Y: Hey Don, have you seen my lunch? I just had it a minute ago, and then I set it down, and now I have no idea where I put it.
D: I haven’t seen it, but maybe I can smell my way to it. What kind of food is it?
Y: Just plain spaghetti. I did ask for extra garlic, but I don’t know if the smell is strong enough to give us any leads.
D: Found it!
Y: How’d you do that?
D: I happen to have an excellent sense of smell and a great sense of navigation. Put those together, and I can sniff my way to almost anything. And it’s not just me—a study found that people who have a great sense of smell are often also good navigators. Researchers had study participants navigate through a virtual town on a computer to test their navigational skills. Then they tested the participants’ sense of smell by having them sniff one of forty scented felt-tip pens, and match the scent they perceived to one of four options. The participants who did best on the navigational task were the same ones who got top marks on the smell test.
Y: Do we know why?
D: Scientists have ideas, and one is the olfactory spatial hypothesis, which proposes that animals, including humans, evolved a sense of smell to help find their way around. However it happened, now it’s enshrined in our brains: top smellers and navigators have a bigger left orbitofrontal cortex, which is linked to smelling, and a right hippocampus, which is associated with both smelling and navigation.
Y: I can’t say I’m not jealous. It does seem like a useful pair of skills.