Our sense of smell is much better than we give it credit for. A report in Nature Neuroscience puts paid to the notion that the human reputation for having a poor sense of smell compared to other animals.
Noam Sobel and colleagues laid down scent trails in a grassy field, and asked human subjects to find the trail and track it to the end. Subjects were blindfolded and wore thick gloves and earplugs to force them to rely exclusively on smell. Contrary to expectations, the volunteers exhibited some of the same tracking strategies used by dogs and were certainly capable of following the trail.
In follow-up experiments, the authors also demonstrated that this ability partially depends on comparisons of odour information in each nostril, it’s almost like smelling in stereo.
When subjects had one nostril plugged their tracking performance was much worse.
Admittedly, the volunteers were much slower than dogs at following the scent trail, but with practice they got quicker.
the findings raise the intriguing possibility that our sense of smell is far better than we think and that using it more effectively is simply a skill we don’t teach our children so it gives us the impression that we don’t have it.
For more on a provocative theory of how we smell check out this page from the Sciencebase archives.