Bad experiences can be powerful learning aids for our sense of smell. A new study reveals that electric shocks can make people more sensitive to the differences between very similar chemicals that previously smelled identical.
Every day, thousands of different molecules waft past our nose. Many of these are uncannily similar and some are more important to others. Wen Li from Northwestern University wanted to see how people learn to distinguish the critical smells from the unimportant ones.
Smell the difference
Working in the lab of smell guru, Jay Gottfried, Li attempted to train 12 volunteers to smell the difference between a pair of enantiomers – molecules that are mirror-images of each other but are otherwise identical. The two chemicals were versions of 2-butanol and both had a grassy tang. At first, Li asked volunteers to sniff the odd one out between three bottles, two that contained one molecule and a third that contained its mirror-image. On average they scored 33%, no more accurate than complete guesswork.
Their scores more than doubled when Li gave the volunteers an electric shock whenever they were exposed to one enantiomer, but not the other. Li didn’t provide any shocking impetus for a second pair of mirror-image molecules and accordingly, this control pair remained indistinguishable throughout the experiment.