Adaptation (eye)
In ocular
Visual perception
Visual perception is the ability to interpret information and surroundings from the effects of visible light reaching the eye. The resulting perception is also known as eyesight, sight, or vision...

Physiology is the science of the function of living systems. This includes how organisms, organ systems, organs, cells, and bio-molecules carry out the chemical or physical functions that exist in a living system. The highest honor awarded in physiology is the Nobel Prize in Physiology or...

, adaptation is the ability of the eye
Human eye
The human eye is an organ which reacts to light for several purposes. As a conscious sense organ, the eye allows vision. Rod and cone cells in the retina allow conscious light perception and vision including color differentiation and the perception of depth...

 to adjust to various levels of darkness and light.


The human eye can function from very dark to very bright levels of light; its sensing capabilities reach across nine orders of magnitude
Order of magnitude
An order of magnitude is the class of scale or magnitude of any amount, where each class contains values of a fixed ratio to the class preceding it. In its most common usage, the amount being scaled is 10 and the scale is the exponent being applied to this amount...

. This means that the brightest and the darkest light signal that the eye can sense are a factor of roughly 1,000,000,000 apart. However, in any given moment of time, the eye can only sense a contrast
Contrast (vision)
Contrast is the difference in visual properties that makes an object distinguishable from other objects and the background. In visual perception of the real world, contrast is determined by the difference in the color and brightness of the object and other objects within the same field of view...

 ratio of one thousand. What enables the wider reach is that the eye adapts its definition of what is black. The light level that is interpreted as "black" can be shifted across six orders of magnitude—a factor of one million.

The eye takes approximately 20–30 minutes to fully adapt from bright sunlight to complete darkness and become ten thousand to one million times more sensitive than at full daylight. In this process, the eye's perception of color changes as well. However, it takes approximately five minutes for the eye to adapt to bright sunlight from darkness. This is due to cones obtaining more sensitivity when first entering the dark for the first five minutes but the rods take over after five or more minutes.


A minor mechanism of adaptation is the pupillary light reflex, adjusting the amount of light that reaches the retina. A dilation of the pupil from 2mm to 10mm only increases the area of light entering the eye by a factor of 25.

Changes in the sensitivity of rods and cones in the eye are the major contributors to dark adaptation. Rods are more sensitive to light and so take longer to fully adapt to the change in light. Rods, whose photopigments regenerate more slowly, do not reach their maximum sensitivity for about half an hour. Cones take approximately 9–10 minutes to adapt to the dark.
Sensitivity to light is modulated by changes in intracellular calcium
Calcium is the chemical element with the symbol Ca and atomic number 20. It has an atomic mass of 40.078 amu. Calcium is a soft gray alkaline earth metal, and is the fifth-most-abundant element by mass in the Earth's crust...

An ion is an atom or molecule in which the total number of electrons is not equal to the total number of protons, giving it a net positive or negative electrical charge. The name was given by physicist Michael Faraday for the substances that allow a current to pass between electrodes in a...

s and cyclic guanosine monophosphate
Cyclic guanosine monophosphate
Cyclic guanosine monophosphate is a cyclic nucleotide derived from guanosine triphosphate . cGMP acts as a second messenger much like cyclic AMP...

. Inhibition by one neuron on another is just as important as activation in synapses. Together with the bleaching of a rod or cone pigment, merging of signals on ganglion cells are inhibited, reducing convergence. Alpha adaptation, i.e. rapid sensitivity fluctuations, is powered by nerve control.

The merging of signals by virtue of the diffuse ganglion cells, as well as horizontal and amacrine cells, allow a cumulative effect. This means that area of stimulation varies inversely with the intensity, a strong stimulus over 100 rods or less is equivalent to one that is weak and over 1,000 rods. In sufficiently bright light, convergence is low, but during dark adaptation, convergence of rod signals boost. This is not due to structural changes, but by a possible shutdown of inhibition that stops convergence of messages in bright light. If only one eye is open, the closed eye must adapt separately upon reopening to match the already adapted eye.

The fovea is blind to dim light (due to its cone-only array) and the rods are more sensitive, so a dim star on a moonless night must be viewed from the side, so it stimulates the rods. This is not due to pupil width since an artificial fixed-width pupil gives the same results.


Insufficiency of adaptation most commonly presents as insufficient adaptation to dark environment, called night blindness or nyctalopia. The opposite problem, known as hemeralopia
Hemeralopia is the inability to see clearly in bright light and is the exact opposite of Nyctalopia . Hemera was the Greek goddess of day and Nyx was the goddess of night. However, it has been used in an opposite sense by many non-English-speaking doctors...

, that is, inability to see clearly in bright light, is much rarer.

See also

  • Neural adaptation
    Neural adaptation
    Neural adaptation or sensory adaptation is a change over time in the responsiveness of the sensory system to a constant stimulus. It is usually experienced as a change in the stimulus. For example, if one rests one's hand on a table, one immediately feels the table's surface on one's skin. Within a...

  • Photopic vision
    Photopic vision
    Photopic vision is the vision of the eye under well-lit conditions. In humans and many other animals, photopic vision allows color perception, mediated by cone cells, and a significantly higher visual acuity and temporal resolution than available with scotopic vision.The human eye uses three types...

  • Purkinje effect
    Purkinje effect
    The Purkinje effect is the tendency for the peak luminance sensitivity of the human eye to shift toward the blue end of the color spectrum at low illumination levels.This effect introduces a difference in color contrast under different levels of...

  • Scotopic vision
    Scotopic vision
    Scotopic vision is the vision of the eye under low light conditions. The term comes from Greek skotos meaning darkness and -opia meaning a condition of sight...

  • Accommodation (eye)
    Accommodation (eye)
    Accommodation is the process by which the vertebrate eye changes optical power to maintain a clear image on an object as its distance changes....

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