How Sensory Adaptation Works

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

This article discusses what sensory adaptation is and how it works. It also explores examples of sensory adaptation and how it differs from habituation.

What Is Sensory Adaptation?

Sensory adaptation is a reduction in sensitivity to a stimulus after constant exposure to it. While sensory adaptation reduces our awareness of a stimulus, it helps free up our attention and resources to attend to other stimuli in our environment.

All five senses can experience sensory adaptation. 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. It is important to note that sensory adaptation does not occur with pain perception.

Causes of Sensory Adaptation

Sensory adaptation, also known as neural adaptation, occurs due to changes in the neural receptor cells that receive and process sensory information. Research suggests that sensory adaptation occurs in multiple stages of perceptual processing.

This change can occur slowly or quickly. Fast adaptation happens very quickly, in the span of milliseconds. Slow sensory adaptation can occur over minutes, hours, or even days. Some evidence suggests that repeated exposure to stimuli may allow people to "learn" how to adapt faster to the change.

Sensory adaptation serves an important function by helping people tune out distractions and focus on the most relevant or important stimuli around them. 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 in the living room.

Since constant exposure to a sensory stimulus reduces our sensitivity, we can 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 the types of sensory adaptation that happen in real life and affect different senses.

  • Scent: Smokers are not bothered by the smell of tobacco smoke the way nonsmokers are, because smokers are accustomed to the odor. Their sensory receptors respond less to the stimuli (the smell of smoke) because they experience it often.
  • Sight: 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 to the narrowing of your pupils. This is another form of sensory adaptation.
  • Touch: 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 or too warm.
  • Taste: With the first bite of a very flavorful dish, you'll notice the strong saltiness, sourness, or sweetness of the food. But after a few mouthfuls, your taste buds will adapt, and the flavor will not be as pronounced.
  • Hearing: A classic example is city dwellers who can tune out traffic and other urban sounds. Their sleep isn't disturbed by the sounds outside their windows, because they have adapted to the noise.

Even hand-eye coordination adjusts when necessary. For instance, if you put on goggles that make everything appear to be a little off and try to throw a ball at an object, your sensory adaptation will eventually take over, and you'll adjust enough to hit the target.

Sensory Adaptation vs. Habituation

Sensory adaptation and habituation both involve reduced attention to a stimulus, but the two concepts have important differences. 

Sensory adaptation is an automatic, involuntary process that involves becoming less sensitive to sensory stimulation.

Habituation is a behavioral phenomenon involving a decreased response to something that occurs over time. While it may occur without much thought, it does have an element of conscious control. For example, if you order the same dish every time you eat at a restaurant, you might find yourself enjoying it less after you become accustomed to it.

Sensory Adaptation
  • Occurs in response to continuous exposure

  • Affects sensory receptors 

  • Occurs involuntarily and unconsciously

  • Related to stimulus intensity

  • Occurs in response to repeated exposures

  • Leads to a reduced response

  • Can be controlled consciously

  • Not closely related to stimulus intensity

A Word From Verywell

If you've heard the term "nose blind," you've heard of sensory adaption; it's the same thing. (But it's different from anosmia, or the inability to smell.) You also might notice that when you're away from a smell or a sound for a while, such as when you go on vacation and then return to your home, you notice it again. It will probably not take much time for you to adapt to the sensory inputs of your environment and go "blind" to them once again.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."