Can alcohol's scent distract us?
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alcohol's scent distract
05-18-16 Category: Research, Substance Abuse

alcohol's scent distract

The earthy essences, some hint of complexity – more than a juice’s linear scent – and with a trail of ethanol that slightly burns your nostrils. Wait, what were we talking about?

Rebecca Monk, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in Psychology at Edge Hill University, conducted a study to test just such a scenario: Can the smell of alcohol throw you off your guard?

The study

Forty test subjects put on face masks laced with either alcohol or a citrus solution. They were then asked to complete a computer test, pushing a button in response to a visual cue measuring reaction times and accuracy. The responses were evaluated in comparison to smell and visual cues. The individuals with the alcohol-enhanced face masks had more false alarm rates on the test than the citrus masks.

“This research is a first attempt to explore other triggers, such as smell, that may interfere with people’s ability to refrain from a particular behaviour. For example, during the experiment it seemed that just the smell of alcohol was making it harder for participants to control their behaviour to stop pressing a button,” Monk said.

Researchers affirm further analysis in real-world settings is needed to confirm findings and answer other questions.

A look at the writing on the (sinus) wall

Analyzing the science of smell as it relates to alcohol gives way to a host of insights. For example, the olfactory epithelium is a catch-all for odor molecules. The smell compounds stick to this area while signals are sent to the brain by way of the neurons triggered by the particular odor.

There are 40 million trigger-specific odor neurons. Which ones are prompted by alcohol and what they communicate to the brain have yet to be discovered. But it’s noteworthy that whatever they communicate is effective enough to cause thought process to be interrupted.

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Beyond the five senses

The study also brings to question what other senses are given pause due to alcohol associations. Science tells us there are likely several other human senses, and perhaps sight, sound, touch, taste and smell are umbrella categories for the others. Some of these are commonly recognized as being suppressed when under the influence of substances.

  • Equilibrioception – balance
  • Nociception – sense of pain
  • Proprioception – sense of where body parts are
  • Thermoception – sense of temperature
  • Temporal perception – sense of time
  • Interoception – sense of the body’s physiological condition

It would be interesting to test which senses are first alighted to the presence of a substance well before inebriation.

The Sovereign Health Group of California is a nationwide leader in mental health rehabilitation, offering holistic treatment for eating disorders, substance abuse and dual diagnosis of mental health and addiction. We keep readers abreast on the latest in clinical breakthroughs, emerging modalities for recovery and relatable tips for wellness. Call our 24/7 helpline to learn more.

About the author

Sovereign Health Group staff writer Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author at

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