Sensory Adaptation Purpose

sensory adaptation purpose

If you could smell your breath, you’d be smelling it all the time, and that would be boring. Same goes for tasting your tongue, feeling your clothes, or seeing your nose. Nature, in its infinite wisdom, has saved us from this tedium through the gift of Sensory Adaptation.

Sensory Adaptation is the phenomenon of tuning your perception to get as much useful information as possible. This generally takes the form of becoming less sensitive to constant or overwhelming stimuli and slowly regaining sensitivity once the stimulus passes.

Lighting designers aside, people tend to care more about what they are looking at than about the lighting it is under. With this in mind, our vision system tries to balance every shift in lighting with an opposing change in processing. During a sunny afternoon, pupils will constrict and photoreceptors will become less sensitive, protecting you from becoming overwhelmed by the bright sunlight. At sunset, the visual system will account for the orange tint, protecting you from mistaking lemonade for orange juice. At night, eyes will become more sensitive to light to make the most out of what little remains, protecting you from wandering into walls. Without this process, we would have trouble determining color under tinted lighting or seeing at all in extremely dark or bright lighting. These adaptations aren’t perfect; the difference between night and day is still night and day. Nevertheless, under normal circumstances, these adjustments help us to abstract away lighting conditions and understand what we are looking at. Under abnormal circumstances, these adjustments lead to optical illusions.

Have you ever eaten fruit after candy and been woefully underwhelmed? This is a sensory adaptation at work. When it comes to sugar and salt, sensory adaptation occurs not only over minutes but also over months as well. It’s been shown that reducing sugar intake for a few months makes sugar taste that much sweeter. Ditto for salt.

Ever come home from a long trip and notice that your house smells different? The house and the smells are the same – it’s your nose that’s different. When you are exposed to scent for a prolonged period of time, your olfactory system assumes you get the point and mutes the scent so that you can focus on new exciting smells. You wouldn’t want to drink spoiled milk because you were too busy smelling yourself to notice. Like gustatory adaptation, olfactory adaptation can take place in the short term over seconds, or in the long term over days.

Further Reading taste adaptation

Save Taste Adaptation

How Your Taste Buds Get Used to Less Sugar:

Study: (PubMed) (full text)

Sugar sensors in the stomach:

Long-term reduction in dietary sodium alters the taste of salt:

Save Scent Adaptation scent adapation

Odorant Adaptation

Odor Perception and Beliefs about Risk

The nature and duration of adaptation following long-term odor exposure

 Save Optical Adaptation:

Sensory Adaptation in the Retina

Happiness Set Point: 

Life Goals Matter to Happiness: A Revision of Set-Point Theory

  • Reset Happiness Set Point
  • Odorant Adaptation

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