Earlier in the month, I wrote about a man who lost his sense of smell.
Over lunch, he says: “I joke I can’t smell my daughter’s diaper. But I can’t smell my daughter. She was up at 4 o’clock this morning. I was holding her, we were laying in bed. I know what my son smelt like as a little baby, as a young kid. Sometimes not so good, but he still had that great little kid smell to him. With her, I’ve never experienced that.”
Jason Caplin lost his sense of smell suddenly five years ago, but recently regained that ability. It has not been the fantastic experience you might expect.
And so to tonight. Here it is, then. Smell at full blast. The inside of my head is basically completely uncalibrated. My nose just has no idea what to do with this rediscovered fury of data. Walking to the tube, I tentatively tried breathing in through my nose. Once. I felt alarm bells going off at the back; smells that had no place together (and which I could only vaguely recall in name) set my eyes watering and made me gag. I sneezed, a lot. At the big roundabout I could smell mint, horses, an outdoor pool from a family holiday when I was eight. The supermarket smelt of hair, even though I don’t think I could tell you what hair smells like, and it set me wondering how much of this my brain was reconstructing on the fly. The tube was almost unbearable and I blinked to stop crying.
That happened back in May…I hope things have settled down for him. (via gyford)
Nick Johnson slammed his head on the ice while playing hockey last year and hasn’t been able to smell anything since then.
At the time of his accident, Nick’s wife was eight months pregnant with their second child. Over lunch, he says: “I joke I can’t smell my daughter’s diaper. But I can’t smell my daughter. She was up at 4 o’clock this morning. I was holding her, we were laying in bed. I know what my son smelt like as a little baby, as a young kid. Sometimes not so good, but he still had that great little kid smell to him. With her, I’ve never experienced that.”
Much of the article focuses on research about how smell can send signals we are not aware of (e.g. body odor can “smell” like stress), but my favorite thing about smell is its connection to memory…which makes the quote above all the more poignant. There are certain scents that when I smell them, they zap me so vividly back to when I was a kid or in college…it’s like time travel.
Researchers have been able to create new human senses of a sort…and to cross-pollinate two different senses in order to, for example, see with your tongue.
With Arnoldussen behind me carrying the laptop, I walked around the Wicab offices. I managed to avoid most walls and desks, scanning my head from side to side slowly to give myself a wider field of view, like radar. Thinking back on it, I don’t remember the feeling of the electrodes on my tongue at all during my walkabout. What I remember are pictures: high-contrast images of cubicle walls and office doors, as though I’d seen them with my eyes.
I am reminded of magnetic fingers and the boy who sees through echolocation. I wouldn’t mind a sense of maps that worked via smell…follow the cinnamon scent to your destination or some such.
Henry Molaison — more widely known as H.M. — died last week at 82. Molaison was an amnesiac and the study of his condition revealed much about the workings of the human brain. He lost his long-term memory after a surgery in 1953 and couldn’t remember anything after that for more than 20 seconds or so.
Living at his parents’ house, and later with a relative through the 1970s, Mr. Molaison helped with the shopping, mowed the lawn, raked leaves and relaxed in front of the television. He could navigate through a day attending to mundane details — fixing a lunch, making his bed — by drawing on what he could remember from his first 27 years.
Molly Birnbaum was training to be a chef in Boston when she got hit by a car and lost her sense of smell. Soon after, she moved to New York.
Without the aroma of car exhaust, hot dogs or coffee, the city was a blank slate. Nothing was unbearable and nothing was especially beguiling. Penn Station’s public restroom smelled the same as Jacques Torres’s chocolate shop on Hudson Street. I knew that New York possessed a further level of meaning, but I had no access to it, and I worked hard to ignore what I could not detect.
Update: Here’s another take on anosmia and Birnbaum’s article.
In the first year of my recovery, I regularly visited both a neurologist and neuropsychologist who both disputed this claim. They told me that smell and taste, although related, are essentially exclusive. If anything, my neuropsychologist told me, smell is more integrated with memory.
