Perceptual adaptation

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Perceptual adaptation is a unique function of the brain that accounts for the differences viewed in the world, as it relates to the senses. This phenomenon occurs in all senses, including vision, hearing, touch, and smell. An example is when images sensed through the eyes are relayed to the visual cortex of the brain, and if vision is altered slightly, the brain accounts for the difference and will allow one to perceive the world as "normal." This is a compensation mechanism the brain uses for the world to appear normal in our minds when our world has obviously been altered from its regular state.[1] This is an important aspect in potential alterations to the visual field, effectiveness in compensating for alterations in the visual field, visual adaptation, and face recognition.


Herman Helmholtz, a distinguished scientist from the 1800s, thoroughly researched conscious sensations and how they converted into meaningful perceptions of events. He defined sensations as the "raw elements" of conscious experience that required no learning and perceptions contrarily as the meaningful interpretations he gave to senses [5]. He studied the physical properties of the eye, color vision, and visual perception including perceptual adaptation. One of his classic experiments regarding how space perception could be altered by experience involved participants wearing certain glasses that distorted the visual field several degrees to the right of the normal location. Participants were asked to look at an object, close their eyes, and try to reach out and touch it. At first their responses were always misses to the right, but after a few trials participants became nearly flawless with this drill. At first, subjects started to place their hands to the left of the objects, but eventually it became natural to touch them even with their eyes closed. [5]

Helmholtz also theorized that perceptual adaptation might result from a process he referred to as unconscious inference. This is where the mind leads to the unconscious adoption of certain rules to make things follow in a logical order. An example of this phenomena is when a ball appears to be getting smaller and smaller, then mind will then infer that the ball is moving away from them. [5]

Research on Perceptual Adaptation[edit]

Experimental support[edit]

Psychologist George M. Stratton conducted, in the 1890s, experiments in which he tested the theory of perceptual adaptation.[2] In one experiment, he wore a reversing glasses for 21½ hours over three days, with no change in his vision. After removing the glasses, "normal vision was restored instantaneously and without any disturbance in the natural appearance or position of objects."[2]

On a later experiment, Stratton wore the glasses for eight whole days. By day four, the images seen through the instrument were still upside down. However, on day five, images appeared upright until he concentrated on them; then they became inverted again. By having to concentrate on his vision to turn it upside down again, especially when he knew images were hitting his retinas in the opposite orientation as normal, Stratton deduced his brain had reprocessed his vision and adapted to the changes in vision.

Potential alterations to the visual field[edit]

The visual field can be altered in many ways. The various ways that it can be altered is by angles, or by orientation. Optometrists alter the visual field by altering angles (i.e. fashion the subject with glasses that construe the visual field by differing angles). George Stratton conducted experiments where the visual field was altered by an angle of forty five degrees and his brain was able to adapt to the change and perceive the world as normal. Also, the field can be altered making the subject see the world upside down. But, as the brain adjusts to the change, the world appears "normal."[1][3]

Effectiveness in compensating for alterations in the visual field[edit]

An altered visual field does not adversely affect one’s life. Our perceptual adaptation allows us to adapt to the world and live life as normal. Therefore, with an altered visual field, the limits are nonexistent. One is able to do whatever they please without limitations. In some extreme experiments, psychologists have tested to see if a pilot can fly a plane with altered vision. All of the pilots that were fitted with the goggles that alter their vision were able to safely navigate the aircraft with ease.[1]

Visual Adaptation[edit]

Visual Adaptation is defined as the aftereffects of exposure to a certain visual stimulus or visual pattern that caused one to lose sensitivity to that pattern and engage in stimulus bias. An example of this phenomenon is the "lilac chaser", introduced by Jeremy Hinton. The stimulus here are lilac circles, that once removed, leave green circles that then become the most prominent stimulus. The fading of the lilac circles is due to a loss of sensitivity to that stimulus and the adaptation to the new stimulus. To experience the "lilac chaser" effect, the subject needs to fixate their eyes on the cross in the middle of the image, and after a while the effect will settle in. [4]

Lilac Chaser from Jeremy Hinton's experiment (

Face Recognition[edit]

Perceptual adaptation plays a big role in identifying faces. The phenomenon of aftereffects applies to faces as well. In an experiment conducted by Gillian Rhodes, the impact of face adaption was investigated, along with whether visual adaptation has an impact on recognizing faces. The experiment found that perceptual adaptation does, in fact, have an impact on face recognition. Individuals tend to adapt to common facial features as early as after five minutes of looking at them. This suggests that humans adapt to common facial features, leaving neural resources and space to identify uncommon characteristics and features, which is how humans identify specific faces on a case-by-case basis. [5]


  1. ^ a b c Myers, David G. (2007). Exploring Psychology in Modules (7th ed.). New York: Worth Publishers. ISBN 978-1-4292-0589-4. [page needed]
  2. ^ a b Stratton, George M. (1896). "Some preliminary experiments on vision without inversion of the retinal image". Psychological Review 3 (6): 611–7. doi:10.1037/h0072918. 
  3. ^ Cullari, Salvatore (21 Mar 1997). "Re: Upside Down Glasses?". MadSci Network. 
  4. ^ Webster2011/>Webster, Michael (19 May 2011). "Re: Adaptation and Visual Coding". JOV Journal of Vision. 
  5. ^ Rhodes2010/>Rhodes, Gillian (12 May 2010). "Re: Perceptual adaptation helps us identify faces". ScienceDirect. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Stratton, George M. (1897). "Upright Vision and the Retinal Image". Psychological Review 4: 182–7. doi:10.1037/h0064110. 
  • Richard L. Gregory (30 Oct 1997). Eye and Brain : The Psychology of Seeing. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-852412-0.