In my early twenties, I moved from Michigan to Southern California. Initially, I marveled at the stunning surroundings and perfect weather. Every day was sunny and 75 degrees (Steve Martin’s depiction of SoCal weather in the movie L.A. Story was spot on). Every day, I’d put on short-sleeved tees, no jacket. Every day, I’d drive home from school via Route 55, cresting a hill with a surreal view of the ocean. Yet in time, it all stopped being so impressive.
Scientists call this phenomenon habituation — a reduced response by the brain to repeated stimulus. As survival goes, this is a critical skill, allowing us to ignore things we’re used to seeing a lot (trees for example) and focus on things that are new (bears for example).
It isn’t just our surroundings that we grow accustomed to. People become repeat stimuli too. Husbands get ignored. Annoying habits are accepted.
I noticed some of my own habituation in Africa of all places. The first night at Ruckomechi, our group set out on a sunset cruise on the Zambezi and experienced one of the most incredible sunsets I’ve ever witnessed. The river reflected the cotton candy sky, enveloping us in deep pinks and peaches. I was awestruck. The group took countless photos and couldn’t stop commenting on how beautiful it all was.
The next night, we headed out to the river again, this time in canoes. After 90 minutes on the water, one almost-hippo-tipped canoe, and more crocodiles than I ever needed to see, we docked on shore to have much-needed sundowners (aka cocktails). Again, the sunset looked like a rich watercolor painting, just as exquisite as the first night’s. But the reaction by our group was much more subdued – fewer comments and fewer pictures. This could have been in part because we were so relieved to be out of the canoes and were very eager to drink our alcoholic beverages. But it was evident that we were now somewhat jaded.
Even some of the animals became run-of-the-mill. Impala went quickly from the prestigious title of first animal I saw in Africa to so common that at one point later in the trip we used the hashtag #wedontstopforimpala.
When we drove through towns on our way to camps, we’d see baboons and warthogs just roaming the streets. I wondered if the locals thought twice about them. In Kasane, a lilac breasted roller, an incredibly colorful bird, was perched high on a telephone wire like a sparrow might be here in Virginia. If I lived here, would they become like pigeons in my mind?
As I pulled together this post, I thought, what is my point? Was it just that if I lived in Africa I wouldn’t be dazzled by everything all the time? Well, that didn’t seem like such a great tidbit to share.
It wasn’t until I returned home that the nugget of wisdom came to me. I was walking my dogs my first morning back and the sunrise over our local pond was magnificent. I paused and took it in, just like I did the first Zambezi sunset. It was new again!
My husband even seemed different; in my eyes, he had a refreshed glow. Maybe it was seeing lots of couples on travel that didn’t treat each other very well that made me appreciate him more.
Ultimately, I realized that while I become accustomed to almost everything, even amazing things, by seeing new things, I renew the old. This is why I love living in Virginia – the change of seasons brings renewal four times per year — different temperatures, foliage, foods, and activities. If I had cinnamon rolls and Yorkshire pudding all year round, they wouldn’t be as special at Christmas. So maybe it isn’t about fighting habituation, since it is inevitable. Maybe the lesson is to go to new places, try new things, and meet new people so that when you return to familiar surroundings and loved ones, you notice them.