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The idea that humans have a poor sense of smell is an outdated myth, argues new review

16 June 2017

In the early 1950s, while investigating rabbits’ sense of smell by recording the activity of their brain cells, the scientist Lord Adrian noticed something curious.

As his team mixed up odours of increasing strength, to see at what point the rabbits’ neurons fired in response, they found the critical threshold appeared around the same point that they were able to smell the odour themselves: in other words, this suggested that the smell had become noticeable to animal and man at the same time.

On publication of the research, Lord Adrian mentioned his observation, but it didn’t provoke a serious response, presumably because informed scientists knew that the human sense of smell is generally pathetic.

Everyone knew… but they knew wrong. In a new review in Science, John McGann, who runs the Rutgers Laboratory on the Neurobiology of Sensory Cognition, takes us through the historical misunderstandings to reach the truth about what the human nose knows.

Read more on our Research Digest blog.

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