Thursday, October 7, 2021

On Olfactory Navigation

I purposely read this book Supernavigators (2019) hoping to get some snippets on using our sense of smell to find things, and I wasn't disappointed. 

Humans were led to a random location within a room diffused with two odors. After brief sampling and spatial disorientation, they had to return to this location. Humans located the target with higher accuracy in the olfaction-only condition than in the control condition and showed higher accuracy than chance. 
-Jacobs, L.F.; Arter, J.; Cook, A.; and Sulloway, FJ. (2015). "Olfactory orientation and navigation in humans," PLOS 'One, 10(6), e0129387.

Note there are two different versions of olfactory navigation -- one where you track an odor to its source (this relies heavily on bilateral input, aka stereo-olfaction) and the other, much more common for modern-day humans, is when you identify a place by its odor. We usually have our eyes open, and being the ocularcentric creatures that we are, we are likely to use visual cues and not even realize the odor-identity of a place. 

But it doesn't stop here, the rabbit hole continues, and this one goes all the way back to the golden days of behavioral science, when rats told us everything we wanted to know about ourselves: 
This report is ultimately based on rat experiments, with the "men" part being only conjecture by the researcher; and he concedes, "My argument will be brief, cavalier, and dogmatic. For I am not myself a clinician or a social psychologist. What I am going to say must be considered, therefore, simply as in the nature of a rat psychologist's ratiocinations offered free.
*Ratiocinations are another word for thoughts that also happens to remind the reader that we're talking about rats (he italicized the rat in ratiocinations).

The "mapmaking" happens during what they call "Vicarious Trial and Error" or "VTE'" and described as "the hesitating, looking-back-and-forth, sort of behavior which rats can often be observed to indulge in at a choice-point before actually going one way or the other." If you're not a scientist, you can probably just call it "thinking."

via Berkeley Labs: Tolman, E.C. (1948). "Cognitive maps in rats and men," Psychological Review, 55(4), p.189.
And with that, let us not forget that olfaction is the first sense. Before all the other ways we sense our environment, bacteria and fungi were using chemotaxis, detecting and navigating their way through a world of chemical gradients. The essay at the end of Hidden Scents, called "Olfactory Space and n-Dimensionality" tells the story of the primordial eukaryote as it chemo-taxis its way through evolution, past the multi-cellular organism, the chordata (animals with vertebrate), and eventually to the big-brained, smooth-skinned monkeys that we are today.

The neocortex is an outgrowth of the nose-brain, and not the other way around, and therefore olfaction can be a useful model for understanding the n-dimensional information network in which our brains operate. The world is typically understood as a 3-dimensional space, but in fact, from the perspective of the brain, we are navigating and interacting with an infinitely-dimensional information space. 


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