Studies of habituation and sensitization have been especially helpful in clarifying the physiological and genetic mechanisms that control various forms of learning. Such investigations have also shown that habituation and sensi-tization are widespread phenomena with tremendous adaptive significance throughout the animal kingdom.
Ethologists, in marked contrast with psychologists (especially behaviorist psychologists), historically have emphasized the importance of underlying physiological mechanisms in the regulation of various behavioral phenomena. Traditionally, they argued that many forms of behavior are not only genetically determined, or innate, but further constrained by the physiological hardware of the organism. They held that psychologists completely ignored these factors by focusing on only the input and output of experiments. Psychologists, on the other hand, have maintained that nearly all forms of behavior are influenced in some way by learning. These contrasting views, which developed largely as a result of different experimental approaches, eventually gave way to a more modern and unified picture of behavior.
One area of research that greatly facilitated this unification was the study of habituation and sensitization. By discovering the chemical and neurological changes that take place during these simple forms of learning, neuro-biologists succeeded in demonstrating how the physiological environment is modified during the learning process and that such modifications are remarkably similar throughout the animal kingdom. Thus, it became quite clear that an understanding of proximate physiological mechanisms was central to the study of behavior and learning.
In addition, other studies on sensitization and habituation helped establish the generality of these processes among various groups of animals. They showed that simple forms of learning can occur in nearly all major animal phyla, and that these learning processes often result in modification of simple innate behaviors as well as a variety of more complex responses. From these and other studies, it was soon evident that learning and instinct are not mutually exclusive events but two processes that work together to provide animals with maximum adaptability to their environment. The kind of learning that occurs during habituation and sensitization allows animals to modify simple, fixed behaviors in response to repeated exposure to environmental stimuli. Habituation allows an organism to filter irrelevant background stimuli and prevent sensory overload and interference of normal activities critical to its survival. Sensitization helps increase an organism's awareness of stimuli in the face of potentially dangerous situations.
These two forms of learning represent important behavioral adaptations with tremendous generality in the animal kingdom. Even in humans, a variety of seemingly complex behaviors can be attributed to interactions between sensitization and habituation and the simple neurological changes that accompany them.
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