New research by three top universities in the U.S. has uncovered an interesting fact about our brains. Our two nostrils, despite being right next to each other, are kind of doing their own thing when it comes to smelling.
Scientists have found that our brains are pretty sneaky about this, and it might teach us a whole bunch about how they work and make sense of things.
This discovery doesn’t come as a huge surprise. It follows studies in animals and people that hint our brains may be able to handle what each nostril sniffs separately and then put it together like a puzzle.
Researchers stated, “Despite extensive work on odor responses in the olfactory system, relatively little is known about how information from the two nostrils is integrated and differentiated in the human olfactory system.”
Observations based on 10 epilepsy patients
Taking a closer look at how our noses work together for smelling, a group of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, the Barrow Neurological Institute, and Ohio State University teamed up with ten epilepsy patients who already had brain electrodes.
In their experiment, they sent three different scents (plus just plain air) into each nostril consecutively or both at the same time. The patients then had to figure out what they were smelling and which nostril picked it up—left, right, or both. Researchers kept tabs on the brain’s reactions through electrodes.
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Each nostril of a human being registers smells in a different way. Smells that are made from the right nostril are more pleasant than the left. However, smells can be detected more accurately when made by the left nostril.
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When the same smell was detected by each nostril one after the other, the brain activity was somewhat similar but not exactly alike. This suggests our brain gives each nostril a bit of independence in sniffing, according to the study.
Both nostrils result in two separate bursts of activity
Using both nostrils to smell results in two separate bursts of activity in the brain, according to recent research. This suggests our nostrils don’t always work in unison.
Researchers found that having two nostrils is more effective in identifying odors quickly. This discovery implies that, just like with eyes and ears, there is a clear advantage to having two nostrils rather than one.
The study focused on the piriform cortex (PC) in the brain, which is responsible for processing smells. Since our senses are closely linked, the implications of these findings may go beyond just the sense of smell.
Previous studies with rats have shown they can “smell in stereo” by using both nostrils to pinpoint the source of a smell.
The researchers behind this new study are now curious to explore whether humans also “smell in stereo” and how the brain processes differences in timing and “odor coding” between the nostrils.