A limit in the processing of components in odour mixtures

Perception. 1999;28(3):395-404. doi: 10.1068/p2898.


We investigated the hypothesis that physiological limitations restrict the ability of humans to identify components in an odour mixture. Subjects were trained to identify the test odours, and were required to detect a single highly familiar odorant in stimuli consisting of one, four, eight, twelve, and sixteen odorants by using a selective-attention procedure. The stimuli were delivered by a computer-controlled sixteen-channel air-dilution olfactometer which provided samples of each of the sixteen odorants to be of equal perceived intensity for each subject. Identification fell to chance level when sixteen odorants were present. It is proposed that the profound loss of information was primarily due to inhibition of olfactory receptor cells by the odorants through competitive mechanisms, and the subsequent loss of odour identity through changes in the spatial code that may be used to identify odorants.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Odorants*
  • Psychological Tests
  • Signal Detection, Psychological
  • Smell / physiology*