We spend most of our time at Posit Science working on improving brain performance by training our brains to deal with sight and sound more quickly and accurately. I read an article in Discover about the brain’s contribution to our sense of smell that was fascinating.
The article dispelled a myth I had believed about human’s poor ability to distinguish between smells. While we don’t have the same capability of some other animals (think bloodhound), what we do have is pretty remarkable. Two startling examples were that our sense of small can detect concentrations as low as 1 molecule in 10 billion (that’s how we can smell a natural gas leak) and that a group of researchers, led by Noam Sobel, found that participants could find and follow 30 yards of chocolate-scented twine placed randomly in an open field after all other senses (sight, sound, touch) had been obscured. Those are wonderful examples of the power of our proboscis.
But there was something even more interesting about the follow-the-twine experiment. The researchers also found that participants got better (more accurate, faster) with training. In addition to wondering what type of chocolate (hopefully dark) was used and my willingness to sign-up for the next similar experiment, I made a connection to neuroplasticity.
We don’t often push our brains to recognize distinct smells unless we’re a chef or a sommelier. This is a clear case of improving another brain function through practice- and another example of the brain’s ability to improve when challenged.