People with superior sense of smell are better navigators, study reveals

Follow your nose all the way home.

  • It has to do with two parts of the brain, both of which are thicker in those with better smell and spacial recognition.
  • Your nose can detect about 1 trillion smells.
  • While your nose isn't a full GPS, it can help you pick out a general direction.

Smell is a funny thing. Some people—like actor Jason Sudekis—have no sense of smell at all. This might seem like a good thing until you realize just how important smell is to not only your sense of taste but your sense of memory, too. Turns out that a keen sense of smell is also good for something else: your sense of direction.

McGill University

Screenshots of the virtual town (left), graph indicating the positions of participants between the two tests (right).

According to a study done by McGill University out of Montreal, and recently published recently in Nature, your sense of smell and your sense of direction are actually linked. It had been thought they were before (the 'olfactory spatial hypothesis' goes back to at least 1971), but no conclusive study had been done until now.

57 participants were asked to navigate a virtual town. They were given 20 minutes to familiarize themselves with it, essentially build a cognitive map, and then quizzed on how to get from one virtual landmark to another.

Scented markers: Part of any good scientific toolkit.

In another part of the test, the 57 participants were asked to smell 40 unlabeled scented markers and to guess which smell was which.

Turns out, those who had the better sense of smell were also the best navigators.

The tests, while seemingly unrelated, actually trigger overlapping brain areas. It has to do with the mOFC, or medial orbitofrontal cortex, and the hippocampus. The thicker the left side of the mOFC, the better the person is at spatial memory and the thicker the right side of the hippocampus, the better the peron's sense of smell. As the study puts it, "greater mOFC cortical thickness is associated with both fewer errors during spatial learning and better olfactory identification."

To follow up their findings, the research team also conducted a brain lesion study on a small sample of people whose spacial memory and sense of smell is impaired by frontal lobe damage that affects the mOFC brain group, comparing them against a control group.

The authors write: "... we showed for the first time that mOFC damage affects performance on both olfactory identification and spatial memory tasks. These deficits were not explained by general cognitive impairment, as patients with mOFC damage performed similarly to control participants on standard neuropsychological tests."

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

The study suggests this could go back to the days of our earliest ancestors, when catching a faint whiff of wild animal meant that dinner or danger was nearby.

"Our findings reveal an intrinsic relationship between olfaction and spatial memory that is supported by a shared reliance on the hippocampus and medial orbitofrontal cortex. This relationship may find its roots in the parallel evolution of the olfactory and hippocampal systems."

So maybe there's some truth to the Toucan Sam adage, "follow your nose". Bonus fact: Did you know your nose can actually detect about 1 trillion different types of smells?


Big Think Edge
  • The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
  • Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
  • Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

Keep reading Show less

Futuristic inventions and emerging technologies that will change the world

What do the inventions of the future look like?

(Photo Credit: Rick Guidice/NASA)
Technology & Innovation
  • Self-sustaining space colonies and unlimited fusion energy would bring humanity to a new point in our evolution.
  • Flying cars and robot butlers could be the next paradigm shift in our tech appetite for change.
  • Death and consensus reality might soon become obsolete.
Keep reading Show less

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
Keep reading Show less