Sensory Adaptation

Sensory Adaptation

We have already covered the concept of priming in which exposure to a stimulus heightens the response to that stimulus. More exposure increases the response to that stimulus so, as in the example used in that article, when you are shopping for a specific model of car you are probably going to notice that car more often.

This effect is so profound that it can begin to feel that there are actually more VW Golfs or Nissan Altimas on the road than before (or more people talking about priming, or more websites about psychology, or whatever else you may stumble upon).

This can be useful for us because when something novel is introduced to us, it’s probably a good idea to keep an eye on it until we know what it is. If I’m a caveman just hanging out in my cave and I see a new animal around my sweet cave dwelling, it’s probably not a bad idea to be ever-aware of its presence until I figure out whether or not it’s a threat to me. So what happens when I determine it’s not a threat? What happens when the novel and the insignificant just becomes insignificant? Dedicating energy (physical or mental) to insignificant stimuli is a waste of our resources, so how do we handle that?

Sensory Adaptation

Initially we are more aware of a new stimuli but as time passes we become less aware. For example, you may remember the large furnaces that were in childhood schools. These absurdly loud things buzz and hum so loudly that when they turned off the teacher inevitably spent a few seconds yelling at us before adjusting to the change in noise level.

That’s not the interesting part though. The interesting thing about this example is that in spite of their loudness, they were inevitably tuned out while they were on. They were tuned out so effectively that their silence was temporarily more intruding than their loudness. What’s going on here? The answer is sensory adaptation.

In the most simple terms, as our brain determines that a stimulus is unimportant, or even distracting, it (more accurately, the central nervous system) simply begins to ignore it. This will cover the biology of this process in a later post but the chart above provides a nice visual.

Real World Example

Sensory adaptation happens every day and all around. It’s why your friends house stinks yet they don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s why you don’t smell the perfume you put on this morning by the time you get to class. It’s why the buzzing of the florescent light above you doesn’t seem to buzz, until I just pointed it out to you.

If you would like to find out more about sensory adaptation, please watch the following video:

What is Priming?

Volkswagon GolfWhen you’re exploring the idea of buying a new car, let say for example, a Volkswagon Golf, we will consider what happens in your mind.

There may be many reasons for considering buying a Golf; it’s affordable, has good gas mileage, is sporty enough to be fun, and gosh darn, it is cute! Then you might visit a few dealerships and even find a few potential cars that you might consider purchasing. Then you mull over the decision, weigh in on other cars and try to establish if it is a cost you want to take on.

Then, something strange starts happening over the next couple of weeks. You think you have stumbled upon a unique, fun little car. Sure we’d seen a few around here and there but nothing crazy. Then, all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere, you start seeing this car everywhere!

Every time you go out you count 3, 5, 10 different people driving a Golf. The car is everywhere. It seems like everyone owns a golf!

Obviously the rest of society isn’t changing their cars at the same time as you. So what’s going on here?

Often referred to as The Baader-Meinhof Phenomena, this tendency to see things consistently only shortly after first recognizing them is the result of a cognitive bias that leads to a distorted perception of reality (there aren’t actually more VW Golfs on the road). Part of what is fueling this is Priming.


This story is nothing unique and I know that you’ve experienced it too. Something that you think is novel, new or obscure suddenly seems very common once you hear about it. What’s happening here is a simple psychological effect that healthy individuals can’t avoid, called priming.

When we are exposed to something enough it sort of rises to the surface of our consciousness. The idea is that by exposing the mind to a stimuli or memory, the pathways to that memory, stimuli, or construct are reinforced.

An analogy: If the park is your memory, then the path from your house to that park is the pathway. The number of people that use that pathway and the frequency with which it’s used determines how defined the path is. Our memories work in much the same way. Since you kept looking up Golfs online, looking at them in person, thinking about them in the car (should I get a Golf?), then, when you’re around them, you’re more likely to see them. Not because there are more of them (obviously), but merely because you have conditioned your mind to be more aware of them.

This is why things like cramming for tests does not work. Although it seems like you can ‘prime yourself’ for a test, the truth is that there simply isn’t enough time dedicated to a single topic to do well on an entire test. You might be able to cram one formula in your head the night before, but not an entire chapter. This is also why we are very prone to hearing our name if someone says it in a group of large people (known as the cocktail party effect).