Do Humans Navigate Using Their Sense of Smell?

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Can it be possible for humans to navigate using only their sense of smell? Humans cannot compare their sniffing capacities to other animals, such as wolves, but it is still sharp. Smell can harmonize or sharpen our awareness of others and our environment. Not only that, but it can affect our mood and stir up memories we thought were once forgotten. According to the medical dictionary sense of smell also known as olfaction is, “the act of perceiving and distinguishing odors.” History tells us that olfaction is a primitive instinct used to hunt, travel and find a partner to mate with. As modernized humans we think we do not use our sense of smell as much, but we do.


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A study conducted by Lucia Jacobs and her team from University of California, Berkeley, discovered that humans have the ability to orient themselves though landscapes using only their sense of smell. People can sniff their way to a location using scents they’ve been exposed to before. We have this capacity because we are able to convert smells into spatial information. This type of navigation is called olfactory positioning system. How does this navigation system work? Well, olfaction is triggered by the molecules in odors, which goes up the nasal passage, from there it is identified by receptors that send signals to the olfactory bulb, located between the nasal cavity and the brain’s frontal lobe. The neural link in the hippocampus region of the brain makes a connection between smell and memory, allowing us to create maps of our surroundings.


The olfactory positioning system in humans is still not understood. The research previously mentioned is the first to study this in human subjects. In order to further understand how humans use this navigation system future studies should be conducted. In my opinion we do use our sense of smell far more than we think because we rely mostly in our sense of sight and hearing. People who report having trouble with their sense of smell say it is disturbing because they realized that they do use this sense far more than they previously thought. What are your thoughts on this subject? Do you consider your sense of smell a mayor or minor sense? Have you ever used your sense of smell to navigate? If so comment on the bottom of this page.



Medical-Dictionary. (2015). Olfaction.

News Medical. (2015). UC Berkeley study shows humans can navigate through their sense of smell.

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