Your sense of smell disappears when you’re distracted, scientists say

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Your sense of smell disappears when you’re distracted or busy, scientists discover for the first time

  • Scientists discovered you can briefly lose your sense of smell if you’re distracted
  • Researchers say it is the first time that ‘inattentional anosmia’ has been proven
  • The study may be relevant to research on ‘threat smells’ like smoke and gas

If you have ever burned your dinner after getting distracted then this research will make a lot of sense.

Scientists have found that you can temporarily lose your sense of smell when your attention is diverted.

Researchers say it is the first time that the condition ‘inattentional smell blindness’, or ‘inattentional anosmia’, has been proven in an experiment.

Scientists have discovered that you can briefly lose your sense of smell when you’re distracted

Detecting ‘threat smells’  

Lead researcher Dr Sophie Forster, of the University of Sussex, said: ‘We have discovered that people are less likely to notice a smell if they are busily engaged in a task.

‘Many of us have experienced this: we’ve been working in a room when a new person has entered and said that the room smells of something such as someone’s lunch, but that those already in the room had failed to notice it.’

She added: ‘Previous research has told us that, unique to the sense of smell, there is only a window of approximately 20 minutes before the brain is no longer able to detect it – a phenomenon known as olfactory habituation.

‘Our study could have a range of implications. For example, if you are busy focusing on a task you may be less likely to be tempted by food smells. Or if you don’t want your friend to guess you are baking them a birthday cake in the other room, you could distract them with a puzzle for about 20 minutes.’ 

The study paves the way to test how busy people react to ‘threat smells’ like smoke and gas.


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How they carried out the study 

The researchers asked participants to carry out a demanding task where they were asked to search for an object in a room that smelled strongly of coffee.

After leaving the room participants were asked to describe the room, and then asked follow up questions to determine whether or not they had noticed the smell.

Those participants whose attention was occupied by the task were 42.5 per cent less likely to notice the smell. The participants were typically really surprised when they returned to the room afterwards to discover the strong coffee smell, which they had previously missed.

The second finding – that people may never notice a smell if they have habituated to it – was tested in a follow up experiment in which participants were asked what they could smell while they were still sitting in the room which smelt of coffee. 

The majority (65 per cent) couldn’t detect the coffee because they had habituated while they were doing the task.

In vision, the task is known as the ‘perceptual load hypothesis’ – the idea that people can only perceive sensory information until their capacity is full.

The study represents the first time that the condition ‘inattentional anosmia’, has been proven


A person’s sense of smell can predict how they will vote in political elections, a study suggested in February.

Researchers at Stockholm University in Sweden found that the way people react to body odor in particular is a psychological indicator of their political preferences.

Participants were given a survey that paired questions about smell with questions about which candidates they planned to vote for in 2016.

The results revealed that people who were more disgusted by certain odors such as urine and sweat were also more likely to vote for Donald Trump than those who were less sensitive.

It explains the well-known ‘Did you see the gorilla?’ inattentional blindness study, where observers are asked to focus on the number of ball passes between players wearing white, and almost always miss the person in a gorilla suit who walks across the scene, does a little dance in the middle and walks off.

Dr Forster said: ‘In the case of visual or auditory information, we tend to notice it once we are no longer busy. 

‘However, the brain can habituate to smells so strongly that they cannot be detected even when we are specifically asked about smells in the room.

‘If this habituation occurs during the period that people are distracted by a task, the opportunity to detect a smell may be missed. 

‘It is thought that the reason that there is a time limit for detecting smells relates to fact that the olfactory system evolved before the other senses, and therefore is more basic and animalistic.’ 

The research, conducted with Professor Charles Spence of Oxford University, is published in Psychological Science.

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