The Law of Psychological Adaptation:

Habituation is an often discussed psychological phenomenon: Responses to a stimulus decrease as the stimulus is repeated. A dog may have a strong response to a stranger, but the response decreases as the stranger comes around again and again.

A similar law has to do with what is called Sensory Adaptation or Neural Adaptation. Habituation is defined in terms of behavioral response, whereas Adaptation is defined in terms of changes in the body's sense receptors. An example is the eye's adjustment to the dark.

A third related concept is Sensory Fatigue.

I am not speaking about any of these three specifically. I want to focus more on the experience side and not on the behavior or on the neurons or sense organs. Also I want to speak more generally than just about the senses, so I will use the phrase, Psychological Adaptation. It covers a number of phenomena, sensory and others.

On a sensory level there is adaptation to touch or sound or taste or smell or sight. If you hear a sound for a while it “disappears,” even if the stimulus remains. People living next to airports rarely hear the sound, and it is no big deal to them. Their visitors can't believe how anyone could live there. People living in New Orleans become used to very spicy cajun cooking. They eat along with no problem, but those invited to the meal can't eat it at all. Gourmands even have little tricks that illustrates their intuitive understanding of the Law of Psychological Adaption. For example, they know that if you keep eating the same thing, after a very few bites you don't taste it anymore. This goes for the most pleasurable sensations where adaptation is very quick (but it seems less true for pain). So gourmands have learned how to clear their palates after a few bites in order to be able to re-experience the taste experiences.

An ever-present reminder of the phenomenon of psychological adaptation is our own breathing. All day and all night, for our entire lives, we breathe. Breathing is a very complex phenomenon with out breath and in breath. There are Taoist books written about breathing and its complexities. Yet how many breaths in our entire lives have we been aware of?

We also become accustomed to or adapted to tension and anxiety. A person under constant stress forgets he or she is tense, even though every one else can see it. The same with anxiety, and the same with anger. You can be very angry for very long and never know you're angry. It's only after you relax that you recognize how tense you were, and it's only after you go into a deeper state of relaxation that you realize how tense you still were even a moment before when you thought you were relaxed. And the same for anger. A person can live as a slave, or in an abusive situation for years and never see it as anything more than “the way things are.” Sometimes rage can be so deep and powerful that no one even dreams it's there until it erupts one day.

Besides sensations and feelings, our psychology adapts to intellectual and ethical situations. Your reading and conversations can seem stimulating and extremely interesting, but, after reading or talking with a great thinker, it makes you not want to go back to the old type of thinking. But after you are away from the genius for a while, you forget and adjust and adapt and sink back into your old way of thinking without realizing you have sunk back in.

The same with ethics and values. You may have been raised with the highest ethical or religious standards. If you wind up in a social or work environment that has less lofty values, after a while you may find that you barely even know it. At first, it is shocking, and you may think you'll never fit in. But humans can fall to all sorts of depths and allow themselves all sorts of liberties of thought and behavior and never even know it. People who commit the worst atrocities are people.

Some people resist being pulled into the lower levels of themselves. Everyone teases them and thinks they are aloof and that they feel superior to everyone. And there is a real deep question about how much you should allow yourself to be pulled in to things and also how much you should try to protect your children and loved ones from being “tainted” and from falling into the muck. Some fathers are alcoholics, and their children grow up with this as a norm and get “raised” out of it by contact with another social system. Other fathers are not alcoholics and may worry that their sons will get sucked into the vice. They may have been tempted and know how powerful temptations can be. They try to inoculate their children by giving them drinks in the controlled home environment where they can monitor and lecture and defuse the excitement. This may or may not work. Some parents take their sons to prostitutes with the same logic. These are obviously very touchy and difficult subjects, and I don't think there is one right answer.

Believing Christians think the Messiah has come in the form of Jesus. Believing Jews think the Messiah is yet to come. For Jews who have a son, it is always the question, “Is he the Messiah?” You would think that a father would want his son to be the Messiah, but not necessarily. A rabbi explained to me that being a Messiah would be a great responsibility and burden, not fun and games and glory. But worse, according to the Lurianic concept of the Messiah, the Messiah will have to descend to the lowest level of thinking and values and ethics in order to redeem the world. He would have to go down and redeem the sparks that have fallen the lowest. And this is a great danger to the Messiah in his work, because, while down there, he may begin to adapt psychologically to this level of existence. We see this all the time on a lesser level with religious figures who seem to start out sincere and even as a little bit of visionaries but who, gradually, sink lower and lower, without even knowing it, until they wind up like charlatan salesmen or worse. And the same goes for experts in psychology and in all fields. In politics the phrase is, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” You can substitute the word Truth or Goodness or Saintliness or Knowledge for Power. And, all the while, these people are as unaware of the falseness and evil around them as the people living near the airport are unaware of the airplanes around them.

Whatever we think of the Messiah, the question remains how far we ourselves should expose ourselves to temptations and how much we should give into them. When we look at others who have fallen and risen again, like St. Augustine, there is a certain wisdom and depth to them compared to those who isolated themselves so as to avoid ever being touched and contaminated. On the other hand, how many potential St. Augustine's never rose up at all and sunk deeper and deeper into the muck until they merged with oblivion? And how many others fell deep and rose but only after having done a lot of damage to others and themselves? Again, it seems to me there are no easy answers here, and decisions about how to handle ourselves and others can only be made on a situation by situation basis and often require us to agonize like someone suspended over a cliff while hanging onto a limb (to use an old metaphor).

The underlying rule seems to be that we are aware of change and not of things. It is a fascinating fact that the eyes flicker back and forth continuously and very rapidly. If the muscles of the eyes are anesthetized, the person, who is gazing at some set object, stops seeing it (at least stops being conscious of it). For a person to be aware of an object, either it has to move or the eyes have to move or the objects around it have to move. So Psychological Adaptation has to do with Time and Change.