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Exp Brain Res. 2010 Aug;205(1):13-29. doi: 10.1007/s00221-010-2348-6. Epub 2010 Jul 7.

Human olfaction: a constant state of change-blindness.

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Department of Neurobiology, The Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, 76100, Israel.


Paradoxically, although humans have a superb sense of smell, they don't trust their nose. Furthermore, although human odorant detection thresholds are very low, only unusually high odorant concentrations spontaneously shift our attention to olfaction. Here we suggest that this lack of olfactory awareness reflects the nature of olfactory attention that is shaped by the spatial and temporal envelopes of olfaction. Regarding the spatial envelope, selective attention is allocated in space. Humans direct an attentional spotlight within spatial coordinates in both vision and audition. Human olfactory spatial abilities are minimal. Thus, with no olfactory space, there is no arena for olfactory selective attention. Regarding the temporal envelope, whereas vision and audition consist of nearly continuous input, olfactory input is discreet, made of sniffs widely separated in time. If similar temporal breaks are artificially introduced to vision and audition, they induce "change blindness", a loss of attentional capture that results in a lack of awareness to change. Whereas "change blindness" is an aberration of vision and audition, the long inter-sniff-interval renders "change anosmia" the norm in human olfaction. Therefore, attentional capture in olfaction is minimal, as is human olfactory awareness. All this, however, does not diminish the role of olfaction through sub-attentive mechanisms allowing subliminal smells a profound influence on human behavior and perception.

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