Report

Humans Can Discriminate More than 1 Trillion Olfactory Stimuli

Science  21 Mar 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6177, pp. 1370-1372
DOI: 10.1126/science.1249168

You are currently viewing the abstract.

View Full Text

Via your Institution

Log in through your institution

Log in through your institution


All the Smells of the World

How many odorant stimuli can a normal human being discriminate? During psychophysical tests of odor mixture discrimination, Bushdid et al. (p. 1370) were surprised to find that humans can discriminate among more than a trillion different smells. Because the authors reduced the complexity by investigating only mixtures of 10, 20, or 30 components drawn from a collection of 128 odorous molecules, this astonishingly large number is probably the lower limit of the potential number of olfactory stimuli that humans can distinguish.

Abstract

Humans can discriminate several million different colors and almost half a million different tones, but the number of discriminable olfactory stimuli remains unknown. The lay and scientific literature typically claims that humans can discriminate 10,000 odors, but this number has never been empirically validated. We determined the resolution of the human sense of smell by testing the capacity of humans to discriminate odor mixtures with varying numbers of shared components. On the basis of the results of psychophysical testing, we calculated that humans can discriminate at least 1 trillion olfactory stimuli. This is far more than previous estimates of distinguishable olfactory stimuli. It demonstrates that the human olfactory system, with its hundreds of different olfactory receptors, far outperforms the other senses in the number of physically different stimuli it can discriminate.

View Full Text

Related Content