Don’t Let Familiarity Breed Contempt

Dont Let Familiarity Breed Contempt

An unusually frigid November morning and my own dubiously graceful antics recently conspired to sideline me for the better part of a week. After my lazy attempt to exit my bed ended up in a painfully strained back, I laid around in a dolorous stupor and promised myself to be grateful for every day my body worked normally. Yet the moment my back returned to its untroubled state, I forgot all about it again.

I can take some comfort in the fact that such apathy is not entirely my fault. My indifference to the comforts I’m used to is an example of a behavioral mechanism called latent inhibition, first discovered in 1959 by R.E. Lubow and A.U. Moore. Our brains take the massive amount of sensory input we receive on a continual basis and automatically filter out all the stuff that we have already processed and deemed irrelevant. We rapidly grow accustomed to various persistent environmental stimuli and tune them out, so that our brains don’t have to struggle with handling multiple sensations at once.

This ability conferred a survival advantage; when our homo erectus ancestors were skulking about in the bushes stalking prey, it was helpful not to have been distracted by the minute perceptions of hovering insects or poky dirt underfoot. Further down the evolutionary timeline, we also find latent inhibition useful. If we have a particularly smelly roommate, it’s helpful if we’re able to block out the odors after a while. And when we’re taking an exam, we don’t want to constantly feel our sleeves tickling our arms; our body focuses accordingly on the task at hand and desensitizes us to all the other inconsequential ambient sensations.

Unfortunately, this typically helpful ability can be a bit problematic when we start ignoring things wholesale. Latent inhibition is a notorious saboteur of human relationships — when we get used to the presence and kindness of those close to us, we take them for granted, despite their qualities. As most of us have experienced at one point or another, we’re apt to get bored and end up seeking new people.

Similarly, we’re bound to overlook the things in life that we are fortunate to have. I was overjoyed and overcome with gratitude when I got my laptop for my birthday four years ago, but it rarely elicits the faintest thought anymore as to how privileged I am to have it. If it were to get lost, I would be heartbroken. But until then, it usually falls out of my consciousness. The same goes for every comfort and privilege we enjoy that others don’t — it’s only when they’ve disappeared that it might strike us how lucky we are.

It’s rather impossible to be perpetually thankful when our possessions, physical and intangible, number in the hundreds. We’re hardly going to profess our appreciation of shoelaces or phone chargers. But we can still keep our most valuable possessions close to our hearts. Trust me — I’ve had the same lovably faded grey teddy bear for 19 years.

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