If There Is Much In The Window There Should Be More In The Room

Friday, August 8, 2008

Basic Sense, Gone


Permanently Unscented
 Some stick their nose in a flower but smell nothing 

Freshly cut grass, an early-morning cup of coffee, suntan oil at the beach — we relish these memory-signaling smells. Now imagine an unscented life. 

Anosmia, the inability to smell, affects some 2 million people in the United States and an undetermined number worldwide. While most people take their sense of smell for granted, the subtle olfactory cues lost to anosmia sufferers are more important than you'd think. 
"It's horrible — you lose the smell of the environment," said Dr. Terence Davidson, director of the University of California-San Diego Nasal Dysfunction Clinic. "Your room, the trees, perfume ... it all becomes flat." 
Perhaps worst of all for those who love good eats, anosmia means that food has very little flavor: What we think of as "taste" is mostly made up of smells, Davidson said, so when your olfactory signals disappear, "all food all turns into wet cardboard." 
"I can't tell the difference between apple juice and onion juice!" said Max Christian, a 25-year-old telecommunications executive living outside of London who has been without a sense of smell since birth. 
More seriously, the olfactory warning signals that protect most people from danger often go ignored, with potentially deadly consequences. "I left a pot on the stove accidentally, and went upstairs," said Christian. "The whole ground floor of my house was filled with smoke, and I didn't realize anything until the smoke started coming through the floorboards." 
A sense of smell is also important in detecting natural gas leaks and spoiled food, Davidson said, noting that he commonly sees anosmia patients suffering from food poisoning when "somebody serves you a putrid six-month-old fruit salad and you eat it anyway."      
The Smell Killers 
Anosmia is usually caused by nasal inflammations, as "almost everybody will lose their sense of smell when they have a cold," said Dr. Daniel Kurtz of the State University of New York's Upstate Medical Center. "There's also nasal sinus disease, seasonal allergies and nasal polyps," which can cause longer lasting impairment but are usually treatable with allergy drugs, surgery and anti-inflammatory steroids.
However, there are some cases that are more stubborn: "Some people who have a cold, the infection goes away and the smell never comes back," Kurtz said. Unlike other nerves, receptor cells in the nose regularly die and regenerate every 30 or 60 days. But certain viruses "kill the cells, called progenitors, that give rise to new nerve receptors," he said, and "when the old ones die, there's nobody there to replace them." 
Another common cause of anosmia is a traumatic head injury such as a concussion, which can sever the nerves that carry electric impulses from the nose to the brain. "When your brain moves within the cranium, the olfactory nerves are very thin and delicate — when the brain moves they're often torn, and you lose your ability to smell," Davidson said. 
Born With It 
A small percentage of people like Christian have congenital anosmia, either because of a defective gene passed down through generations or because of a single, one-time mutation. Never having known what it means to smell, anosmia sufferers say it is hard to fit in with friends and families. 
"It caused a lot of problems with my childhood," wrote Dawn on Christian's anosmia Web site. "I grew up thinking that I had to learn how to smell and I was just not catching on like the other kids, so I told no one at school about it."
Anosmia may "cause profound psychological effects resulting in feelings of physical and social vulnerability and victimization," according to researchers from the University of Coventry in Great Britain. "In addition, there may be unhappiness related to the loss of the ability to detect pleasurable food smells and, as a consequence, anosmics may develop problems relating to eating."
It's common for anosmics to pretend to be able to smell. "[When] everyone was complaining about bad smells ... I'd always play along," said Joe Balfantz on Christian's Web site, "saying 'yeah, that smells bad' until I realized, 'Hey, I'm not really smelling anything.'" 
Christian said his mothers and sister still put food under his nose and ask him if he can smell anything, but he's grown used to his anosmia, which is "not really a huge thing in my life ... If you were to lose a sense, most people would choose smell."
Besides, "the sense of smell is almost completely useless in modern Western society," he writes wryly on his Web site. "The logical inference from this is that smell is being evolved out of the human race, and that anosmic individuals are the most evolved members of the species."
-- By Adam Pasick 

Off the scent
By Dr. Kuljit Singh

At a typical Asian cuisine outlet, everyone would be enjoying the aroma of good food seeping through the doors of the kitchen. Imagine the feeling when the food is served. When the sensation of smell is lost, it is comparable to blindness and deafness. People who suffer from anosmia are unable to smell anything.

