Sensory Adaptation & Habituation: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:02 Sensory Input
  • 1:50 Adaptation
  • 3:04 Habituation
  • 5:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Ever notice how, after a while, a dark room seems less dark? Watch this lesson to find out about sensory adaptation and habituation, why we become desensitized to stimuli after a while, and what happens when things change.

Sensory Input

Imagine that you're sitting in the park on a lazy afternoon, just enjoying the quiet and the sunshine. Suddenly, you hear a loud bang!

Sensory input is information sent to us from the environment. It includes things like sight, sound, smell, temperature, and more.

We are receiving sensory input at all moments. Think about that quiet moment in the park. It might seem like you're not really receiving any sensory information, but you are: your eyes are observing the trees and sunshine, your ears are hearing the chirping of birds, and your skin is telling you how warm the sun is.

The purpose of sensory information is to help us survive. If we had no senses, we'd be completely cut off from the world around us. As a result, we wouldn't be able to live, eat, move, or even stand up!

A big part of survival is identifying threats to us. Think back to that moment when you heard the loud bang in the park: your heart rate probably jumped up, and you quickly looked around to see what had caused it. The sound triggered a warning in you that there was something in the environment that might be a threat.

In order to identify threats, we are sensitive to changes in our environment. That loud bang was different from the rest of the afternoon in the park, and so your reaction would be swift.

But what if you looked around and found that the loud bang came from a nearby construction site? Even though the loud noise may continue, you won't continue to be alarmed by it. This is because if something doesn't pose a threat, we become desensitized to it.

Let's look closer at the ways that we become desensitized to stimuli, including adaptation and habituation.

Adaptation

Let's go back to the park. You hear a loud bang, your heart races, and you look around and see the construction site. The bangs and loud noises continue as your heart returns to normal.

After a few minutes, an odd thing starts to happen: the construction noise seems to fade a little. Are they doing their construction work more quietly?

No. What you're experiencing is adaptation. This occurs when sensory processing becomes less sensitive to stimuli. Think about it like this: you're adapting to the noise from the construction site, so it's not as loud.

Adaptation happens all the time. Think about when you walk into a dark room; it's almost impossible to see anything! But after a while, you can begin to make out shapes and outlines.

Or think about when you first spill a bottle of perfume. The scent is overwhelming! But after a while, you don't smell it as strongly anymore.

Adaptation happens automatically, and you have no control over it. Your sensory receptors, or nerves that process sensory input, and your brain become less sensitive to a stimulus without you having to do anything about it.

Habituation

But what if you actively control what you're paying attention to? For example, what if you are reading in the park, and as soon as you realize that the loud bang is from a construction site, you focus your mind and try to block it out?

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