The modulation of our sense of smell
May 19, 2012 4:20 AM Subscribe
How and why do we become accustomed to smells? What makes some odours personally super-pungent one day and unnoticed 'background noise' later on, despite the smell remaining objectively unchanged?
posted by peacay to Science & Nature (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
We've all got our own examples. The peculiar odour from some houses that the occupants don't recognise but visitors do; our incredulity at how someone could work in a place like a fish gutting factory; the reduction in the ability to notice, say, stale, fetid air in a room we occupy for long hours, or how the sickly sweet air nearby a cake factory becomes less noticeable over time, if you live in the neighbourhood. Maybe not the best examples perhaps, pulled out of the air on the run, but I think you know what I mean.
Is this process/ability 100% psychological? Or is/are there physical mechanism(s) at play? Do we innately 'muffle' familiar smells to the background as a protection system, so we're more able identify the odours of potentially dangerous and unfamiliar products/agents? Does any of this point towards it being an evolutionary element? Or is it all a kind of a modified thinking process, where we basically innoculate ourselves through repeated exposures and semi-consciously decide not to let it bug us??