Nav: Home

Distracted people can be 'smell blind' -- according to new University of Sussex study

June 05, 2018

'Inattentional smell blindness', or inattentional anosmia, has been proven to exist in a study from the University of Sussex. Just as it has previously been found that people can miss visual cues when they are busily engaged in a task, the same is true of smells.

And unlike visual stimuli, which would be noticed once the person stops being busy, the problem with a smell is that there is only a short window before the person becomes habituated to it, and the opportunity to notice it has passed.

Dr Sophie Forster undertook the research with Prof Charles Spence at the University of Oxford.

Dr Forster from the University of Sussex said: "We have discovered that people are less likely to notice a smell if they are busily engaged in a task. Many of us have experienced this: we've been working in a room when a new person has entered and said that the room smells of something such as someone's lunch, but that those already in the room had failed to notice it.

"What's more, we found that because habituation to smells is much stronger than other senses, if we habituate during a period of distraction we might never notice a smell. Previous research has told us that, unique to the sense of smell, there is only a window of approximately 20 minutes before the brain is no longer able to detect it - a phenomenon known as olfactory habituation.

"Our study could have a range of implications. For example, if you are busy focusing on a task you may be less likely to be tempted by food smells. Or if you don't want your friend to guess you are baking them a birthday cake in the other room, you could distract them with a puzzle for about 20 minutes.

"Our test was done with the smell of coffee but the next step for us will be to test 'threat smells' such as smoke and gas. Could it be, for example, that drivers who are concentrating on a busy motorway and perhaps are also engaged in a conversation, might may fail to notice a burning smell which should act as a warning sign? Or perhaps the same is true of engineers who work busily in situations which place them at risk of a gas leak."

In the study the psychologists asked participants to enter a room in which they had previously hidden coffee beans, with the result that it smelled strongly of coffee. In the room the participants performed one of two versions of a visual task, designed to place either high or low demands on attention. After leaving the room participants were asked to describe the room, and then asked follow up questions to determine whether or not they had noticed the smell. Those participants whose attention was occupied by the more demanding task were 42.5% less likely to notice the smell. The participants were typically really surprised when they returned to the room afterwards to discover the strong coffee smell, which they had previously missed.

The second finding - that people may never notice a smell if they have habituated to it - was tested in a follow up experiment in which participants were asked what they could smell while they were still sitting in the room which smelt of coffee. The majority (65%) couldn't detect the coffee because they had habituated while they were doing the task.

The researchers were testing the 'perceptual load hypothesis', which is an idea that people can only perceive sensory information until their capacity is full. It explains the well known 'Did you see the gorilla?' inattentional blindness study, where observers are asked to focus on the number of ball passes between players wearing white, and almost always miss the person in a gorilla suit who walks across the scene, does a little dance in the middle and walks off.

Dr Forster said: "In the case of visual or auditory information, we tend to notice it once we are no longer busy. However, the brain can habituate to smells so strongly that they cannot be detected even when we are specifically asked about smells in the room. If this habituation occurs during the period that people are distracted by a task, the opportunity to detect a smell may be missed. It is thought that the reason that there is a time limit for detecting smells relates to fact that the olfactory system evolved before the other senses, and therefore is more basic and animalistic."

'"What smell?" Temporarily loading visual attention induces a prolonged loss of olfactory awareness' will be published soon in Psychological Science.
-end-


University of Sussex

Related Coffee Articles:

Coffee may protect against gallstones
Drinking more coffee may help reduce the risk of developing gallstones, according to a new study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine.
Managing the ups and downs of coffee production
Research could bring new coffee varieties to market faster and improve yields.
Could coffee be the secret to fighting obesity?
Scientists from the University of Nottingham have discovered that drinking a cup of coffee can stimulate 'brown fat', the body's own fat-fighting defenses, which could be the key to tackling obesity and diabetes.
Researchers document impact of coffee on bowels
Coffee drinkers know that coffee helps keep the bowels moving, but researchers in Texas are trying to find out exactly why this is true, and it doesn't seem to be about the caffeine, according to a study presented at Digestive Disease Week® (DDW) 2019.
Coffee addicts really do wake up and smell the coffee
Regular coffee drinkers can sniff out even tiny amounts of coffee and are faster at recognising the aroma, which could open the door to new ways of using aversion therapy for addiction
Why you love coffee and beer
Why do you swig bitter, dark roast coffee while your coworker guzzles sweet cola?
Are coffee farms for the birds? Yes and no
Through painstaking banding of individual birds, Sekercioglu asked whether the expansion of coffee plantations is reducing tropical bird biodiversity.
Espresso yourself: Coffee thoughts leave a latte on the mind
For millions of Australians, each day begins with a hot cup of coffee in order to activate our brains for the working day.
Birds bug out over coffee
New research conducted by the University of Delaware has found that birds are as picky as coffee snobs when it comes to the trees they'll migrate to for a summer habitat.
Microbes help make the coffee
When it comes to processing coffee beans, longer fermentation times can result in better taste, contrary to conventional wisdom.
More Coffee News and Coffee Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Rethinking Anger
Anger is universal and complex: it can be quiet, festering, justified, vengeful, and destructive. This hour, TED speakers explore the many sides of anger, why we need it, and who's allowed to feel it. Guests include psychologists Ryan Martin and Russell Kolts, writer Soraya Chemaly, former talk radio host Lisa Fritsch, and business professor Dan Moshavi.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#538 Nobels and Astrophysics
This week we start with this year's physics Nobel Prize awarded to Jim Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz and finish with a discussion of the Nobel Prizes as a way to award and highlight important science. Are they still relevant? When science breakthroughs are built on the backs of hundreds -- and sometimes thousands -- of people's hard work, how do you pick just three to highlight? Join host Rachelle Saunders and astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Ethan Siegel for their chat about astrophysics and Nobel Prizes.