Our sense of smell—or olfaction as it is technically known—is our most enigmatic sense. It can conjure up memories, taking us back to very specific places and emotions, whilst powerful smells can induce strong feelings of hunger or nausea. In the animal kingdom smell can be used to find food, a mate, or a home; to sense danger; and to send and receive complex messages with other members of a species. Yet despite its fundamental importance in our mental life and in the existence of all animals, our scientific understanding of how smell works is limited.
In this Very Short Introduction, Matthew Cobb describes the latest scientific research on smell in humans and other mammals, in insects, and even in fish. He looks at how smell evolved, how animals use it to navigate and communicate, and disorders of smell in humans. Understanding smell, especially its neurobiology, has proved a big challenge, but olfactory science has revealed genetic factors that determine what we can and cannot smell, and why some people like a given smell while others find it unbearable. He ends by considering future treatments for smell disorders, and speculating on the role of smell in a world of robots.
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