Integrative Physiological & Behavioral Science

, Volume 36, Issue 4, pp 251–265 | Cite as

The evolutionary significance of habituation and sensitization across phylogeny: A behavioral homeostasis model

  • E. M. EisensteinEmail author
  • D. Eisenstein
  • James C. Smith


The phenomenon of habituation may be interpreted as a process that has evolved for filtering out iterative stimuli of little present relevance. That habituation is seen in aneural as well as neural organisms throughout phylogeny with remarkably similar characteristics suggests that its role is an important one in animal survival. If habituation is to be viewed as a process to filter out iterative stimuli that have no significant consequences, then how is sensitization to be viewed? One way of viewing these two behavioral changes, i.e. habituation and sensitization, is that they are homeostatic processes which optimize an organism’s likelihood of detecting and assessing the significance of a stimulus in a new iterative series or a change in it. If one views the level of initial responsiveness to a new stimulus as a function of an organism’s threshold just prior to stimulus occurrence, then “high responders” (i.e. those who initially react more strongly) are assumed to have a lower threshold for detecting and assessing the significance of this stimulus than are the “low responders” (i.e. those who initially react more weakly). Thus, high-responders would initially receive more sensory input and progressively decrease their responsiveness to a non-threatening stimulus (habituation). Likewise, initial low-responders would receive less sensory input followed by a decreased threshold and an increased response to the next stimulus occurrence (sensitization). The level of responsiveness achieved in both habituaters and sensitizers, as an asymptote is approached, is a balance between being too sensitive to an unimportant stimulus (and possibly missing other significant stimuli) and being too insensitive, and missing a change in the relevance of the present stimulus. These response changes can be taken as indices of the organism’s mechanisms for achieving an appropriate threshold level to an iterative stimulus in order to accurately assess its present significance and then eventually to asymptote at an optimal stable response level. This approach toward an asymptote is a behavioral homeostatic process that reflects the accumulated significance of the iterative stimulus at each occurrence. The purpose of adding “behavioral” to the term “homeostasis” is to extend the usual meaning of the concept from primarily internal processes to also include (a) iterative external stimulation, (b) the organism’s initial threshold to the initial stimulus as well as (c) the behavior which results from it. Since we are discussing organisms that range from intact, single-celled protozoa to intact mammals, as well as surgically simplified preparations, the termsstimulus, response andbehavior will be used broadly. While other investigators have focused on specific cellular mechanisms underlying habituation and sensitization in a given organism, this paper focuses on the adaptive significance of these two behavioral processes viewed across phylogeny.


habituation sensitization evolution learning behavior homeostasis behavioral homeostasis sensoristasis 


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Copyright information

© Springer 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • E. M. Eisenstein
    • 2
    Email author
  • D. Eisenstein
  • James C. Smith
    • 1
  1. 1.Federal Bureau of InvestigationLos Angeles
  2. 2.Research & Development (691/151) West Los Angeles V.A. Medical CenterLos Angeles

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