Humans Have a Poor Sense of Smell? It’s Just a Myth

May 15, 2017

By Joanna Klein

By shoving her nose against a fire hydrant, your terrier may be able to decipher which pit bull in the neighborhood marked it before her. But that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s a superior sniffer.

Still, it’s conventional wisdom that humans’ sense of smell is worse than that of other animals — dogs, mice, moles and even sharks.

This belief isn’t based on empirical evidence, but on a 19th-century hypothesis about free will that has more in common with phrenology than with our modern understanding of how brains work. In a review published Thursday in Science, John P. McGann, a neuroscientist who studies olfaction at Rutgers University, reveals how we ended up with this myth. The truth is, humans are actually pretty good at smelling our world.

“We’re discovering, to our delight, that the human smell system is much better than we were led to believe,” he said. It may be different than other mammals’ “but actually in ways that suggest that it could be more powerful than mice and rats and dogs.”

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