What is anosmia?

Wikipedia defines anosmia as lack of olfaction or a loss of the ability to smell. Many people may not realise they have this disorder until they encounter a situation whereby it is obvious that they had missed an odour or smell. It is distressing and could lead to depression in some. There is another condition called “hyposmia” where an individual’s ability to smell is diminished. He would be able to catch the smell only when the odour/fragrance intensity is high.

How do we smell?     

The earliest research on the mechanism of smell was done in 1756 by Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist. Decades later, scientists have differentiated various molecules and described them as aromatic, fragrant, repulsive, ethereal, resinous, spicy, burned, putrid and so on. Smell must be either in gaseous or volatile liquid form for it to be perceptible.

In the roof of our nose are sensitive nerve endings and nerve cells that form the olfactory system. These can detect odours in the air. The level of sensitivity varies from person to person. Some animals have greater sensitivity to the smell of certain odours. We even have canines that can sniff out pirated CDs.

Our system of smell is unique as sensitivity would diminish upon continuous exposure to a particular smell.     
An odour can also mask another, especially if one is much stronger, or the combination of the two yields no odour at all.
There are 16 chemical elements that produce odour: Hydrogen, carbon, silicon, nitrogen, phosphorus, arsenic, antimony, bismuth, oxygen, sulphur, selenium, tellurium, fluorine, chlorine, bromine and iodine. Halogen and ozone are also odorous elements.

Losing the smell sensation

It is postulated that when air flow towards the roof of the nose is blocked, the sense of smell would decrease. This occurs commonly when we suffer viral influenza which causes an inflammation within the nose.

Patients with allergic rhinitis would suffer the same fate as there would be inflammation that almost occludes the air passage. It prevents air flow carrying molecules containing substances which could stimulate the sense of smell from reaching the olfactory nerve endings. Nasal polyps, deviated septum, tumours and deformed bones within the nose could also contribute to anosmia.

Medications such as nasal vasoconstrictors could lead to a permanent anosmia, scientifically known as rhinitis medicamentosa. It also causes crusting and bleeding. Treatment is far from successful in these cases.

Other probable causes of anosmia would be tumours of the nose or brain, head trauma and a variety of endocrine, nutritional, Alzheimer’s dementia, and nervous disorders.

Treating anosmia

It is difficult to promise recovery and total cure for anosmia. In some cases, if the probable cause is identified, the chance of regaining the sense of smell is encouraging.
The common treatment method would be to clear the offending obstruction in the nose. Inflammation caused by allergy or infection would be cleared with the use of nasal steroids and antibiotics. Polyps may have to be removed surgically if persistent, and other bony/cartilage deformities could be corrected.

Anosmic patients with nerve defects have less chance of recovery. Viral infections damage nerves and this is irreversible.
Hypothyroidism and poor control of diabetes mellitus may also slow down recovery of the olfactory system.
Nutritional deficits may be reversed with zinc, vitamin A, thiamine or any other specific nutrient that may be lacking. The evidence of its effectiveness is yet to be proven.
Many patients suffer anosmia due to unknown causes which are not amenable to specific treatment. Use of zinc sulphate is controversial as again, it has not been proven effective.
Other remedies such as vitamins and tricyclic antidepressants have been tested on some patients. It is advisable to eliminate toxins (eg. cigarette smoke, airborne pollutants).


Anosmia is not a life-threatening problem but it could be dangerous as sometimes poison fumes or the smell of fire are missed. This is common in many individuals and a proper nasal examination by an ENT surgeon would be warranted.
-New Straits Times (Malaysia)-

