Humans, like pigeons, use 3-D sense of smell as ‘radar’

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Published: June 18, 2015 10:20:42 PM

Humans too, like homing pigeons, navigate but through their sense of smell.

Humans too, like homing pigeons, navigate but through their sense of smell.

New research from the University of California, Berkeley, shows that while humans may lack the scent-tracking sophistication of a search-and-rescue dog, we can sniff our way, blindfolded, toward a location whose scent we’ve smelled only once before.

This is the first time smell-based navigation has been field-tested on humans, and the results evoke a GPS-like superpower one could call an “olfactory positioning system.”

The process of smelling, or olfaction, is triggered by odor molecules traveling up the nasal passage, where they are identified by receptors that send signals to the olfactory bulb – which sits between the nasal cavity and the brain’s frontal lobe – and processes the information. A key to the connection between smell, memory and navigation is that olfactory bulbs have a strong neural link to the brain’s hippocampus, which creates spatial maps of our environment.

Study’s lead author Lucia Jacobs said olfaction is like this background fabric to our world that we might not be conscious of, but were using it to stay oriented.

She added that they never thought humans could have a good enough sense of smell for this. But in retrospect, she noted, the results were “as obvious as the nose on my face.”

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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