How Sensory Adaptation Works

Woman tasting sauce from a wooden spoon
Marc Romanelli / Getty Images

Imagine that you just walked into your favorite Italian restaurant. When you first walk through the door, the delicious smell of garlic and tomatoes is almost overwhelming. You sit down to wait for a table, and after a few minutes, the scents begin to dissipate until you barely notice them. This is an example of what is known as sensory adaptation.

Why We Experience Sensory Adaptation

Sensory adaptation refers to a reduction in sensitivity to a stimulus after constant exposure to it. While sensory adaptation reduces our awareness of a constant stimulus, it helps free up our attention and resources to attend to other stimuli in the environment around us. All five of our senses are constantly adjusting to what's around us, as well as to us individually and what we are experiencing, such as aging or disease.

Just imagine what it would be like if you didn't experience sensory adaptation. You might find yourself overwhelmed by the pungent smell of onions coming from the kitchen or the blare of the television from the living room. Since constant exposure to a sensory stimulus reduces our sensitivity to it, we are able to shift our attention to other things in our environment rather than focusing on one overwhelming stimulus.

Examples of Sensory Adaptation

Here are some more examples of sensory adaptation:

  • "Think about walking into a house where fried fish, sauerkraut, and head cheese were prepared for dinner. (Some dinner!) You would probably pass out at the door, yet people who had been in the house for some time wouldn't be aware of the food odors. Similarly, smokers often don't get how much nonsmokers are bothered by the smell of tobacco smoke. Why? Because sensory receptors respond less to unchanging stimuli, a process called sensory adaptation." (Coon & Mitterer, 2010)
  • "Through the process of sensory adaptation, sensory systems become less sensitive to constant or unchanging stimuli. When you are wearing a new wristwatch or ring, you may at first be aware of the sensation of pressure on your skin, but after a while you no longer notice it. We may be thankful for sensory adaptation when, after a few minutes of exposure, ...the odors in a locker room become less noticeable. However, sensory adaptation may not occur when we are repeatedly exposed to certain strong stimuli, such as the loud wail of a car alarm." (Nevid, 2012)
  • When you go into a dark room or outside at night, your eyes eventually adjust to the darkness because your pupils enlarge to let in more light. Likewise, when you are in bright light, your eyes adjust by the narrowing of your pupils. This is another form of sensory adaptation.
  • When you jump into a cold swimming pool or first get into a hot tub, the water may feel unpleasantly cold or much too hot, but eventually, your body adjusts to the temperature and it feels only mildly cool or perfectly pleasant and even, eventually, too cold.
  • Even our hand-eye coordination adjusts when necessary. For instance, if you put on goggles that make everything appear to be a little off and you try to throw a ball at an object, eventually your sensory adaptation will take over and you'll adjust enough to be able to hit it.
Was this page helpful?

Article Sources

  • "Sensation and Perception: Sensory Adaptation." Indiana University— Purdue University Fort Wayne.
  • Coon, D. & Mitterer, J. O. (2010). Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior With Concept Maps. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

  • Nevid, J. S. (2012). Essentials of Psychology: Concepts and Applications. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

  • Webster, M. A. (2012). Evolving Concepts of Sensory AdaptationF1000 Biology Reports4, 21.