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
Instructor: Tara DeLecce

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

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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