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The Journal of Sonic Studies
Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 6, nr. 1 (January 2014)Marie Højlund; Sofie Kinch: ALARMING ATMOSPHERES - EMBODIED SOUND HABITUATION AS DESIGN STRATEGY IN A NEURO-INTENSIVE CARE UNIT

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4.3 Embodied Sound Habituation

I feel that there are two different ways to experience the place [NIA, eds.], because when I have been off for a longer period and come back, the place affects me differently than during everyday work life. After a holiday, I often have this … Gosh, do I really have to go in there? (Nurse at NIA)

Lefebvre’s theory on the meditative process of developing an attentive ear by listening to the rhythms of the world as well as those of the body resonates with the concept of habituation. In positioning our understanding of habituation, Immanuel Kant’s construction of habit, as “a negative counterpoint to the processes of human self-making” (Bennett, Dodsworth, Noble, Poovey and Watkins 2013: 7), is abandoned. Instead, we follow the trajectory of habit and habituation as presented by Gabriel Tarde, who “accounts the roles of suggestion, imitation and repetition in the constitution of the social” (Bennett et al. 2013: 10). Within psychology, habituation is referred to as a basic psychological learning process wherein there is a decrease in response to a sense stimulus after a subject is repeatedly exposed to it, indicating a loss of interest (Berk 2008: 136). Thus, habituation is a natural process, where focus on particular aspects of the environment thus shift into the background of awareness, leaving room for other aspects to inhabit the foreground of attention. Approaching atmospheric experiences from a habituation perspective points towards the observation that the users form no socio-culturally “homogeneous audience” (Albertsen 2012), thus it is a way to acknowledge how our own habitual background continuously shapes our individual and contingent experience of the atmospheres.

Moving into the discourse on sonic environments, Barry Truax stresses how our innate ability to shift sounds to the background of awareness depends on habituation, which involves memory and associations. For our perceptual system to be able to shift specific sounds to the background of awareness, they must be habituated, meaning that they are expected and predictable in a certain context (Truax 2001: 21). This type of background listening demands that we are able to easily detect and separate sounds from each other, so we won’t have to consciously struggle with the environment in order to make sense of it, which can lead to the feeling of being alienated or separated from the surroundings. It is therefore not only the perception of the specific characteristics of the sound that influences whether they are put in the background of awareness, but also the way in which they are habitually perceived (Truax 2001: 22). It is, however, important to stress here that the auditory system is also our most effective alarm system. As we are continually monitoring the sensory background for changes, a sudden auditory change in the environment will trigger an automatic startle reflex that is most likely to redirect an unexpected stimulus to the foreground of attention, making it impossible to ignore (Horowitz 2013: 111).

Thibaud underlines the importance of reflecting not only on the different categories of listening but also how, and under what conditions, we manage to shift from one type of listening to another (Thibaud 1998: 2). A design that responds to actively changing listening modes requires an alternative sound design strategy, however, not by redesigning the concrete sounds in the environment or by covering them, but instead by altering the attitude of the users towards the existing sonic environment. For the designer to induce such a change, through facilitating user coping with complex and alarming atmospheres, an understanding of how to influence the autonomous and conscious habituation processes for environmental sounds is needed.

By acknowledging habituation’s connectedness to rhythms and resonances as a fundamental and dynamic quality inherent in finding one's place, we underline once more that atmospheres emerge as rhythms in-between the body and its surroundings through an ongoing temporal negotiation. Embodied sound habituation as design strategy invites the user to develop an attentive ear through controlling prominent rhythms of the environment in an active and embodied way and becoming capable of synchronising them with her own bodily rhythms. The users now become co-creators unfolding the atmosphere. The habituation process is actively aided, guided and accelerated by a design artefact. The advantage of designing specifically for this process is that the habituated sounds can move to the background of awareness, leaving perceptual room to what the user wants to take the foreground of attention, here the meeting with the relative.