Not to be Sniffed at, the Sense that Opens Gateway to Memories

We underestimate the importance of our sense of smell, which is bound up with memories, happiness and wellbeing.
Try eating one of your favourite foods while holding your nose. Not such an enjoyable experience, is it?
Ask any woman who has had a baby what would be the first thing she’d do when handed a newborn to cuddle. Chances are that she’d dip her nose to draw in the fantastic warm aroma of the child’s downy head... and then grow slightly misty-eyed at the memory of her own babes-in-arms.
Think back to early memories of mum, dad, home, your bed, messing around in the garden shed or your first school. Almost certainly your nostalgia will be laced with some of the following: perfume, soap, Brylcreem, flowers, floor polish, sizzling bacon, the scent of fresh laundry, bicycle oil, and maybe even the slightly cheesy pong of school milk.
Perhaps memories of your mother are still stirred up by the whiff of lavender, lilac or honeysuckle on a summer breeze, or the scent of freshly-baked bread or sponge cake. Are reminiscences about your father evoked by walking past someone who wears the same old-fashioned aftershave, or smelling Airfix glue?

It’s not just the actual memories that are stirred up by smells. Smells can bring long-buried feelings flooding back to the surface. I know a woman who occasionally takes out her long-dead mother’s mink stole and has a little sniff.... the whiff of distant freesia-laden perfume stirs up a mixture of happy memories and tearful longing.

“Smells are associated with strong emotional feelings,” says Tim Jacob, a cell physiologist at Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences. “Smells tend to stir up feelings from long ago, when we were youthful and more excitable. A smell that evokes feelings towards something particularly awful in our past can even, on rare occasions, bring on an epileptic fit.”

Prof Jacob has done research that pinpoints the smells we are most prone to associate with our parents. Mothers are often brought to mind by fresh laundry, washing powder, perfume, cotton and freshly-baked bread.

Memories of our fathers are likely to be stirred up by leather, woodsmoke, soap, aftershave—but most of all by tobacco. A sign of the times. Strong feelings are experienced in connection with some smells because the primitive parts of our brain that govern memory and smell are right next to each other, with many interconnections that help to produce emotional responses we’re not necessarily aware are buried inside us.

When we smell a certain smell, we relive a memory and also the feelings we originally experienced. In ancient times, humans probably valued their nose for other reasons, such as its usefulness in telling the difference between good and bad food—a skill we’ve perhaps given up to the ritual of reading “use by” labels.

Among 1,000 adults questioned across the UK, the favourite smell was freshly-baked bread, although fish and chips also featured near the top of the list. Such aromas were associated by many with feelings of happiness, calmness and being loved.

The research was sponsored by manufacturers of a popular brand of air-freshener. In the great scheme of things, says Prof Jacob, his sort of investigation tends to be overlooked when large research grants are allocated. It relies instead on commercial sponsorship.

He says we underestimate the importance of our sense of smell—and the debilitating effects experienced if our olfactory powers are temporarily suppressed or taken away permanently. This can happen through viral illness (like a heavy cold or respiratory tract infection), or head injury. Loss or partial loss of the sense of smell is known as anosmia.

When someone loses their sense of smell, there is only a 15-30 per cent chance of recovery. So closely is the sense of smell allied to enjoying food, drink and our environment that life can seem rather “grey” when it is taken away, says the professor.

Anosmics can become depressed and often either very thin—they lose interest in food because taste equals smell plus flavour—or fat because they try to compensate by overdosing on sweet things in an effort to smell/taste anything at all.
“As we go through our everyday lives, our noses are constantly sampling the world around us, and smell is part of the emotional background to life,” says Prof Jacob. “Take away the sense of smell, and your sex life is affected, you can become paranoid about your own body odour, and even agoraphobic because of anxiety about how you smell to others.”

Unfortunately, not much can be done to help anosmics, although research is ongoing. “It’s amazing how many people don’t realise that it is a recognised problem, and some doctors know little about it. It is still worth asking to be referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist, though.”
So, going back to those memories prompted by a bar of soap or a cloud of cigar smoke: even if the feelings revisited are tinged with sadness, we should be pleased we are able to access them, thanks to our undervalued nose.
-- Yorkshire Post --

How Our Sense of Smell Helps Us Chart a Safe and Pleasant Course through Life

Anosmia refers to the inability to smell, the lack of olfactory activity. Hyposmia, on the other hand, refers to an increased ability to smell. It is as hard to imagine a world without smell, a curse of sorts, as it is to imagine living in a world of enhanced smell, in the sensory world of the dog, for example, a curse of sorts, too.

