But if you are one of the estimated two million with a smell disorder, you may be thinking differently.
|A (naturally) scentless sedum blooms on Iron Mountain|
Goodbye to All ThatAnosmia is the scientific name for loss of smell (dysosmia refers to the distortion of smell and is no big ball of fun either). It may not seem like a big deal. We take olfaction for granted. But the sense of smell is interwoven in the most minute and profound details of our lives. Memory, mate selection, pleasure, nutrition, safety: the nose knows and informs all of it.
There are lots of ways to lose your sense of smell. Aging is up there, and it's common for people after 60 to have a decline in ability to differentiate odors. The decline is gradual, and may not even be fully perceived. A sudden loss of smell indicates something more troublesome. A good bonk on the head (frontal head injuries) can result in permanent loss of smell as connections between the nose and brain are sheared. The prognosis for recovery from this type of anosmia is not great. Medication can be a factor. There have been lawsuits and FDA warnings against a popular nasal spray implicated in anosmia. Some medications will temporarily alter the sense of taste and smell, but it's possible that the infections that induced the use of these medications caused the injury. Sinus infections can cause temporary and rarely, permanent loss of smell. And acute viral infections may result in either, when the virus attacks and kills off cells responsible for interpreting the olfactory world.
When the nose becomes just an appendage for holding up those Raybans, the effects are myriad.
The Scent of Yesterday"When nothing else subsists from the past, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered· the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls· bearing resiliently, on tiny and almost impalpable drops of their essence, the immense edifice of memory."
-Marcel Proust, The Remembrance of Things Past
Catching a whiff of red cedar, I immediately "see" my grandfather on his porch in Tennessee, whittling branches he'd cut from the aromatic tree. The scent of lilacs bring to mind my mother in her garden, and roses my 7th grade piano teacher (she wore an Avon brand rose perfume). Patchouli recalls Oregon County Fair, high school, Eugene Market. The smoky saddle-leather smell of Lapsang Souchong tea takes me back to long philosophical talks with an early mentor.
Smell is a powerful link to memory. From an evolutionary perspective, that makes perfect sense. Olfactory activity is directly linked to that brainy seat of emotion, the hippocampus, which mediates learning and memory. Other senses make a more indirect meander to storage, and thus retrieval, of what has been important to our history. But with smell-- we know right away what we are drawn to, and what we really, really want to avoid.
|kelp guy smelled: not good|
People with anosmia face safety issues when deprived of this primary warning system. If you don't smell the smoke, you may lose precious time to escape the fire. If you can't smell rot, you may eat food that's turned the corner from life-giving to deadly. You don't smell the odorants in gas, the mold in the shower. These are the more alarming aspects to living with anosmia.
Scents and Edibility
|beet tart, Gathering Together Farm|
You May Sniff The Bride
Smell is involved in much more than alerting us to danger, retrieving memories, or helping us differentiate and enjoy tastes. From the time we are born we begin processing and storing olfactory information. Babies hardwire early on to their mother's scent, and lovers often fixate on the smells of their partner. Our sense of smell actually helps us chose an appropriate partner with whom to procreate: studies have found that people prefer the scent of those less genetically related. Because a disparity of genes means less gene-linked disease, such partnerships result in more viable offspring.
But science is a poor poet, and lovers simply say "you smell like home."
A Less Dimensional WorldUntil lately I never thought twice about the scentless world. But three months ago I checked out a book by garden writer Bonnie Blodgett about her experience with sudden anosmia. In her case, it started with phantom smells. Her nose was trying to make up for all the sensation she wasn't receiving, and she was tortured by olfactory hallucinations of the stinkiest sort. It was fascinating reading, but I didn't finish it before the two-week library loan was up (I'm the reading equivalent of a channel surfer, and had five other books out). Meanwhile, local author Keith Scribner’s latest novel was released. I probably would have bought it anyway, but it helped that Keith had been holing up the last three years in an office 20 feet from mine while he wrote it. I was curious to see the results. The novel opens with a literally sensual drive through into Willamette valley, and the protagonist's wife, a "professional nose" (fragrance specialist) who’d gone asomniac catches fresh mint scenting the night air—her first clue that she may be regaining her grieved sense.
All of this was trivial synchronicity until June.
