurological conditions can’t habituate. Researchers know that habituation involves the amygdala, the nervous system, the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system, and the vagus nerve. And we know that those systems don’t always function like they’re supposed to in individuals with neurological disorders. Studies have been done with children with autism to test their habituation abilities, and unsurprisingly, brain scans show that they are unable to “get used to” any stimuli no matter how many times they are exposed to it.

People like me (with SPD) struggle to habituate because the basic stimuli we receive every second of the day has a challenging time getting through our processing system. We end up in a state of hyper-arousal and cannot tune out stimuli.

If you have SPD, you will probably not stop noticing that tag in your shirt. You cannot ignore it. Forcing yourself to wear it and get used to it is ultimately useless. (I know this because I’ve read several studies about people with conditions that compromise the ability to habituate, and exposure therapy has little benefit.)

When I wear jewelry, I do not stop feeling it on me. When I wear a ring, it’s as if my brain is only hearing this:

When I’m around a barking dog, I will jump and respond with panic every time the dog barks. My brain will not get used to the barking. If the dog barks 32 times, I will startle and panic 32 times, over and over, until I start to cry. Yes, it is embarrassing, thank you.  No amount of me standing there forcing myself to listen to it will reduce my brain’s reaction to the sound. Yes, I have field-tested this theory only to yield the same crappy results every time. Look, I made a graph:

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It’s unbearable to be aware of everything around you (or on you) all the time. This is why people with sensory issues are quickly exhausted or reduced to tears after a short time in an overwhelming environment. It’s like our brain is fried from constant processing.

How do I improve my brain’s crappy habituation skills?

Considering that exposure therapy has been shown to have little effect on treating poor habituation skills, there’s gotta be another way (cue that song “we know the way” from Moana). Up until right now writing this blog post, I had no idea what that was. I dove – well, jumped carefully, I don’t like diving – into the internet to find out how to fix this habituation situation.

(Now I’m losing it because I just realized habituation situation is so neat-o and I should’ve used it sooner.)

Some time later…

My research has concluded that there is no straight-forward way to help a brain that doesn’t habituate well. Actually, right now, the best course of action is a sort-of backdoor approach. For the sensory-stressed, the best course of action is to reduce sensory reactivity in other areas of life and practice stress reduction techniques.

Confession: I am now cringing as I type this because this was not the answer I was looking for. It’s basically saying, “MAYBE IF YOU CALM DOWN A BIT, YOUR BRAIN WILL FOLLOW ALONG, YES?? We have no idea. That’s our best guess because the brain is a big ‘ol mystery.” No! That’s not what I want to hear. I was hoping for something like, “consume more lemons” or “strengthen the muscles of the lower back.” Although I don’t know why either of those would have anything to do with treating a poor ability to habituate, but at this point, I’m sure most of us are willing to try ANY approach that doesn’t involve the words, “just relax.”

It seems to be a trend that researchers are consistently vexed by the neurodiverse, and will probably be for the rest of history (must we always be so lucky??). They tend you use “just relax” as a blanket solution to fix the problems of autism, epilepsy, PTSD, and more. I really wish they would get a new blanket.

While being terrible at habituating information isn’t going to kill us, it certainly isn’t going to do us any favors either.

And there you have it; that’s habituation the habituation situation. I have no delightful or uplifting way in which to end this. Let me briefly list some good things on my mind:

-Thanksgiving’s fast approaching

-It’s almost bedtime

-I’m going to make tea after this

Alright, that’s about it.  Depression is a wondrous thing, folks.

xo kelly

22 comments

  1. Ah, yes, the habituation situation (you’re so clever BTW). You did a beautiful job of outlining and illustrating the problem. You also captured how most researchers, doctors, and therapists have no idea other than “calm down, that should help.”
    In my experience, there are tangible things that can help, and although there’s a lot of diversity in the neurodiverse arena, there are a few things that tend to generally apply. Some of those things are what I call “sensory hacks” and you can find out more about them here: https://sensorycoach.org/2019/05/10/6-self-regulation-sensory-hacks/

  2. Thank you so much for this! Thank you for sharing your stories honestly it helps so much. And I actually had to choke down my laughter sooo s as not to wake my kids while reading this! Going to check now to see if you have a book out. Thank you Kelly!