Anosmia can be temporary or permanent. A cold or sinusitis, or any upper respiratory tract infection, may temporarily deprive you of a sense of smell. It is more than likely, if not inevitable, that you would lose your sense of taste, too. Taste and smell are bound together, partners in a dance of sensory joy.

Salty, sour, sweet, bitter, umami (richness) and astringent (sharp or severe) are our six distinctive tastes, but we are able to smell about 10 000 scents that conspire with taste to give us the magic of flavour. When one can’t smell anything, food loses most of its flavour (see olfaction at www.wikipedia.com).

A permanent loss of smell, hard to imagine as it is, will be caused by damage to any part of the olfactory pathway, which has three essential parts: the olfactory sensory neurons in the olfactory epithelium, the olfactory bulb, and the brain’s olfactory cortex. Damage to any part will cause a problem.

Damage to the system can occur at birth due to genetic factors, referred to as congenical anosmia. It could arise as a consequence of Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s. Environmental poisons, cigarette smoke or nasal sprays may also damage the smell receptors in the nose. And there is the nasal polyp.

Richard Axel and Linda Buck jointly received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 2004 for figuring out how smell works. Associated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, they cast serious light on what was considered to be a trivial medical problem. Today, it is taken more seriously.

Without smell, it is difficult to detect gas leaks, fire, body odour and spoiled or rotting food. Without smell, many, many memories, a central part of living in a world of meaning, cannot be retrieved from the brain’s system of neural cell memory. It may lead to a loss of libido and sexual interest, possibly impotence.

Still, scientists have established that up to 5% of the genes in the human genome spread over 21 chromosomes are coded for what is known as odorant receptors. That is a very, very significant number. It suggests that smell served many more functions in our distant past—and what may those be?

Smell is often viewed as an aesthetic sense among humans. Smell is, however, a primal sense. It is the sense that affords most organisms the ability to detect food, predators and mates.
Smell is therefore the central sense by which most organisms communicate with their environment.

We do not today go around sniffing out predators. We do not have to. Thankfully, the days of living in constant fear of attack and predation are no longer with us. But we still have the machinery to sniff predators out, albeit in an idle state. In time, evolution’s natural selection might edit it out of our sensory repertoire.

While we may go around sniffing out good mates, it is not the best or even, in today’s world of ubiquitous fragrance, a particularly viable strategy for choosing someone. Fragrance may blunt the work of that quite separate and special class of receptors to sniff out pheromones, chemicals that stimulate sexual desire.
“Because smell is not about sex, contrary to popular belief, it’s about food and protection from decaying, poisonous things that can hurt you, to tell you whether whatever is in your hands is good for you,” writes Chandler Burr in The Emperor of Scent.

What is a world without smell? A diminished world, certainly. A world where food no longer holds an allure or gives pleasure. A world where you can no longer smell geraniums or perfumes.    

I suppose that the only thing that is worse is to smell a stink when it’s actually a fragrance, a disorder that must have a name.
So, every morning that we wake to the glorious gift of smell, we should say thank you, for it is hard to imagine a meaningful life without it.
-Cape Times (South Africa)--

Turning up our noses By Lara Feigel

They haven’t got no noses
The fallen sons of Eve
Even the smell of roses
Is not what they supposes
But more than mind discloses
And more than men believe.

–GK Chesterton, “The Song of Quoodle” 

I plead guilty to Chesterton’s charge. Mine is a mediocre specimen of a post-lapsarian nose. As a fallen daughter of Eve – or, more accurately, a fallen granddaughter of a sharp-nosed chimpanzee – I am conscious of smell only a few times each day. I put on perfume in the morning, but because I use the same concoction every day and therefore suffer from what the perfumers call “nasal fatigue,” I apply far more than I should, and end up fatiguing the noses of my fellow passengers on the train en route to work. 

Occasionally I sniff the milk to see if it’s off, but more often I just glance at the sell-by date. Visual clues are more reliable than olfactory ones for a two-legged fallen human. On buses or tube trains, forced during rush hour into sardine-like proximity with a smelly person, I might – with due subtlety – shade my nose from the worst of his (or her) emissions. But for most of the day, it is unusual for me to notice any particular smells. 

