I'm currently taking AP Psychology and we recently learned about sensory adaptation and selective attention. I was just wondering if there is any actual difference between the two? They seem pretty similar to me. Any clarification is appreciated.



Sensory adaptation is very low level and completely subconscious.

Selective attention is pretty much as high level you can get before hitting consciousness.

The two mechanisms work on a polar ends of the stick.

  • $\begingroup$ Is it true that selective attention can also be conscious? Thanks for the reply. $\endgroup$ – AleksandrH Oct 21 '15 at 12:12
  • $\begingroup$ That depends what theory you support and how you define consciousness. Based on Stanislas Dehaene book (Consciousness and the brain), selective attention is subconscious - you are not aware of the thousands of potential perceptions knocking at the consciousness door. Note that the word 'selective' implies a filter; this is different from the case where a perception already entered consciousness, and then can be put on hold as part as attention toggling (which is more of access affair than a selection one). $\endgroup$ – Izhaki Oct 21 '15 at 12:48

It is rather difficult to answer this question without knowing what you mean by these two terms (both are used in a variety of contexts, and there is still debate about their precise definitions). The "low"/"high" level distinction identified by Izhaki is not universally accepted. It might be better if you were to explain why you think they are "pretty similar".

The most common understanding of "selective attention" is as a "filter", which prioritises the processing of some stimuli (e.g., a particular voice at a party, or a particular spatial location in a visual task). The wikipedia pages on attention have a reasonable summary of this. Importantly, we can selectively attend to something voluntarily (i.e., it is partly under conscious control), although in some circumstances our attention is also "captured" by distraction even when we don't want it to be.

"Sensory adaptation" can mean several things (for example the adaptation might refer to adaptation thanks to evolution, or to the way that our eyes grow accustomed to darkness). In current experimental psychology, the most common meaning of sensory (also neural or perceptual) adaptation is when the same, repeated stimulus evokes a different response. This may be because sensory neurons habituate, but it may also happen at the level of the cortex, and so in psychophysics it is a useful tool for learning about more complex representations. There is also a wiki article on this here.

One way in which adaptation and attention are similar is that both can modulate the response to particular stimuli (sometimes called changing the "gain" when talking about neurons). One way in which they are different is that selective attention is normally beneficial (it boosts processing), and requires conscious instructions or manipulations rather than simple repetition.


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