Olfactory-Visual Sensory Integration Twists Time Perception

During everyday interactions, our senses are bombarded with different kinds of sensory information, which are processed by dedicated sensory systems operating at different temporal sampling scales to form a coherent percept. The question is whether information from one modality (say olfactory) influences the temporal perception of stimulus from other modality (say vision). Although, previous studies have investigated the effect of auditory stimulus on temporal perception of visual stimuli [1, 2], the evidence for the effect of olfactory stimulus on temporal perception of visual stimuli was lacking. A recent study published in Cerebral Cortex, by Prof. Wen Zhou and her lab members (Dr. Bin Zhou, Guo Feng, and Wei Chen), fills this gap and addresses whether odor influences visual temporal sampling and duration perception.

To study the effect of odor on visual temporal sampling, they used a two alternative forced choice chromatic critical flicker fusion (CFF) task with two isoluminant complimentary color images of banana or apple alternating at different frequencies (15, 20, 22.5 & 25 Hz in different blocks) for duration of 400ms (see figure 1, in original paper). In each trial, there were two 400ms flickering interval each flanked by 200ms mask, and separated by 600ms blank between the two intervals. Out of two, only one interval contained the flickering fruit image (either banana or apple) and participants reported the interval that contained fruit image. Along with visual stimuli, in Exp1 (N=16), participants were also exposed to two different odor stimuli (banana-like, amyl acetate 0.02%v/v in propylene glycol; and apple-like, apple flavor Givaudan, in separate blocks). The idea was to check whether the odor congruency influence the temporal sampling (CFF threshold) for the flickering banana or apple images. Results revealed that participants object detection increased significantly when the odor and the object image content matched, even when the task did not demanded any explicit object discrimination or identification, suggesting that sensory congruency between olfactory and visual inputs boosted the corresponding object visibility around CFF. Another analysis by fitting the psychometric function for the two odor conditions, with frequencies on x-axis and accuracy on y-axis, suggested that olfactory-visual congruency also facilitated the visual temporal sampling.

To establish that the above congruency effect is specific to odor and not just semantic information (or context) provided by the odor, they performed two control experiments. In the first control experiment (Exp2A, N=16), participants performed exactly the same task as Exp1 but instead of actual odors, odorless purified water was used and was suggested to participants as diluted banana or apple odor. In the second control experiment (Exp2B, N=16), semantic textual labels, “banana odor” or “apple odor”, were displayed at the center of the screen. In both the control experiments, they did not observe the odor-visual congruency effect, suggesting that presence of odor is important for such sensory integration.

The next question was to find the neural correlates of the odor-visual congruency effect, emphasizing at what level of visual processing the odor starts modulating it. For this, they performed an EEG experiment (Exp3, N=18) using the same stimuli as in Exp1, but modifying the task a bit. In the modified task, only one flickering interval of 400ms was presented flanked by red-green noise mask of 100ms, and participants reported whether the object was present or absent in that trial. All objects (apple or banana image) were presented to participants’ at subliminal frequency. For nine participants flicker frequency of 22.5Hz was used whereas for other nine participants 25Hz was used. Results from time-frequency analysis, revealed that maximum congruency-induced enhancement (i.e. greater normalized power difference) was observed in electrodes over right temporal regions around 150-300ms post stimulus onset. The difference around this time window suggests that during odor-visual congruency, odor starts influencing vision at the stage of object-level processing. Even source-localization analysis indicated the activation of right temporal region which is again known to be involved in object level representations. Thus, these evidences strongly suggest that odor influences the corresponding visual object at the stage of object-level processing.

From the above experiments, it was evident that the odor-visual congruency modulates visual temporal sampling, so the next logical question was whether it also influences the perceived duration of the visual stimuli. To answer this question, in Exp5 (N=24), they used a 2-Alternative Force Choice (AFC) comparison task, in which one image (either apple or banana) was a standard image (500ms) and the other image (either banana or apple) was test image (of varying durations 300, 350, 400, 450, 500, 550, 600, 650, 700ms). Participants reported which of the two images appeared longer in duration. For half participants (N=12) apple image was standard and banana image was comparison, whereas for other half (N=12) banana image served as standard and apple image served as comparison. Participants in both these groups were exposed to banana-like or apple-like odor in separate blocks. Point of subjective equality (PSE) and difference limen (DL) were measured for both the odor conditions. PSE is the measure of perceived duration whereas DL is the measure of temporal sensitivity. A two way mixed ANOVA on PSE values, with odor (banana-like, apple-like) as within-subjects factor and comparison image (banana image, apple image) as between-subjects factor, showed significant interaction. Further post hoc analysis after Bonferroni correction revealed that participants perceived the duration of the image to be longer when the image content and the odor were congruent compared to when they were incongruent. Similar analysis with DL, did not show any significant difference neither for main effects nor for interaction, suggesting that odor modulates only the perceived duration but not the temporal sensitivity.

Again to confirm that the above congruency effect on perceived duration is due to odor, not just because of semantic information (or context) provided by the odor, they performed two control experiments (Exp5A and Exp5B) similar to Exp2A and Exp2B. In Exp5A (N=24) instead of odor, odorless purified water suggested as diluted banana-like or apple-like odor were presented, whereas in Exp5B (N=24) instead of odor, textual labels (“banana odor” or “apple odor”) were presented on the screen. Neither the purified water nor the textual labels, showed the odor-visual congruency effect of perceived duration as seen in Exp4, suggesting the importance of odor in odor-visual sensory integration to modulate visual temporal perception.

In conclusion, this study provides a convincing evidence for the effect of odor on visual time perception, including temporal sampling and perceived duration. In future, it would be interesting to investigate this effect with other time perception paradigms such as magnitude estimation and measure the slope effect, which might help to know whether odor influences the pacemaker speed or the switch/ gating mechanisms in context of “internal clock model”. Moreover, it would be further interesting to investigate whether such odor-visual congruency effect influence the neural correlate of time perception such as CNV (contingent negative variation) component.


1. Romei, V., De Haas, B., Mok, R. M., & Driver, J. (2011). Auditory stimulus timing influences perceived duration of co-occurring visual stimuli. Frontiers in psychology, 2.

2. Yuasa, K., & Yotsumoto, Y. (2015). Opposite distortions in interval timing perception for visual and auditory stimuli with temporal modulations. PloS one, 10(8), e0135646.

Source article: Zhou, B., Feng, G., Chen, W., & Zhou, W. (2017). Olfaction Warps Visual Time Perception. Cerebral Cortex, 1-11.

—Mukesh Makwana (mukesh@cbcs.ac.in),
Doctoral student,
Centre of Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences (CBCS), India.