I do eat food, of course, but with the illusory impression that I am tasting rather than smelling the myriad different flavours that make up even an ordinary meal.
I am not alone in my olfactory bubble. We have been turning up our noses at smell for centuries. Some 2,000 years after Aristotle blithely labelled smell the most undistinguished of all our senses, Immanuel Kant denigrated it as the “least rewarding and the most easily dispensable” of the five. He viewed it as more likely to bring disgust than pleasure and as, at best, a “negative condition” of our wellbeing. In other words, we can use smell to avoid noxious air and rotting food. Kant, perhaps, would have been grateful for sell-by dates and the chance to abandon such an inferior sense altogether. 

Predictably, it was left to the French to champion the sensual in a rationalist age. In 1754 Jean-Jacques Rousseau extolled smell as “the sense of imagination” and his contemporary Jean-Francois Saint-Lambert lauded the nose for giving us “the most immediate sensations” and “a more immediate pleasure, more independent of the mind” than the eye. 

A century later, French olfactory enthusiasm had seeped across the border into Germany, where in 1888 Friedrich Nietzsche somewhat bewilderingly announced: “All my genius is in my nostrils.” Should we, like Nietzsche, be guided by our nostrils? 

Whether or not they will kindle our imaginative genius, they might at least aid our physical survival. We no longer need to smell prey or predators, but there is evidence to suggest that we can use our sense of smell to recognise and avoid illness. In 1896 Gould and Pyle suggested in their medical handbook that lunatics could be identified by their smell: “Fevre says the odour of the sweat of lunatics resembles that of yellow deer or mice... Burrows declares that in the absence of further evidence he would not hesitate to pronounce a person insane if he could perceive certain odours.” 

A century of medical science later, some doctors still claim to be guided by the nose. Psychiatrists talk about an odour specific to schizophrenia and Lewis Goldfrank recently told the National Geographic that he uses his nose to make snap decisions in the emergency ward. Apparently the breath of a diabetic in coma smells sweet, and a whiff of garlic can signify arsenic poisoning.

Specially trained dogs seem able to detect some cancers by examining the odours of a patient’s breath, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that canine medical staff will pace the corridors of our future hospitals. 

Perhaps our first step in raising ourselves from our fallen state should be simply to notice the ordinary smells that surround us. The people most vociferous in their praise of smell tend to be anosmics – people who have lost their olfactory powers.
In the words of one anosmic man I spoke to: “More than 24 years later, I deeply miss certain scents and smells. Life is lived rather like the boy in the bubble who suffered from total allergy. Many people have observed how fortunate I am to be unaware of the many unpleasant smells in our world; many people are ignorant fools.
Without the constant reinforcement one forgets... the smell of flowers, of fresh cut grass, of a lover, of one’s children, a glass of wine, a bonfire, the sea, the countryside after rain. The list is endless and timeless.” 

It is important to bear in mind that losing one’s sense of smell involves losing almost all of one’s sense of taste. We are able actually to taste only six flavours: sweet, sour, salt, bitter, umami (richness) and astringent, and all tastes are a combination of these.
The sense of taste is comprised of 1m receptor cells, as compared with around 40m for smell, and the possible palette of smells is literally infinite. When we think we are tasting, we are usually smelling. This knowledge may help us appreciate the privations of the anosmic. 

The literary champion of smell, more than Marcel Proust or Patrick Suskind, is Helen Keller. Growing up blind and deaf, Keller had to rely on her sense of smell for basic information about her surroundings, and found in the process that it became a source of intense pleasure. 

She lamented the fact that smell “does not hold the high position it deserves among its sisters,” adding, “I doubt if there is any sensation arising from sight more delightful than the odours which filter through sun-warmed, wind-tossed branches, or the tide of scents which swells, subsides, rises again wave on wave, filling the wide world with invisible sweetness.” She went so far as to claim that she could judge character by sniffing, and modern scientific studies have backed her up. 

Generally, partners who like the smell of each other’s pheromones are more likely to get married than partners who don’t. Perhaps we could teach ourselves to sniff out future irascible wives and slobbish husbands. 

Reading Helen Keller, we can perhaps learn something of what life was like for our primate ancestors. In primitive animals the bulk of the brain was formed by the limbic lobe, which is still the locus for immediate sensations such as smell. Millennia of development in the brain have led to the reduction of the limbic lobe, which has become covered with cerebral cortex. 

