Busy boss babes have likely been instructed by caring friends and family members to stop and smell the roses once in a while. And rightfully so! Subscribing to the cult of busyness is known to sabotage your memory and put you on the fast track to the burnout epidemic, but a new study has found that it also quite literally prevents you from being able to smell blooms—or anything else, for that matter.
For a soon-to-be-published study in Psychological Science, researchers hid coffee beans in rooms to make them smell strongly of the java, according to the press release. They then asked participants (of an unknown number) to enter the rooms and complete one of two visual tasks that required either a high or low level of attention. After leaving the room, participants were asked questions to determine how much information they retained about the setting, including the smell. The “busy” participants with the more demanding task were a staggering 42.5 percent less likely to notice the overwhelming coffee scent. And there was nothing wrong with these folks’ olfactory systems: Upon returning to the room, they were “typically” surprised that they hadn’t noticed it previously.
The “busy” participants with the more demanding task were a staggering 42.5 percent less likely to notice the overwhelming coffee scent.
Additionally, 65 percent of participants who spent some time in the room couldn’t identify the coffee smell because they had gotten too used to it. This is known as “olfactory habituation,” which is when the brain can’t detect a smell after 20 minutes of exposure (think of how your post-SoulCycle sweat stench stops bothering you by the time you get home).
While the sense of smell is great for leisurely sniffing out potential love connections and enjoying delicious baked goods, study co-author Sophie Forster, PhD, contends it’s crucial for detecting life-threatening situations. “Could it be, for example, that drivers who are concentrating on a busy motorway and perhaps are also engaged in a conversation might fail to notice a burning smell, which should act as a warning sign? Or perhaps the same is true of engineers who work busily in situations which place them at risk of a gas leak.” That’s why Dr. Forster says the next step in related research is to test people’s reactions to scents more dangerous than coffee, like smoke and gas.
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