The influence of odor type on the discrimination and identification of odorants in multicomponent odor mixtures

Physiol Behav. 1998 Nov 15;65(2):311-20. doi: 10.1016/s0031-9384(98)00168-1.


Using a limited set of odorants, previous studies have indicated that the ability of humans to discriminate and identify the components of olfactory mixtures is limited to approximately four. However, the ability to generalize these results may have been limited by specific neural or cognitive interactions among the particular odorants used. In the present experiment, 41 subjects examined the influence of odor type (different individual odorants), from two very different odor sets, on the perception of the components of complex mixtures. One set contained odors that were selected by an expert panel to blend well in mixtures (good blenders), whereas the other contained odors that blended poorly in mixtures (poor blenders). The stimuli were common, dissimilar odorants of equivalent, moderate intensity, each of which was a single chemical. A computer-controlled air dilution olfactometer delivered a single odorant or a mixture containing up to eight odorants. Although the poor blenders were more easily discriminated, this superiority was displayed within a narrow range, and the ability of subjects to identify mixture components with either odor set was limited to approximately four. The results indicate that, whereas odor type can alter which odorants will be perceived in a mixture, the limited capacity to discriminate mixture components is independent of the type of odorants. These findings are discussed in terms of their implications for olfactory coding.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Discrimination, Psychological / physiology*
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Odorants*
  • Smell / physiology*