Humankind, even in its most primitive form, had a brain very similar to ours now, yet we have a much weaker sense of smell than our cave-dwelling ancestors. Indeed, congenital anosmia is on the increase, so the whole human race may be heading for an anosmic future. 

Characteristically, Freud suggests that ancient psychosexual anxieties are behind this decline in our nasal capabilities. For him, it all began when man raised himself from the ground to walk on two feet, flashing his genitals to all and sundry. The shame of this sudden exposure, the theory goes, triggered a species-wide repression of the sense of smell.

Humans found genitals less embarrassing when they were seen but not smelt. This meant that men were no longer able to smell menstruation or ovulation. Smell became less important in creating sexual excitement, and humans began to be turned on more by the look of each other’s bodies than the odour. As evidence for this view of smell as a forbidden, repressed sensation, Freud cites the fact that his hysterical patients often had extremely sensitive noses. 

More recently, Michael Stoddart has rethought Freud’s theory in more anthropological terms. Like Freud, Stoddart believes that when humans became bipedal, it ceased to be desirable for women to advertise menstruation and ovulation through smell signals.
Stoddart, however, does not attribute this to a new sense of shame, but to the increased importance of the pair bond. Upright, earth-bound offspring-toddlers-needed more looking after than their more chimp-like predecessors.

It was therefore no longer socially advantageous for the father to be tempted away from the family unit by the irresistible smells of his friends’ ovulating wives. The problem here, as Stoddart himself admits, is that evolution tends to fulfil the needs of the individual rather than of the community.

It still seems useful for the individual male to be attracted to other women at reproductively auspicious times, just as it seems useful for his pair-bonded partner to have the attention – and seed – of other virile men. 

Colourful as they are, both Freud’s and Stoddart’s theories have a somewhat tenuous logic. The most persuasive explanation of the decline in our nasal powers remains the most obvious: in a society where food is packaged and predators tend to attack from afar with bombs, smell has become relatively unimportant. 

Despite the general decline in the human sense of smell, there are still many people in the world for whom smells are a continual source both of information and of pleasure. These people tend not to live in the west. In parts of the developing world, where food comes straight from the forest rather than the supermarket and is not wrapped in plastic, people rely on their noses to stay alive.

Unsurprisingly, some of these cultures privilege smell as a mystical, life-giving sense. For the Onge, who live in the Andaman islands in the south Pacific, smell provides the vital force in the universe. Onge people sign “me” by pointing to their noses and greet each other with the question “How is your nose?” 

A reverence for smell can persist even in cultures where it is not necessary for survival. In both China and Japan, it still forms the basis for important rituals such as the tea ceremony, and in Japan people play a game called kodo, which involves identifying specific scents. 

Some ordinary people can identify 2,500 different smells. Our lamentable sense of smell in the west seems to stem from laziness as well as evolution. The example of Helen Keller suggests that we could do better if we really needed to. 

One contemporary daughter of Eve whose nasal powers seem to have bucked the evolutionary trend is Evelyn Lauder, daughter-in-law of Estee Lauder and chief nose for the Lauder perfume industry. While pregnant with her second child, she awoke one morning to discover that her sense of smell had become peculiarly acute. Happily, this new-found sensitivity has endured beyond pregnancy, and, like Helen Keller (but unlike Kant), Lauder finds that her nose brings her more pleasure than pain. 

When I spoke to her, she had just been to Central Park in New York to “see” the spring flowers. But for her the experience was more about smelling than seeing. “The whole air was perfumed with all the lilac bushes which were in bloom and my delight in going up there was to smell the exquisite aromas of all the various flowers.”
She is saddened by how little we notice smell in the west, and points out that our children tend to be more nasally driven than we are. Lauder temporarily doffs her perfume magnate hat to caution nursing mothers against wearing perfume or perfumed creams, as they can hamper the natural bonding process and even prevent the baby from recognising the mother.

