4/09/2008

The Sleeper Must Awaken

I used to scoff at those perpetually bored types that felt the need to change aspects of their life, seemingly without reason, the people who would rearrange their furniture, restyle their hair or quit their job every so often because they “just needed a change.” I took this for childishness, the obsession with novelty that comes from a surplus of unmanaged energy.

I have to confess, I largely still feel this way. People obsessed with shifting bits of themselves about for no reason do tend to be those perpetually bored and disaffected types that constantly want the world to act onto them, that have trouble marshaling themselves for constructive purposes. On the other had I have come to realize the value of such things.

In the words of Frank Herbert, “Without change, something sleeps inside us.”

While constantly shifting one’s environs is a symptom of disengagement, failing to do so can disengage one just as much. Psychologists call this process habituation; it’s an intrinsic property of the brain’s wiring, observed even in newborns. Habituation is the brain’s process of getting used to something, an image, a sound, an activity, an environment. Once habituated to a particular stimulus, the brain no longer reacts to that input as it did when it first encountered it.

Do you remember the last song that floored you, the last tune to come on the radio and stop you in your tracks?* When you first heard it, it kicked you in the chest. It conjured vivid images. It prompted new combinations of emotions. It rang inside your head like the clapper in a storm bell. It evoked memories that you’d forgotten you’d forgotten. It was just so, so new. Now, however many weeks or years later, you’ve heard it dozens, perhaps hundreds of times. You recognize it at the first note, word or chord. You know the artist, the album and you’ve heard the live version and the club remix. You know all the words and can sing along idly whilst doing other things without dividing your attention. It still evokes, to be sure, but not the way it did the first few times you heard it. It has lost it’s novelty.

This is habituation. When the song was new to you, you brain was constructing new pathways and, much like construction in a major city can’t help but upset the older buildings nearby, in the cerebellum’s the forest of synapses, new branches can’t help but shift the old. Those new electro-chemical avenues cement themselves quickly. The song becomes familiar and that combination of beats and frequencies looses the ability to evoke new thoughts.

This is only one example. We habituate to everything in our daily lives. Without novelty, we have nothing but habituated experiences and the internalization of non-habituated information becomes more and more difficult. Herein lies the value of shifting things every so often, shifting so that we can see things differently, so that we might think new thoughts and re-experience old ones, so that we can see some small part of the world anew, so that our brains never have the chance to get lazy and so that we come to know a bit about what how much we don’t know.

Thing are changing for me, presently. I just did a gig that was entirely new for me. Next week I shift jobs within my industry. I’ve rearranged my furniture simply because I was too comfortable with the way it was. Finally, Badassbard is about to undergo a huge change to which I am quite looking forward.

Here’s to what’s next on the radio.

*For those interested the last song that floored me was Flogging Molly’s The Story So Far.

3 comments:

Dwight Wannabe said...

Good for you, Tom.

The last song that floored me was Cheryl Crow's A Change Will Do You Good.

(Okay, not really, but it fit the theme.)

Ricardo said...

Good luck on the new gig. I do think something sleeps within us when we become too habitual which then becomes boring. Change is good. I need to do that. I also need a good song to floor me also.

AZ said...

"Habituation" is actually a short term goal of mine. I'm looking forward to graduating, getting a job, and just waking up, taking the kids to school, going to work and coming home to some wine.

The last song on the radio for me was Daniel Bedingfield's "If You're Not the One".