You've probably heard that dogs are much better than us at sniffing things out. But it turns out we may not be giving the human sense of smell enough credit. A new paper published in Science argues that we owe the myth of the inferior human nose to bad 19th-century science and outdated ideas about the differences between animals and humans.
The paper, written by Rutgers University Associate Professor of Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience John McGann, attributes the belief that humans are less smell-orientated to French physician Paul Broca. "He was interested in free will and he had this idea that smell was this very animalistic sense and that it compelled animals to have sex and feed," he told NPR. "And humans, having free will, could choose how we responded to smells and presumably had a less strong or less special sense of smell than other animals." In other words, while animals were compelled to eat if they smelled something delicious, humans supposedly had more self-control.
As usual, Sigmund Freud didn't help matters. He thought that people with more active sense of smell were more prone to psychological problems.
In reality, humans have a better sense of smell than we realized, McGann argues. He cites studies showing that we occasionally out-perform animals in tests that require us to distinguish things by scent. "Humans are best at some, and dogs are best at some and mice are best at some," he said.
And we'd be foolish to think our noses didn't factor into sexual behavior. Like animals, humans respond to pheromones — chemicals we give off through scent that can influence others' attraction to us. One University of Texas at Austin study even found that men liked the way women's shirts smelled best when they were worn during ovulation.
Still, Alexandra Horowitz, a Barnard psychology professor and author of Inside Of A Dog, told NPR that when it comes to the power of our noses, dogs still win, hands down. "We are better smellers than we think," she said. But "do we behaviorally do anything that's anywhere similar to these olfactory animals? No, we generally don't."