Sunday, September 15, 2013

Everything's Unscented

If you were forced to sacrifice one of your five senses, which would it be? Most people wouldn't consider losing their vision or hearing. It would be really dangerous to completely lose your sense of touch, so that won't be an option in our hypothetical scenario. So we're left with the chemical senses of smell and taste. I think most of us would choose one of these two.

But what about someone who can't smell?  How can they miss something they've never known?
“If I had to lose one of my senses, it would probably be smell... even though it's gone. I mean, if I had to choose between them, because it's the least hindering...”

-Deven James Langston in his short video, Anosmia (embedded below).

A World Without Smell

Congenital anosmia is a rare condition where individuals are born without the ability to smell. This condition might not seem so bad to the osmic population (especially when cleaning up after your pet), but lack of smell can affect safety (e.g., can't detect a gas leak or burning toast), body weight, hygiene, and mate selection (Karstensen & Tommerup, 2011). But if you've never had the experience of odors, whether they're from cinnamon buns or rotting fish, this is a completely normal state of affairs (Tafalla, 2013).

Isolated congenital anosmia unrelated to another condition (such as Kallmann syndrome) has been linked to genetic locus 18p11.23-q12.2 in two different families (Ghadami et al., 2004). However, no disease-causing mutations were found by sequencing eight candidate genes in this region. Studies in other families have suggested that the genetic basis of this trait is heterogeneous. Therefore, the specific genetic causes of isolated congenital anosmia remain elusive (Karstensen & Tommerup, 2011).

Smells Like Words

Rebecca Steinitz has congenital anosmia. She reached adulthood without knowing that other people actually do possess a sense of smell, as opposed to just pretending that they do. In an essay she describes what it's like to live in a world without smell.
I don’t know what a rose smells like, though when I hold my nose to a full-blown bloom and inhale deeply, I sense a vague sweetness.

I don’t know what my husband’s shirt smells like. If he died, I wouldn’t think to sleep in it so I could feel that he was with me.

I don’t know what a baby’s head smells like – not my babies, not anyone else’s babies. I couldn’t pick my babies out of a crowd with my eyes closed, and I don’t miss that baby smell when I hug my growing children.

I don’t know the smell of feet, chalk, lilacs, gardenias, sour milk, rain, new cars, Chanel No. 5, Old Spice, greasepaint, or napalm.

I don’t know what old books smell like. I don’t know what new books smell like either.

Ex Libris Anima Perfume Oil - 5 ml.
“The bottled essence of an old, rare book - antique paper, old leather 
bindings, parchement, dust, and the faint scent of a wooden lecturn.”

I learned smells from books, which made me think they were fictional. When real people said That stinks, or I can smell the sea from here, I thought they were faking, that they were willing to pretend those smells existed beyond the page. I only discovered the word for people like me a few years ago. We are anosmic; we have anosmia: lack of the sense of smell.

-Rebecca Steinitz, Smells Like Words

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Steinitz noted that she can't smell her husband's shirt or her baby's head. These types of scents bind us to people and cement our relationships. Odors have a way of linking us to times and places of the past, evoking remembrances in a sterotypically literary way, eliciting endless soliloquies of youthful memories.

 -graffiti by Kathleen Hanna (before the song was written) 1

Do smells have a uniquely intimate connection to memory? Olfactory information reaches the piriform cortex after only two synapses. A chemical odorant activates receptors on sensory neurons in the nasal epithelium, which synapse onto mitral cells in the olfactory bulb. These mitral cells synapse onto neurons in the piriform (olfactory) cortex located in the temporal lobe, near the hippocampus and amygdala.

What is it like to be a smeller?

Anosmic philosopher Marta Tafalla, in a nod to the famous paper by Thomas Nagel, compares the foreignness of olfactory qualia to the exotic system of echolocation in bats (Tafalla, 2013).
Neither do I have the sensation that I lack a sense, a window onto reality, that something in my body or my brain does not function properly. And because of all that, it would have been impossible for me to come up with the improbable idea that everyone else can perceive another dimension of reality, which consists of volatile chemical particles that are perceived in the mere act of breathing. It sounds as strange to me as the echolocation system of bats or some birds' capacity to align their flight with the earth's magnetic field.

In this meditative and philosophical piece, Tafalla tells the story of when she first realized she was different from other people. At the age of eight, she spent some time at a summer boarding school. One of the teachers tactfully remarked on her smelly feet. Tafalla didn't understand, and didn't connect body odor to a lack of hygienic rituals. In response, she put cologne on her feet and in her shoes. Her teacher and her mother both found this odd, so she started wondering if something was wrong. A year or two later, she was able to articulate the problem: “I can't smell!”

