It has long been suspected that attentional processes differ between olfaction and the other senses. Here, we test whether voluntary dishabituation, seen, for example, when we re-attend to the ticking of a clock, can occur in olfaction. Participants were seated in an odorized room, where at various intervals they had to evaluate what they could smell. An experimental group had one nostril open and the other closed, except during the evaluations, so that the closed side was subject to centrally driven habituation, but not peripheral adaptation. A control group had both nostrils closed except during evaluations. Following exposure, the experimental group could not report the room's odor in either the centrally habituated nostril (i.e., that remained closed) or the nostril that remained open, while the control group could. This effect could result from a number of causes, including olfaction's unique neuroanatomy, functional constraints imposed by detecting volatile chemicals, and as a consequence of limited cortical resources, with implications for the functional value of consciousness.
- Selective attention