Scientists Say: Olfactory

This word refers to your sense of smell


The nose is an olfactory organ. It’s involved in the sense of smell.

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Olfactory (adjective, “Ol-FAHCK-tor-ee”)

This word describes anything having to do with the sense of smell. The word is derived from olfaction, which is the act of smelling. Olfaction is a form of chemosensing — or how we sense chemicals in our environment. Chemicals in the air called odorants stick to molecules in our noses. That sends signals to brain cells that extend out into the olfactory bulb, a part of the brain above the nose. Signals travel along those cells to an area of the brain called the olfactory cortex. In the olfactory cortex, the brain processes the signal and we interpret it as a steak, a flower or a smelly pair of gym socks. If it’s got olfactory in the name, it’s got to do with our sense of smell.

The sense of smell even affects our sense of taste. That’s because our olfactory system also contributes to how we taste foods. Odors combine with our basic sense of taste (sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami) to give foods their complex flavors. That’s why food tastes so different when our noses are stuffed up from a cold.

The word “olfactory” comes from Latin. Facere means “to do” in Latin, and olere means “to smell.”

In a sentence

Scientists have found that people might be able to use their olfactory senses to navigate.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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