She then contemplates how this knowledge changes her experience of the world: her perception of food, her relationships with other people, her sense of her own body, perception of natural and urban environments, time perception (olfaction and its relation to memory), and "aesthetic appreciation of scents and stenches":
I was cleaning the fallen leafs in my patio, and I found a dead blackbird. It had probably been there for days. It must have stunk. But I had been sitting there, enjoying the first days of spring, and I had not noticed anything.

In conclusion, I believe that to be anosmic means that the world seems not so beautiful and also not so ugly. I believe that, aesthetically speaking, the world seems less.

A Sense of Loss

Individuals with congenital anosmia are in the minority of those who have olfactory dysfunctions, comprising only 3% of that population (Keller & Malaspina, 2013). The most common causes of smell problems are sinus and nasal disease, upper respiratory infection, and head trauma (see below). Traumatic brain injury can damage the olfactory bulbs if the brain bounces against the orbits and other bony protuberances inside the skull.

Becoming anosmic in adulthood, after experiencing the smells of fragrance and filth, can lead to a pronounced sense of loss. These negative consequences are often trivialized and misunderstood by others.2 To assess the effects of altered smell on everyday life, Keller and Malaspina (2013) administered an online survey to 1,000 patients with olfactory dysfunction. Complete results from the 43 survey questions, along with edited excerpts from 1,000 reports (179 pages), are freely available with the open access article.

Here's an example from a woman with asthma and nose polyps:
I spent ridiculous amounts of time every day with my nose to my son's little head, just inhaling his smell. I don't know if anyone can comprehend what it's like missing that primal connection to your child. There is something profound and powerful about a mother smelling her baby that I cannot explain, but it is viscerally important. So I don't know when I ceased to smell, but it was gradual enough that I didn't notice. That said, the absence of smell is unspeakably painful. 

A person with severe allergies:
It's a huge loss. I fully understand the risk of depression from this condition. Besides the loss of smell, I've suffered a complete loss of flavor-tasting ability. That is an immense loss as well. Even more so is the loss of memories that smell used to so vividly unlock. I so miss the fragrance of a pine forest to take me back to my childhood camping in the mountains. I want to smell the turkey cooking on Thanksgiving. I want to smell the chocolate when I walk into a candy store! It's a weird affliction. People don't really get it. 

The major practical problems are difficulties avoiding hazardous substances and situations, food-related issues, and problems with managing odors (body odor, pet smells, rotten food, etc.). Negative psychological consequences include smell loss-induced anhedonia and social isolation, which can result in a lowered quality of life.

It's a truism to say this, but our sense of smell is something that most of us take for granted. I spend so much time inside my own head that it's a great idea to stop and smell the nectarines, the tomatoes, the coffee, and the cat.


1 Kurt Cobain didn't realize that Teen Spirit was an antiperspirant marketed to girls. Hanna meant that he smelled like his girlfriend's deodorant, but Cobain thought the graffiti made a profound statement on disaffected youth.

2 Tafalla (2013) has helpfully classified the most typical types of responses:
  1. Even doctors say “don't worry, it is not a serious problem.”
  2. Tasteless jokes and “how lucky you are!”
  3. Infrequent but thoughtful: “smell is something very difficult to explain”.
  4. They just don't get it.


Karstensen HG, & Tommerup N (2012). Isolated and syndromic forms of congenital anosmia. Clinical genetics, 81 (3), 210-5. PMID: 21895637

Keller A & Malaspina D (2013). Hidden consequences of olfactory dysfunction: a patient report series. BMC ear, nose, and throat disorders, 13 (1) PMID: 23875929

Tafalla M (2013). A world without the olfactory dimension. Anatomical record, 296 (9), 1287-96. PMID: 23907763

from Deven James Langston - A funny look at my odd disorder. Not being able to smell has it’s downsides, but as the video says, “It’s not all bad.”

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At September 22, 2013 3:01 AM, Blogger Neuroskeptic said...

If I had to be anosmic, I'd much prefer to be born that way. Then I wouldn't be aware of a "smell-shaped gap" in the world.

At September 22, 2013 7:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am born anosmic and it's very rare to find interesting reads about it. Thanks for the post!

At October 02, 2013 9:35 AM, Anonymous Rebecca Schwarzlose said...

Great post, fascinating topic.
My mother was born anosmic. Growing up, I did a lot of sniffing clothes and milk cartons for her. While she must be missing out on much of the flavor in her food, she is very sensitive to food textures. She thinks foods like yogurt and avocado are slimy and finds them repulsive. I imagine texture plays a bigger part in her experience (and enjoyment) of food, in lieu of flavor.

At October 06, 2013 5:09 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks! Very interesting to hear about the role of food texture. Do you know when your mother learned she was anosmic?

At February 16, 2018 11:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too believe I was born with Anosmia and didn't realize it until I was around 10 I think. In fact I just discovered (after 50+ yrs) it has a name! It runs in my family on my father's side but both my children seem to have a very good sense of smell.


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