This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 04 table of contents.

Olfactory Adaptation

Sensory adaptation, the reduction in response to a continuing stimulus, occurs in olfaction as in other senses. Olfactory adaptation is rapid and almost complete because of a special chemical system that neutralizes the response of olfactory receptors to odors. In the case of olfaction, odors seem 80% less powerful after a few minutes of exposure.

What is olfactory adaptation? How complete is it, after a few minutes? What are some consequences of olfactory adaptation in humans?

Because of olfactory adaptation, people who are wearing too much perfume or cologne seldom realize it. The odor is only one-fifth as powerful to them as it is to other people.

In many situations, olfactory adaptation is a blessing. A person who spends lots of time working near a foul odor gets to the point where olfactory adaptation is 100% and he or she cannot smell it at all.

Wednesday's discussion of adaptation...made me think of an example that I experienced growin up in Savannah. Savannah was unfortunate/fortunate (?) enough to have one of the world's largest paper mills, Union Camp. For nineteen years I lived in the city and not once did I ever smell the awful fumes this factory used to put out. (They have cleaned it up a bit since then.) I was working one summer with a man from North Carolina and he was constantly mentioning the fact that there was a "terrible smell" in the air. Even after a month out of Savannah I could return and still not smell Union Camp. Yet those who do not live in the city catch the wafting smell almost instantly. [Author's files] [Author's files]

The olfactory sense plays a major role in our perception of flavor in food. When the nose gets stuffed up, food is tasteless. A simple experiment reveals the role of olfaction in taste. Take an apple and an onion, hold your nose, and sample each. You will be unable to tell them apart. Or take a swig of a cola drink, while holding your nose. It will taste like carbonated water.


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