Sensory Adaptation: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition and…
  • 0:42 Examples in Everyday Life
  • 2:17 Sensory Adaptation and Vision
  • 2:54 Adaptive Value
  • 3:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Tara DeLecce

Tara has taught Psychology and has a master's degree in evolutionary psychology.

Expert Contributor
Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

If you're like most people, you have probably experienced or observed sensory adaptation at some point. Learn how this mechanism works in everyday life and test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Definition and Neurology of Sensory Adaptation

Sensory adaptation is defined as the diminished sensitivity to a stimulus as a consequence of constant exposure to that stimulus. Brain cells begin to fire when they pick up on a new stimulus in your environment as signaled by your sensory organs (your ears, eyes, nose, etc.).The constant loud sound of a running air conditioner, for instance, seems irritating when it is first turned on. However, within an hour, you'll most likely have forgotten all about that sound and no longer notice it. So, if that stimulus remains unchanged in the environment, then the brain cells begin to fire significantly less in response to that stimulus, and the result is a lack of attention to that particular stimulus.

Examples in Everyday Life

There are many instances of sensory adaptation in everyday life, and here we're just going to name a few. In addition to the running air conditioner from the beginning of the lesson, another great example that involves your sense of hearing is the sound of traffic. People who live by busy roads typically don't even notice that there is the sound of constant traffic outside their window, but if someone comes to visit from a more rural area with less traffic, he or she will most likely find the constant sound of traffic irritating. On the other hand, someone who lives out in the country is used to the sound of chirping insects and perhaps other nocturnal animals at night, while someone from the city would hear that and think that was irritating, and maybe even miss the more familiar sound of the city traffic.

There is also a large amount of sensory adaptation going on with the sense of smell. People who smoke no longer notice the odor of cigarette smoke, and when people who don't smoke are around them, they wonder how they can stand having their clothes, hair, and pretty much all of their possessions smelling of smoke. Similarly, when people have on strong cologne or perfume, they often don't notice the smell as the day wears on, while other people they encounter throughout the day find the smell of the perfume or cologne overwhelming.

The sense of touch on skin receptors works the same way. If you put on a piece of jewelry, such as a bracelet, initially you will notice the feel of it on your skin. Within minutes, sensory adaptation comes into play and you no longer notice the feeling of the bracelet on your wrist. However, you can recapture the attention of your skin receptors by moving the bracelet higher up on your wrist, only to have sensory adaptation happen again after a few minutes.

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Additional Activities

Sensory Adaptation Diary

In this activity, students will keep a sensory adaptation diary where they record moments in their daily life that they notice sensory adaptation happening. For example, when students first put on their sweater in the morning, they might feel the soft wool, but, by the afternoon, the sweater simply feels like a part of their body. Students should record these moments throughout the day and then reflect on their observations.


Now that you're familiar with sensory adaptation, you're going to study the phenomenon in your own life. To do this, you'll look for different examples of sensory adaptation during your day and record when and how you saw it in a sensory adaptation journal. This activity was designed to be done over the course of a day, but you can continue to record for longer periods if you want! After you record your observations for at least a day, answer the analysis questions below.


  1. Did anything surprise you about your sensory adaptation journal observations?
  2. After completing the journal, was it easier to identify moments of sensory adaptation? Why or why not?
  3. What other examples of sensory adaptation have you experienced in the past but may not have recorded in your journal?


Students will probably feel surprised that there are so many moments of sensory adaptation during the day. It might be hard to notice at first, but once they start to look for them, they should be able to see many more moments during the day, such as tuning out noises like the television, or the sensation of touch from their environment. Students might have had different sensory adaptation experience, such as while they were on vacation, or out in a particular location that is different from when they conducted these observations.

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