In my experience, I’ve found this to be true: I have not lost my love of food; in fact, I feel like my appreciation for flavor combinations have been heightened. Milk does not taste like a “viscous liquid” to me and ice cream is certainly more than just “freezing.” Similarly, a good wine is more than tasting the acids, a memorable dessert is more than simply sweet, and french fries do not taste like salty nothing-sticks.
New Japanese device records smells for later playback. Smell is the sense most associated with memory, so this could be quite a compelling personal history recorder.
When I posted about a cold of mine back in December that completely killed my sense of smell and taste (they’re both back now, thanks), I asked:
I remember reading a book or article once that mentioned a person who lost their sense of taste and when it would briefly return, that person would drop whatever they were doing and go eat a great meal. Anyone know where that story is from?
In response to that post (but not that specific question), I got a nice email from a reader inquiring about my recent preoccupation with smell (I’ve posted a couple other things about smell in the past months) and identified herself as having thought about smell recently as well. I wrote her back and recommended a favorite book of mine, A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman, specifically the chapters on smell (my favorite part).
I first read this book back in college for a class and it’s one of the few books I keep going back to every few years to reread. After I sent that email, I went to find my dog-eared copy and started reading it. On page 40, in the section about anosmia, I found the answer to my above query. After a year-long fit of sneezing, Judith Birnberg lost her sense of smell and taste, which returned sporadically thereafter:
The anosmia began without warning… During the past three years there have been brief periods — minutes, even hours — when I suddenly became aware of odors and knew that this meant that I could also taste. What to eat first? A bite of banana once made me cry. On a few occasions a remission came at dinner time, and my husband and I would dash to our favorite restaurant. On two or three occasions I savored every miraculous mouthful through an entire meal. But most times my taste would be gone by the time we parked the car.
I knew I’d read that somewhere!
 Other books I’ve read more than once in adulthood:
Several Roald Dahl books
A People’s History of the United States
1984 I’ve probably read 9 or 10 times since I was 10. With the exception of A People’s History (I think I got the gist the first two times around), I’ll probably continue to reread those books indefinitely. Books I hope to reread soon: Lolita, Infinite Jest.
 I reread so many books as a kid, including the Roald Dahl books alluded to above, Where the Red Fern Grows, and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.
So, it’s day five of my cold. Last night, I was down to only two out of my five senses. My sense of taste and smell left the scene sometime on Saturday. On Sunday, I had salad and fruit for lunch because I figured if I can’t taste anything, I might as well eat healthy. Trying to smell or taste strongly aromatic substances like wine or scented shower gel produces a sensation not unlike that of tasting or smelling something, except there’s no smell or taste. It’s the weirdest thing…I don’t even know how to properly describe it. It’s like there’s a ghost of a taste and when I think too hard about trying to really taste it, it’s gone. It’ll be a relief when I finally decongest and can enjoy food again.
And then yesterday while driving, we went from sea level up to around 600 ft of elevation, which caused the pressure to build up in my head enough to affect my hearing. By 4pm, everything was kind muffled and I was asking Meg speak up repeatedly. I could just barely hear the hum of the highway under the car. Last night at dinner, I couldn’t taste anything, smell anything, hear anything, and my voice was so gravelly from my cold (and probably way too loud from overcompensating for the hearing loss) that listening to me was probably not very pleasant. My ears finally popped somewhat this morning and I can hear ok again, but smell and taste are still missing. Come back, guys, I miss you!
Update: Here’s an article by Jason Feifer from the Washington Post about his investigation into his poor senses of taste and smell. (thx, mim)
 After a bit of research this AM, I’ve determined that what I have is a cold and not the flu.
 I remember reading a book or article once that mentioned a person who lost their sense of taste and when it would briefly return, that person would drop whatever they were doing and go eat a great meal. Anyone know where that story is from?