What Makes a Better Smeller?

Perception. Mar-Apr 2017;46(3-4):406-430. doi: 10.1177/0301006616688224. Epub 2017 Jan 19.


Olfaction is often viewed as difficult, yet the empirical evidence suggests a different picture. A closer look shows people around the world differ in their ability to detect, discriminate, and name odors. This gives rise to the question of what influences our ability to smell. Instead of focusing on olfactory deficiencies, this review presents a positive perspective by focusing on factors that make someone a better smeller. We consider three driving forces in improving olfactory ability: one's biological makeup, one's experience, and the environment. For each factor, we consider aspects proposed to improve odor perception and critically examine the evidence; as well as introducing lesser discussed areas. In terms of biology, there are cases of neurodiversity, such as olfactory synesthesia, that serve to enhance olfactory ability. Our lifetime experience, be it typical development or unique training experience, can also modify the trajectory of olfaction. Finally, our odor environment, in terms of ambient odor or culinary traditions, can influence odor perception too. Rather than highlighting the weaknesses of olfaction, we emphasize routes to harnessing our olfactory potential.

Keywords: chemosensory; cross-cultural; individual differences; odor detection; odor discrimination; odor recognition; olfaction.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cross-Cultural Comparison
  • Discrimination, Psychological
  • Environment
  • Humans
  • Individuality
  • Odorants
  • Olfactory Perception*
  • Perceptual Disorders / psychology
  • Recognition, Psychology
  • Synesthesia

Supplementary concepts

  • Synesthesia