thinkspatial_logoThe UCSB brown-bag forum on spatial thinking presents

The Evolution and Ecology of Olfactory Navigation

Lucia Jacobs, Dept. of Psychology & Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, University of California, Berkeley

12:00 p.m. Tuesday, December 1, 2015 | Phelps Hall 3512 (map)

Abstract. A paradox of vertebrate brIntegrated map copyain evolution is the unexplained variability in the size of the olfactory bulb, in contrast to other brain regions, which scale predictably with brain size. Such variability appears to be the result of selection for olfactory function, yet no obvious selective pressure has been identified to explain how olfactory system structure is related to behavior. I will argue that this is because we have assumed the primary function of this sensory system to identify odors. Instead, I propose that to understand the olfactory system we must understand its role in spatial navigation and as an integral part of a limbic navigational system, integrated with hippocampal and amygdalar function. This hypothesis also suggests new ways of thinking about olfactory systems in invertebrate taxa. I will conclude with new data on olfactory spatial orientation in humans. The PROUST hypothesis (perceiving and representing odor utility in space and time) casts new light on an old problem, may solve long-standing paradoxes of olfactory system structure and function and offers a novel framework to understand the function of olfaction and the evolution of spatial navigation.

Lucia JacobsLucia Jacobs at FSBR is a professor in the Department of Psychology and the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute at Berkeley. The focus of her research is the evolution of cognition, in particular spatial cognition, where her lab studies patterns of differences across animal species, including humans, in captive and wild, free-ranging rodents, in particlar tree squirrels. Her theoretical work reframes questions about the evolution of cognition and the brain, focusing on the function of the mammalian hippocampus and olfaction. After training in animal behavior (1978 B.S., Cornell), ecology (1987 Ph.D., Princeton) and neuroscience (postdoctoral positions at the Universities of Toronto, Pittsburgh and Utah),  she joined the Berkeley faculty in 1993. She has published scientific articles in the fields of animal behavior, cognitive psychology and neuroscience, and her work has been recognized with the 1995 Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford, 1999 Berkeley Prytanean Prize, a 2004 Santa Fe Public Lecture and the 2013 Michigan State Distinguished Lecturer in Cognitive Science.  A recent recipient of a NSF Ideas Lab collaborative grant on olfactory navigation, she is currently studying how diverse species – from insects to humans  – use their sense of smell to orient in space.

The objectives of the ThinkSpatial brown-bag presentations are to exchange ideas about spatial perspectives in research and teaching, to broaden communication and cooperation across disciplines among faculty and graduate students, and to encourage the sharing of tools and concepts.
Please contact Antonio Medrano ( to review and schedule possible discussion topics or presentations that share your disciplinary interest in spatial thinking.

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ThinkSpatial: Lucia Jacobs