An initial evaluation of the functions of human olfaction

Richard J. Stevenson*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

    401 Citations (Scopus)


    Although referred to in passing in several places, there have been few attempts to specify the functions of the human olfactory system. This article presents an initial effort at identifying and categorizing these functions, using 3 sources of information as a guide: 1) losses experienced by anosmic participants; 2) olfactory function in other mammals; and 3) capacity, namely, whether the human olfactory system can support the suggested function and whether there is evidence that it does. Three major classes of function were identified, relating to Ingestion (Detection/identification prior to ingestion; Detection of expectancy violations; Appetite regulation; Breast orientation and feeding), Avoiding environmental hazards (Fear related; Disgust related), and Social communication (Reproductive [inbreeding avoidance, fitness detection in prospective mates]; Emotional contagion [fear contagion, stress buffering]). These suggested functions were then examined with respect to 1) issues of ecological validity in human olfactory research; 2) their impact on olfactory loss; and 3) their general and specific implications for the study of human olfaction.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)3-20
    Number of pages18
    JournalChemical Senses
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 25 Nov 2009


    • Function
    • Human
    • Olfaction


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