I recently became friends with a woman who has no sense of smell. She was born that way.
When she first told me about her condition (medical name: congenital anosmia), I was taken aback. I’d never heard of anyone being born without a sense of smell.
“Some people feel sorry for me,” she said. “But how can I possibly miss something I’ve never had?”
“Have you seen a doctor about it?” I asked.
“No. It truly hasn’t bothered me that much.”
“But what if there is something they can do about it?”
She laughed. “You’re looking at this from your point of view. If you were to lose your sense of smell today, it would probably leave you devastated.”
I cannot imagine a world without the ability to smell. For a start, I would hate to lose one of the most powerful memory triggers around. I think many of us have memories that are associated with certain smells.
For example, when I smell pea and ham soup, I immediately think of my grandmother. I can picture my favourite soup bubbling on her stove, the rich aromas filling her little kitchen.
Similarly, I need just one whiff of pipe tobacco, to conjure up an image of my grandfather. I can still see him sitting on his armchair by the fireside, his long legs stretched out in front of him, as he first sucks thoughtfully on his pipe and then gently releases little puffs of aromatic smoke into the air above his head.
But these are both memories that haven’t totally escaped me. There are other memories stashed in a far-flung filing cabinet of my brain that need a trigger, sometimes a smell, for them to make an appearance.
One day you might be walking through, say, a department store, when you are confronted by the smell of a passing stranger’s cologne. You hesitate ever so slightly mid-step and slow down. At first, you don’t know what the smell is but it’s stirring emotions inside you.
Then it slowly comes back to you: that day at the beach when your father waded into the sea with you sitting on his shoulders. He was normally too busy to take time away from his work on a weekend, but that Saturday was different. Both of you laughed as he pretended to stumble in the water.
You recall the sun beating down on your head, the smell of his cologne, his broad shoulders, and your mother waving from beneath the shade of a large beach umbrella. Six months later he was gone, his strong body ravaged by a fast spreading cancer.
You smile. You don’t have many memories of him, so you’re glad when one makes an unexpected appearance.
And who doesn’t love the smell of a baby? I still remember nuzzling both my children because I wanted to lose myself in that distinct smell that is part baby, part bath products.
That smell still tugs at me whenever I hold a baby today. Of course, there are some other baby odours that I could happily forget about all together.
It might also be quite sad if you were to wake up one day to find that you couldn’t smell your partner anymore. From the smell of his deodorant after a shower, to the slightly musky smell of his body after he’s been at the gym, to that perfume-free smell that’s just him – they can all add a little something extra to a loving relationship.
As if not having a sense of smell is bad enough, it also impairs your sense of taste. It’s probably a bit like eating something when you have a bad cold and your nose is blocked.
My friend told me there is little she can taste, so she likes to eat food with a lot of different textures. Nonetheless, she has no motivation to overeat. If everything tastes like soggy cardboard, or hard cardboard, or crispy cardboard, you will stop eating as soon as you feel full.
You’re unlikely to go for a second serving of chicken curry just because it’s so delicious, or stand by the freezer door as you devour the rest of that tub of ice cream you opened a few days ago, or salivate with excitement when someone presents you with a box of your favourite chocolates.
But man isn’t endowed with a sense of smell so he can have an enhanced dining experience. A sense of smell can tell you when your house is on fire, especially when your smoke alarm is on the blink. It can also detect when your milk is sour and that piece of fish you bought might not be as fresh as it ought to be.
It will also quickly detect when a skunk is in your house, possibly at the exact moment it squirts its distinctive perfume all over your freshly laundered clothes.
There is so much we take for granted.
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