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Smelling Your Way Around

Photo of compass on a map.

People who have an excellent sense of smell may also have a good sense of direction. (Wodgester, Wikimedia Commons)

Everyone knows that some people simply have a better sense of smell than others. What is less obvious, however, is that this superior sense of smell may be connected to an equally advanced sense of direction.

Scientists at McGill University in Canada have 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.

One possible explanation for all of this 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 orbitofrontal cortex, which is linked to smelling, and a right hippocampus, which is associated with both smelling and navigation.

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