Minds notice differences. When things stay the same, minds tune out by a process psychologists call habituation.
Physical pain is the exception. In most cases we don’t get used to chronic pain. Physical pain has to be inescapably vivid in order to convince us to do what’s necessary to alleviate it. Sometimes there is nothing we can or even need do to alleviate it. Then, alas, it’s like a blaring false alarm we can neither turn off nor tune out. (See Suffering and Insensitivity.)
With all sensation but physical pain, it is nearly impossible to pay attention to what doesn’t change. We habituate to background noises, to smells, to the spot on the carpet that’s always there. In a perception experiment, a subject’s head is held perfectly still in a comfortable vise and medications are used to temporarily paralyze eye muscles. Within a few minutes of staring out at perfect stillness, the subject sees nothing at all; the visual field goes blank because the brain won’t register that which doesn’t change. Without the temporary paralysis, the subject would still be able to see in the stillness, naturally compensating for the unchanging scene with subtle, twitching eye movements. The scene doesn’t change but the eye does. Human sensory apparatus operates by the eye-of-the-beholder rule: If the scene is monotonous, make it seem novel by changing how you look at it.
We habituate to habits much as we do to sensations. Anything repeated tends to become automatic.
Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup
Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup
Cognitive scientists have argued for years that human consciousness is like a computer. But evidence suggests that it’s the unconscious that’s computer-like: operating by habits, instincts, and skills learned so completely that they require no conscious attention at all. Consciousness is the process by which we generate new automatic unconscious behaviors. Consciousness is in the jadedness-generating business, producing rote habits as efficiently as it can. It is always trying to offload as much as possible into the realm of the ignorable and automatic. It does so because attention has got to be prioritized. There’s way too much one could attend to. Attention is a drinking straw drawing from a flood. Our bodies systematically ignore that which is likely to make the least difference. That background computer hum you don’t hear right now? It’s worth ignoring so you can focus elsewhere.
Of course, jadedness is also considered a bad thing. We campaign against it, trying to stay alert, aware, and grateful for the commonplace. One place we see people campaigning to stay alert to the unchanging is in meditation. The meditation instructor tells you to pay attention to your breath for an hour a day. Another is work. The inspirational speaker tells you to stay excited about your eight hours a day as a Wal-Mart checkout clerk.
Another is marriage, at least in the romantic view. Never lose the spark. Continue to find your partner fascinating though you will be with each other forever. I remember, when courting my wife, making an eye-of-the-beholder pledge to her: “If I should ever should stop seeing the spark in you, the fault will be in my eyes, not in you.” That pledge, and her equivalent pledge to me, carried us for years. About 10 years in we added the “Moonie clause” : If you join the Moonies, it’s not my eyes, it’s you.
Of course, in meditation, work, and marriage no two days are exactly the same, so you’re not going to go blind from constancy. But how to keep the spark alive is a big question worth addressing as pragmatically as possible.
The meditator’s goal is to focus nonstop, but in practice most meditators will tell you that meditation is not a constant state but a cycling one, a repeated cycle of focusing, losing focus, noticing the lost focus, and refocusing. Noticing that you’ve lost focus makes breathing novel again. If you want to avoid losing focus on monotonous breathing in the first place, you employ the equivalent of the twitching eye of the beholder. Imagine not breathing, breathing cold mountain air, breathing chocolate air. You can make up differences that make the normalcy feel perpetually different.
We do this in marriage too. If you find yourself taking your partner for granted, imagine your spouse leaving you, going off with someone else. That often revives attention. Next week I’ll write more on habituation management techniques in love and romance. In the meantime, here’s a startling poem that plays on that theme:
My Husband Discovers Poetry
Because my husband would not read my poems,
I wrote one about how I did not love him.
In lines of strict iambic pentameter,
I detailed his coldness, his lack of humor.
It felt good to do this.
Stanza by stanza, I grew bolder and bolder.
Towards the end, struck by inspiration,
I wrote about my old boyfriend,
a boy I had not loved enough to marry
but who could make me laugh and laugh.
I wrote about a night years after we parted
when my husband’s coldness drove me from the house
and back to my old boyfriend.
I even included the name of a seedy motel
well-known for hosting quickies.
I have a talent for verisimilitude.
In sensuous images, I described
how my boyfriend and I stripped off our clothes,
got into bed, and kissed and kissed,
then spent half the night telling jokes,
many of them about my husband.
I left the ending deliberately ambiguous,
then hid the poem away
in an old trunk in the basement.
You know how this story ends,
how my husband one day loses something,
goes into the basement,
and rummages through the old trunk,
how he uncovers the hidden poem
and sits down to read it.
But do you hear the strange sounds
that floated up the stairs that day,
the sounds of an animal, its paw caught
in one of those traps with teeth of steel?
Do you see the wounded creature
at the bottom of the stairs,
his shoulders hunched over and shaking,
fist in his mouth and choking back sobs?
It was my husband paying tribute to my art.