Experience Shapes Our Odor Perception but Depends on the Initial Perceptual Processing of the Stimulus

By Sinding, Charlotte; Coureaud, Gérard et al. | Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, July 2015 | Go to article overview

Experience Shapes Our Odor Perception but Depends on the Initial Perceptual Processing of the Stimulus


Sinding, Charlotte, Coureaud, Gérard, Bervialle, Boris, Martin, Christophe, Schaal, Benoist, Thomas-Danguin, Thierry, Attention, Perception and Psychophysics


Published online: 2 April 2015

© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2015

Abstract The questions of whether configural and elemental perceptions are competitive or exclusive perceptual processes and whether they rely on independent or dependent mechanisms are poorly understood. To examine these questions, we modified perceptual experience through preexposure to mixed or single odors and measured the resulting variation in the levels of configural and elemental perception of target odor mixtures. We used target mixtures that were spontaneously processed in a configural or an elemental manner. The AB binary mixture spontaneously involved the configural perception of a pineapple odor, whereas component A smelled like strawberry and component B smelled like caramel. The CD mixture produced the elemental perceptions of banana (C) and smoky (D) odors. Perceptual experience was manipulated through repeated exposure to either a mixture (AB or CD) or the components (A and B or C and D). The odor typicality rating data recorded after exposure revealed different influences of experience on odor mixtures and single-component perception, depending both on the type of exposure (components or mixture) and the mixture's initial perceptual property (configural or elemental). Although preexposure to A and B decreased the pineapple typicality of the configural AB mixture, preexposure to AB did not modify its odor quality. In contrast, preexposure to the CD elemental mixture induced a quality transfer between the components. These results emphasize the relative plasticity of odor mixture perception, which is prone to experience-induced modulations but depends on the stimulus's initial perceptual properties, suggesting that configural and elemental forms of odor mixture perception rely on rather independent processes.

Keywords Odor mixture · Blending · Configural · Elemental · Perceptual experience

The myriad of odorants that we encounter in our daily life (e.g., food, surroundings, social odors, or perfumes) give rise to a variety of percepts, which may vary according to contextual and individual factors. In humans, interindividual differences in odor perception have been found to be associated not only with age (Cain & Gent, 1991;Thomas-Danguinetal., 2003) and health status (Doty, 2001), but also with cognitive factors (Chrea et al., 2004) and semantic knowledge (Rouby et al., 2005). These last two factors underline the critical role of memory in odor processing (Wilson & Stevenson, 2003). As in nearly all sensory systems, olfactory perceptual learning contributes to improving our ability to discriminate between odors and categorize them. However, odors are hardly ever perceived alone in real life, and the olfactory system must be efficient to analyze mixtures of tens of odorants. To do so, configural (synthetic) and elemental (analytic) processes can be engaged, which dramatically increases the variety of percepts that can be perceived (Bushdid, Magnasco, Vosshall, & Keller, 2014). Elemental processing of odor mixtures allows recognition of the odors of the components, up to a maximum of four in humans (Livermore & Laing, 1998; Livermore & Laing, 1996). Configural processing of odor mixtures gives rise to the perception of a new odor, specific to the configuration and distinct from the odors of the components (Kay, Crk, & Thorngate, 2005). Thus, configural perception contributes to the object recognition functioning of olfaction (Stevenson & Wilson, 2007; Thomas-Danguin et al., 2014).

Even though the role of experience in odor processing remains a central issue in olfactory research, only a few studies have dealt with the impact of perceptual experience on odor mixture perception. Mixture perception relies on two aspects: the abilities to recognize components within mixtures (elemental perception) and to process mixtures as single odor objects (configural perception; e.g., Coureaud, ThomasDanguin, Wilson, & Ferreira, 2014; Livermore, Hutson, Ngo, Hadjisimos, & Derby, 1997;Rabin,1988; Sinding, Thomas-Danguin, Crepeaux, Schaal, & Coureaud, 2011). …

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