Of the five senses, smell has always been my home-run best. I was born a super-smeller, one of those people who knows what you ate for breakfast if I visit you at dinner. Ask my dear friend and walking partner Lisa. Many of our late night strolls have been punctuated with my running aromatic narratives: "Sewer's backing up!" "I smell dryer sheets". "Ah, jasmine blooming!" There was definitely a down side. Moldy oranges, Axe bodywash, cat piss-- I couldn’t help attending to it, blocks away. But the upside? A summer day on Mary's Peak had me rhapsodic: chamomile and fir on the breeze. And while I may lack fancy-ass oenophile terms, I could really enjoy a glass of wine; could taste everything from concrete to kiwi in a sip of stainless barreled Riesling. I'm a bit of a synesthesiac, and smell and taste were a multi-layered sensory pleasure. Fragrances had heft and texture, from velvet to burlap to silk.
|sniffing the subway|
All that disappeared in June. I came down with a kick-your-ass virus, the first I've had in years. I ran a fever, went through a couple of boxes of tissue, took to my bed, took sick leave from my private practice for the first time I can remember. It was grass season in the valley, a time when I get pretty stuffy anyway, so it was a week or two of feeling better before I realized that even though I felt fine, something pretty radical was going on.
I could smell absolutely nothing. Not rubbing alcohol, not the cat's litterbox, not a campfire. And taste very, very little. Making pesto with fresh basil from my CSA box, I toasted $20/lb pine nuts and ground the basil with young garlic: nothing. Went to Country Fair in early July, and for the first time didn't notice the marijuana, the patchouli, the food booths, the 10,000 unwashed and very sweaty humans. A bonus gift? Walking past the Peacock outdoor smoking lounge to get to Magenta's-- no problem. Of course, when I got there and ordered my pricey ginger martini, I might have been better off sticking to the water. If it hadn't been for those floating fleshy bits and yuppie bar tab, I'd have been hard-pressed to notice the difference.
At first I thought it would clear in a week or two. Two months later, I'm not so sure. Sparky The Head Doc, (aka "Dr. Babe-to-you"), my neurologist sister, is pretty sure the goose-egg I grew after trying to relocate an old growth cedar branch with my forehead could also be involved in my troubles. It happened around the same time I was sick. (Warning: don’t garden in big hats if you are going to get lost in your fevery thoughts).
My son made a rich bread pudding tonight, which my usually taciturn sweetheart pronounced "incredible”. For me, it was like eating school paste, and I gave it up after a bite. The fresh fruit salad with mint from the garden had guests exclaiming they’d smelled it from the driveway, but I couldn't identify a single component by taste. Not even the raspberries I’d picked fresh and melting with juice only hours earlier.
|Beginnings of the Bad Gooseberry Pie|
I have taken to declining offers to dine out. Why pay for food that gives no pleasure? And anosmia has certainly not improved my cooking. I made a fresh gooseberry pie several weeks ago, so sour and salty it was barely edible-- but I couldn't taste it to know. I still reflexively eat. Sometimes I don't finish it, disappointed. Sometimes I overeat, trying to find something that pleases--chasing an elusive gustatory high.
I went to my doctor, pretty much figuring what I already knew, that there was nothing to be done. But I wanted to do something. She ran a few tests, then acknowledged either it would come back, or it wouldn't. Meanwhile I am trying to get into textures instead of tastes with food, and the occasional sensation. But frankly I am pretty down about the whole thing. It's as if a third of my world has vanished. I suppose in the scheme of things it's a small tragedy, but it's a whole lot bigger than I would have imagined.
Earlier this evening I thought I caught a whiff of that bread pudding baking. A slight hint of the butter, or cinnamon. It made me hopeful. I was really, really sad when I tasted it later-- or rather, didn't.
If my sense of smell doesn't return, I suppose I will learn to compensate. I'll remember to check the burner instead of waiting for my son to run up from the basement to tell me the house is filling with gas. I'll get more into colors and textures with food. I'll give up cooking, or at least try to follow recipes rather than making it up as I go along. Maybe now that I can't be a foodie, I'll lose a few pounds.
But I hope those memories-- the ones profoundly linked to scent-- will remain. I worry about that.
Remembering Smell: A Memoir of Losing--and Discovering--the Primal Sense, by Bonnie Blodgett
The Nose That Never Knows: The Miseries of Losing the Sense of Smell, Elizabeth Zierah, Slate.Com
Smell and Memory, by the awesome Jonah Lehrer
Failing the Sniff Test: The Nose, Ruined. Paul Lucas, New York Times 2005.
Yahoo Anosmia Support Group: help and information from fellow sniff failers.
The Oregon Experiment, a novel by Keith Scribner