Habit and Time
The biosphere is a teeming, humming, buzzing, riot of life in every earthly nook and cranny; collaborating with one another, competing with one another, eating one another. Each species, each individual, must rely on habits to establish a measure of stability, enabling them to extract the necessary sustenance for survival. Habit forestalls chaos.
All life, in its many forms, from bacteria to insects, fungi to mammals, are beholden to habit, which is as elemental to life as DNA. A primal characteristic of all life is movement and endurance within time. All, also, share a common fate—the end of movement and endurance in time; death.
Habits are fundamental strategies of temporal beings that must anticipate the future. Habits occur when a situation at Time 2 is perceived as similar to a situation at Time 1, evoking the same response at Time 2 that was adaptive at Time 1. The perceived reoccurrence of familiar events “stops time”, allowing us to steady ourselves in the face of an uncertain future. Habits create routines, establishing an order in time with expected, reoccurring beats. Indeed, survival depends on establishing a vital regularity within the assaultive, chaotic flux of events, circumstances, and contingencies that threaten the delicate, wavering, spider-thread of life.
Habits of Differing Time Scales
Habit is defined as “a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance”1. Typically, we think of habit as behavioral routines that derive from individuals learning about their environment; that habit operates within an individual, not the species, at the behavioral, not biological level.
This definition, however, need not only apply to an individual organism. Consider reflexes. From the perspective of the individual, reflexes are invariant, unchanging; no habits are acquired. Breathing, pupil dilation, digestion, heartbeat, these arise automatically without conscious prompting, effort, or control. However, from an evolutionary perspective, which encompasses the arc of the emergence of life forms and their adaptation, reflexes are, as the definition states, “patterns acquired by physiological exposure that results in increased facility of performance.” From an evolutionary time scale, then, species’ morphology and the attendant neurophysiological organization and functioning, and even DNA, can also be considered habits. What appears to be the static, immutable biological givens of an individual’s existence—the bones, pulsing blood and breathing—are dynamic properties of an evolving process within an evolutionary temporal frame. We are a composite of the individual habits we acquire over our life and species’ habits conferred to us by our primordial ancestors.
Culture adds yet another layer of habits. Communally organized daily routines and seasonal rituals organize our bodies to the collective rhythms of our culture. Time is regulated; our calendar and clocks are standardized, establishing a rigid temporal grid that individuals must adopt and internalize if they are to participate in essential communal activities. The year rolls over to the next one on January 1; daylight savings time sets the clock ahead, then it is later set back; school schedules, meal times, business hours, the reoccurring weekday-weekend sequence, and many other micro-cultural regularities pervade our lives. Public holidays, such as Thanksgiving and July 4th, with their attendant rituals, mark time within the broader seasonal round.
Our bodies are composed of layers of habits, each contributing its own rhythms: the beating, breathing, surging biorhythms that compress eons of prior life; the habits we acquire to adapt to our unique personal challenges and circumstances; and the cultural rituals and routines required for communal life. This complex, multilayered cadence of habits comprises the music that is our song, our lives.
We are songs of life, sung, for our ever-brief moment, within the roar of flux and chaos. Our plight is most heartrendingly expressed in music:
Music is like the inclusive testimony of a visitor to a wondrous world. As it plays you have everything. When it stops, you are left with nothing. Which is exactly like life itself.2