    1. Thank you so much! I don’t have a book out…yet! I have co-created a childrens book called Sensory Like You, which you can find on Amazon. For now, I have tons of blog stories much like this one which you can enjoy if you haven’t already. Thanks again!

  3. I love you. Thank you so much for giving me great tools to help my daughter. I’m forwarding this to everyone we know to help them understand why we have to leave family gatherings after only an hour, why we can’t sit in the sanctuary during church, why her favorite hangout is the library, etc.

  4. Thank you for putting words to this! I’ve spent my entire life trying to explain to people that yes, I need you to face me when we’re talking if there is any other noise around. That no, I can’t do my quiet seat work (in high school) when everyone else is talking around me. That no, I’m not being rude and interjecting into a conversation I know nothing about, I’ve been hearing every word of your conversation (and the three toner conversations close to me) the entire time you’ve been talking. Thank you!

    1. Exactly! I felt the same in school. Whenever the words “group project” was mentioned, I wanted to curl up and melt into the floor. I knew it would mean tons of overlapping conversations. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  5. Thank you for this! I can so so relate to almost every word you have written! It is truly a gift to me to be able to read this here.

  6. I almost shot pear out of my nose when I got to the “ring on your finger” part because that is SUPER RELATABLE and it hit me as intensely funny. (Sidenote, the pear is super crunchy and I am regretting eating it so soon because the skin of the pear kept going between my teeth and that’s a big NO.)

  7. This is an incredibly well-written article. It helps me understand why my husband will suddenly leave when we have guests over. He is overwhelmed with input. Thank you for sharing it. His challenges are a little different, but he reaches sensory overload quickly since his stroke.

  8. Well said, pictured, and explained-ded! Habituation Situation…. I like it! I think that is what I will tell my friends right before I have a meltdown. “Dude! I’m having a habituation situation! I’m outta here!”, “Can’t do turkey day peeps. It’s a hibituation situation!”…. perfect! (User friendly too!)

    I’ve missed reading your posts! Hang in there!

  9. Wow what an amazing article!
    I recently had a review from social services and couldn’t really explain what my problem was with hearing ( let’s say for arguments sake ) two conversations going on at the same time.
    All I could describe it as was that it makes my brain feel like it’s going to ‘ PHYSICALLY EXPLODE!’ and then your amazing article appeared in my inbox!
    I read and reread it numerous times before sending it to the lady who had done my review to help her to understand my problems better and she was also blown away by it and immediately circulated it around the whole of her office!
    So now there are at least 10 social workers who have read and digested it

    1. I sat in an administrators office recently at my childs school. We were there to observe the special ed classroom for my 5 yr old with SPD.
      The clock on my left was not continuous motion. It tick-tick-ticked. The radio on my right had light classical music going. The administrator was talking to both my husband and I. I had to focus *SO* hard to pay attention to what he was saying.

      In the middle of the conversation, the school announcements went over the loud speaker and I have no idea what the administrator said during that time.

      Georgie, I’m glad you now have a way to explain. I can relate. I never had the words behind what was happening to my child but I could at least relate.

      My husband *knows* that two conversations going on at the same time (even if one is 10 ft away) is so incredibly difficult for me.

  10. I am in tears. You so eloquently put into words the reason behind why my brilliant 5 year old is great and well behaved when there is little sensory distraction. Then when he is in a chaotic and noisy environment, he is dysregulated and unable to cope and can react in negative behavior.
    The school is constantly punishing him despite an IEP that they are not fully following and we are at our wits end with the school.
    Thank you for sharing this for so many of us who *need* people to be patient with us and our children. I have shared with our family and will share with our advocate and teachers!

    1. hi there! Thanks for much for your kind comment. Sounds like your son’s school is being a big turd. Have you considered alternative educational options for him? I know many schools have to provide alternative schooling for a child if it can be proved that the child is not thriving where they currently are. I’m sure you’ve already looked into this though, but I wanted to share it anyway. Best of luck with your son – As the saying goes, when you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on!

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