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Chem Senses. 1998 Jun;23(3):309-26.

Odor identification: perceptual and semantic dimensions.

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Chemosensory Perception Laboratory, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla 92093-0957, USA.


Five studies explored identification of odors as an aspect of semantic memory. All dealt in one way or another with the accessibility of acquired olfactory information. The first study examined stability and showed that, consistent with personal reports, people can fail to identify an odor one day yet succeed another. Failure turned more commonly to success than vice versa, and once success occurred it tended to recur. Confidence ratings implied that subjects generally knew the quality of their answers. Even incorrect names, though, often carried considerable information which sometimes reflected a semantic and sometimes a perceptual source of errors. The second study showed that profiling odors via the American Society of Testing and Materials list of attributes, an exercise in depth of processing, effected no increment in the identifiability/accessibility beyond an unelaborated second attempt at retrieval. The third study showed that subjects had only a weak ability to predict the relative recognizability of odors they had failed to identify. Whereas the strength of the feeling that they would 'know' an answer if offered choices did not associate significantly with performance for odors, it did for trivia questions. The fourth study demonstrated an association between ability to discriminate among one set of odors and to identify another, but this emerged only after subjects had received feedback about identity, which essentially changed the task to one of recognition and effectively stabilized access. The fifth study illustrated that feedback improves performance dramatically only for odors involved with it, but that mere retrieval leads to some improvement. The studies suggest a research agenda that could include supplemental use of confidence judgments both retrospectively and prospectively in the same subjects to indicate the amount of accessible semantic information; use of second and third guesses to examine subjects' simultaneously held hypotheses about identity; use of category cuing or similar techniques to discover the minimum semantic information needed to precipitate identification; some use of subjects trained in quantitative descriptive analysis to explore whether such training enhances semantic memory; and judicious use of mixtures to explore perceptual versus semantic errors of identification.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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