From PsychEvos Wiki


The sense of smell, also known as olfaction, is a crucial sense in humans and other animals, providing information about the environment and helping individuals navigate through their surroundings. Smell is an ancient and well-developed sense that is directly connected to the brain, allowing for rapid processing of olfactory information. This sense plays a significant role in various aspects of human life, including preference and aversion towards certain substances, food consumption, social interaction, and emotional responses.

Relevance in Evolution

From an evolutionary standpoint, the sense of smell is essential for survival and reproduction. Odor detection has enabled organisms to locate food sources, avoid predators or harmful substances, and find potential mates. The development of olfaction predates the evolution of more complex senses like vision and hearing, and can even be observed in single-celled organisms capable of detecting chemicals in their environment, such as bacteria.

In mammals, including primates and humans, there has been a progressive reduction in the proportion of functional olfactory receptor genes when compared to other mammals, such as rodents [1]. Despite this reduction, the human sense of smell remains quite capable, and may have played a more significant role in human evolution than previously thought.

Olfactory System

The olfactory system is the biological mechanism responsible for detecting and processing odors in the air. Humans and animals have specialized sensory organs that capture odor molecules, which are then converted into nerve signals and sent to the brain for identification and interpretation [2].

In humans, the olfactory system comprises two main structures: the olfactory epithelium, a patch of specialized receptor cells located in the nasal cavity, and the olfactory bulb, a part of the brain that receives and interprets the signals sent from the receptor cells. From the olfactory bulb, the signals are further processed in various brain areas, such as the amygdala and the hippocampus, which are involved in memory and emotional responses.

Smell and Emotion

Smell is closely linked to emotion and memory, making it an essential sense for humans throughout their lifetime. In fetuses, smell is the only fully developed sense, and it remains the most developed sense in children until around the age of 10, at which point vision takes over [3]. Researchers have found that smell and emotion are stored as one memory, with childhood being the period in which humans create many of these odor-emotion associations.

The close relationship between smell and emotion is thought to stem from the common neural pathways used by both experiences. Sensory input from olfactory receptors is processed directly in brain areas like the amygdala, which is integral in forming emotional associations [4]. This close connection may have had evolutionary advantages, as it allowed humans to learn from past experiences involving pleasant or aversive odors and make better decisions for survival and reproduction.

Variations in Smell Perception

The ability to detect and differentiate various scents and odors differs amongst individuals, with some individuals possessing a heightened sense of smell, known as hyperosmia. Evolutionary theory suggests that this variation in olfactory ability may be due to the different demands placed on different individuals throughout human history [5]. For example, individuals who lived in environments where food was scarce might have adapted to rely more on their sense of smell to locate food sources, while those who lived in more abundant environments might not have needed to develop such keen olfaction.

The sense of smell can also be influenced by genetic factors, and recent research has shown that humans possess a large repertoire of olfactory receptor genes, allowing for the detection of a wide range of smells [6]. However, this genetic makeup may vary between individuals, which could further contribute to the observed variations in smell perception.


The sense of smell is crucial in human life, serving essential functions related to survival, reproduction, and social interaction. From an evolutionary perspective, olfaction has enabled organisms to adapt to their environments and make decisions that favour their well-being. Although some aspects of human olfaction have diminished compared to other mammals, the human sense of smell remains quite capable and likely played a more significant role in human evolution than previously believed. The connection between smell and emotion has deep evolutionary roots, allowing humans to learn from past experiences involving positive or negative odors. Finally, variations in olfactory perception can be attributed to both environmental demands and genetic factors, highlighting the diversity of this sense in the human population.