“OR”? Like, Oregon?: Orienting Responses


A real cornerstone concept in the research I engage in is the Orienting Response, which is commonly abbreviated as OR. It’s your brain and body automatically seeking more information about something that just happened. That “something” may be sufficiently novel or pertinent to you, whatever it is. And once it crosses that threshold to grab your attention, a predictable series of events happens in your body.

But first, let’s back up and examine the types of orienting responses first. As mentioned, there’s generally considered to be two types: the kind that trigged by something novel, and the kind that is trigged by a signal. The novel ORs are the easiest to digest, so let’s start there. The term novel is used in the sense that means new or unusual. So that’s to say something like you’re home alone at night, and you hear a door slam upstairs. (Don’t worry, it was just the wind blowing the door shut… probably. Definitely not a ghost.) That would most definitely illicit an orienting response because the sound of the door slamming was wholly unexpected, especially in a supposedly empty house.

But an orienting response triggered by a novel event doesn’t need to be scary. It could be mundane, like a cut from from one camera angle to the next while watching Doctor Who. You probably didn’t even think about the camera angle change, but the cool thing is your body still responded because it was novel: the whole of what you were seeing just changed position. That’s not possible in real life, so it caught your attention.

A signal-based orienting response would be something like hearing or seeing something you are looking for. The most classic example is when you are minding your own business and suddenly you hear someone say your name. You turn to look and see someone waving in your direction. As you start to smile back and wave, the person they were actually talking to pushes past you to greet them. Ouch. Anyway, that moment where you suddenly hear your name? That caused an orienting response in your body.

Now that you know what an orienting response is, we can talk about its features. As previously promised, ORs cause a series of predictable events in your body. There’s a whole bunch, but the most commonly looked at are heart rate (more specifically, the inter-beat interval) and electrodermal activity. Inter-beat interval in the time between heart beats. Immediately following a stimulus that triggers an orienting response, our hearts slow down for 6-10 beats, then speed back up. Coincidentally, since it is tied to the number of beats and not a strict duration of time, that’s why inter-beat interval is preferable to heart rate expressed in beats per minute.

Electrodermal activity is a measure of the (tiny) increases of sweat caused by an OR in a few spots on the body. Even though the link above references a lie detector, that’s not quite an accurate portrayal, just relatable. And something good needs to come from watching that terrible movie that was actually well received. But when the you experience an orienting response, the sweat glands connected to your parasympathetic nervous system release very small amounts of sweat, causing your skin to conduct electricity more freely. Isn’t that neat?

So there you have it. Our bodies respond in obvious and predictable ways during orienting responses. And they happen all the time without you even knowing it. But any time your attention is redirected, you’re having an orienting response. Neat, huh? Even the smallest surprise causes major changes in your body.