I find this rather unnerving. If perfume inhibits babies’ natural reactions to other people’s smells, surely adults are to some extent also affected – particularly adults with a sense of smell as precarious as ours.
It is strange that, in a culture so desensitised to smell, most women still wear perfume almost every day, and, according to Evelyn Lauder, about 50 new fragrances are produced each year. Two millennia ago, Pliny made the same observation, complaining about the time and money wasted on perfume given that the wearer doesn’t even derive much pleasure from it him or herself.

Several men I’ve spoken to in the course of my research have bemoaned the way women cover up their natural smells of sweat and pheromones. One American man lamented his failure to find a vagina that really smells of vagina. He longs to bottle what he sees as the true scent of a woman. 

In seeking to cover up our own pheromones and sexual secretions, we have traditionally turned to the pheromones of animals. Until recently, the majority of perfumers used musk and civet in their concoctions. Musk is produced in small quantities by young Himalayan musk deer during the mating season; the animal has to be killed in order to remove the small pod in which it is contained. Civet is scraped from the anal pouches of civet cats of both sexes: a disagreeable but not necessarily fatal procedure.

Over the centuries, civet and musk have been sources both of delight and danger for perfume wearers. In 1688, Petrus Castellus extolled the wonders of civet for increasing sexual appetite, and in 1896 Gould and Pyle warned of the sticky predicament of a couple who over-indulged in musk. 

Perfumers can now produce a synthetic copy of both musk and civet, and nobody in America or Europe uses actual animal secretions. Nevertheless, it seems anomalous that we go to such lengths to disguise our own pheromones, merely to replace them with the simulated pheromones of other animals.

For Evelyn Lauder it is not a question of disguising, but rather of accessorising our natural smell: “Women should have a wardrobe of fragrances, the way they have a wardrobe of clothing, the way they have a wardrobe of shoes.” She is adamant that perfumes complement rather than crush natural odours, and that each person’s body chemistry makes the oils project differently. For her, perfume seems to be at once an aesthetic and a sensual pleasure, much like art or music. In this she resembles Coco Chanel, who also had an amazing sense of smell. 

Lyall Watson, in his book Jacobson’s Organ and the Remarkable Nature of Smell, points to some of the potential benefits of rescuing “our most underrated sense from obscurity.” He suggests that with a little training we could smell “which way the children went, who their friends are, who last used this chair or slept in that bed, and whether they were alone, when the girl next door ovulates and is likely to be attractive to or a threat to others, what our spouses had for lunch, and who they spent that time with, and whether or not we are going to need a lawyer.” 

These are spectacular claims, and if Watson’s imaginary sniffer existed, he would surpass Coco Chanel or Evelyn Lauder, and even Sherlock Holmes, the cohort of a more famous Watson. For Watson, the issue is not so much the sense of smell itself as the vomeronasal organs, commonly known as Jacobson’s organs. These are small pits near the front of the nasal septum, about a centimetre and a half in from each nostril, just above the floor of the nose. They do not register ordinary odours.

Instead, they respond to substances that have large molecules and no particular odour, including pheromones. It is Jacobson’s organ, if trained well, that can help us “smell a rat” or “smell something fishy,” or smell whether someone we’ve just met is more likely to be a future enemy or a future spouse. 

If smell is the sense of the imagination, then writers are the best placed to translate it into words. Yet writing about a sense as un-literary or indeed anti-literary as smell is surely one of the most difficult challenges a writer can undertake. One time-honoured way to write fragrantly is to use synaesthetic metaphors. 

The poet Martial starts out on this route with his “smell of a silvery vineyard flowering with the first clusters of grass that a sheep has freshly cropped.” Do we smell the sheep, we might ask, or are they part of a visual image that is somehow equivalent to the smell? 

Proust, of course, is the master of synaesthesia and extended metaphor. For him the countryside reverberates with odours so evocative that they assume human traits: “smells lazy and punctual as a village clock, roving and settled, heedless and provident.” The scent of the hawthorn takes on the intensity of music: it has a “rhythm which disposed the flowers here and there with a youthful light-heartedness.”
More recently, Thomas Pynchon’s description of breakfast in Gravity’s Rainbow has undertones of Proust and of Martial. The “musaceous odour of Breakfast” is “flowery, permeating, surprising, more than the colour of winter sunlight.” Like Martial, Pynchon colours the smell. 

Perhaps colour is one of the most effective ways of describing an odour: our reactions to both tend to be immediate and emotional. A new arrival on the synaesthetic literary scene is Luca Turin, a chemist whose chief contribution to olfactory science is his theory of how we smell.

In The Secret of Scent, he rumbustiously dethrones the widely accepted notion that the smell of a molecule depends solely on its shape, asserting instead that the vibrations within the molecule play the crucial role. 

However, Turin is motivated by more than just scientific curiosity in his search for the olfactory holy grail, and his perfume guide, Parfum, published in 1992 during a break from scientific pursuits, reads like a Proustian remembrance of fragrances past. Nombre Noir, for instance, is “halfway between a rose and a violet” and “glistening with a liquid freshness that made its colours glow like a stained-glass window.” 

Turin believes that his edge in turning smell into language is due to the fact that for him “smell has always had an utterly solid reality,” and he is astonished that others do not share this experience. For Turin, every perfume he has ever smelled has been “like a movie, sound and vision.” While Proust’s synaesthetic descriptions remain metaphorical, Turin seems genuinely to experience smell in several dimensions, and it is this that gives power to his writing. 

Other writers strive to categorise smells, rather than to find emotional or visual analogues for them. Coleridge is being literal when he observes in his notebook that a dead dog smells like elderflowers. Similarly, the Depression-era novelist Thomas Wolfe conveys complex smells to the reader by itemising their component parts, listing odours that may be more familiar: “He knew the good male smell of his father’s sitting room, of the smooth worn leather sofa, with the gaping horsehair rent, of the blistered varnished wood upon the hearth; of the heated calf skin bindings; of the flat moist plug of Apple tobacco.” 

The most famous practitioner of this kind of writing is Patrick Suskind. In his 1985 novel Perfume, the smells of a baby are listed as warm stone, butter, and a pancake soaked in milk, while the smell of the most beautiful girl Grenouille has ever smelt is likened to a combination of silk and pastry soaked in honey-sweet milk. 

The idea that a smell could be powerful enough to turn a man into a serial killer is the storyline of Tom Tykwer’s latest film Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, based on German writer Patrick Süskind’s 1985 cult novel.
Like Wolfe, Suskind provides a disparate collection of familiar smells, allowing us to home in on the exact smell. Unlike Wolfe, though, he allows the synaesthetic to impinge on his smell-collage. The baby surely feels like warm stone as much as it smells like it, and the silk and the girl share a visual and tactile rather than an olfactory beauty. 

It is clear that writers in ancient Rome, modernist France and postmodern America are tackling the same problem when writing about smell. And as you sniff your way across the centuries from Aristotle to the internet, you will notice how much continuity there is, not just in writing technique but in the smells themselves. 

Catullus found hairy armpits as noisome as the Americans find them in France today. The 17th-century poet Robert Herrick found Julia’s sweat as much of a turn-on as Napoleon did Josephine’s 200 years later. (He famously sent word from the thick of battle that she should abstain from washing now that his return was nigh.)

The American man longing to bottle vagina scent finds his place at the end of this trajectory of secretion-loving men. In 1952 Le Gros Clark suggested that Descartes’s cogito ergo sum should be changed to olfacio ergo cogito. Proust, perhaps, would go so far as to change it to olfacio ergo sum. 

Either seems a good endorsement for learning to smell. We will never again be apes or know the exquisite aromas of a pre-lapsarian paradise. This need not stop us from following Walter Hagen’s advice: “You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.”

See more at: http://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000001700730/anosmia.html


  1. ohmygod, That was the fact that I was exposed to and kept as knowledge... as simple as that when someone catch a cold. I didn't know that a person can lose his/her sense of smell. --- for a lifetime

  2. Yes, but then again, finding out
    and giving appropriate treatment to the causative
    factor is of prime importance.
    As with common colds, which we all know is
    brought about by different strains
    of viruses, may cause damage
    to the receptor cells in the nose.
    Unlike other nerves, receptor cells
    in the nose regularly die and
    regenerate every 30 or 60 days.
    But certain viruses "kill the cells,
    called progenitors,
    that give rise to new nerve receptors,"
    and "when the old ones die,
    there's nobody there to replace them."--
    this might eventually lead to anosmia.