A recent study has discovered that people who are unable to feel pain due to a genetic defect are also anosmic, i.e. unable to small anything.
I find this rather interesting, because I happen to be anosmic, though I am able to feel pain, so I don’t have the particular genetic defect this study uncovered. In fact, I am not even sure whether my anosmia is congenital or whether I acquired it as a very young child, either via a head injury at the age of three or via overuse of anti-congestant nasal spray at the age of approx. four. At any rate, I cannot remember ever having had a proper sense of smell.
After the age of twenty or so, I gradually began to be able to perceive certain scents, though my sense of smell is still very limited, a smell has to be very strong for me to perceive it at all (so strong that everybody else in the vicinity has already fainted or fled) and there are many things that I just plain cannot smell at all. Nonetheless, since my sense of smell regenerated somewhat as I grew older, I suspect that it’s not congenital after all but was the result of either the head injury or the nasal spray.
Because of my own experiences, I am skeptical about the idea that many of the people taking part in this study didn’t know they were anosmic. Because even though you don’t notice yourself that you are missing a sense, the rest of the world usually makes it very clear that there is something wrong with you, if you can’t smell and frankly don’t even know what this whole smelling business is all about and why everybody is so obsessed with it.
I have known that I was anosmic since I was five or six, though I did not know that there were others like me and that there was a name for the condition until I met a researcher studying the link between sexuality and sense of smell at university. I was even interviewed for one of her studies.
So how did I find out I was anosmic, if I never really noticed that anything was missing? Quite simply, because people – usually adults and often my parents – kept yelling at me for daring to fart, for not switching on the bathroom fan, for forgetting a tangerine in my schoolbag and not noticing that it had gone off, for liking all sorts of smelly foods, for not noticing that I had stepped into dog poo, for becoming fascinated with the automatic flush system in a public toilet and not wanting to leave as quickly as possible because of the smell. I usually answered, very confused, “But I don’t smell anything.” Which was only the truth, because I really did not smell anything.
Since I persistently claimed that I could not smell things I was supposed to smell, my parents began to wonder whether there wasn’t some truth in this whole “not being able to smell” thing and decided to put it to the test. They started sticking stuff with strong smells under my nose (denatured alcohol is the one I remember most clearly, but there were other substances) and indeed I didn’t smell anything. So they figured out that I was indeed unable to smell. I was never taken to a doctor, because not being able to smell wasn’t exactly a severe handicap. And I did not want to smell either, because I associated smelling mainly with people yelling at me for being dirty, so I decided that smelling was a worthless ability and turned people into jerks.
I did occasionally pretend to be able to smell, if only because it was easier than explaining over and over again that no, I cannot smell anything, so would they please stop ramming whatever it is up my nasal passage. At school, I had a chemistry teacher who would always pass around jars of substances to smell. Since I couldn’t smell any of the substances, but was eager to get a good grade, I always asked my lab partner (to whom I had explained that I couldn’t smell anything), “Britta, what does that smell like?” In retrospect it probably would have been easier to explain to the chemistry teacher that I couldn’t smell.
When ordering wine at an upscale restaurant, I still do the whole swirl the glass and sniff thing, even though I can’t smell the wine, because it’s just the way these things work.
Unlike what some people who lose their sense of smell later in life as well as my 10th grade biology teacher claim, I can taste food without any problems and I can distinguish between more than four or five flavours. There are exceptions, for example I cannot taste vanilla, because vanilla is a scent not a taste. For years, I thought that vanilla was a polite euphemism for “without taste” until I learned that this is the one thing anosmics cannot taste. What is more, certain artificial flavours which appeal mainly to the sense of smell don’t work properly with me. I once read an account by someone who had lost his sense of smell later in life and complained that Coke and Sprite and all sorts of softdrinks just tasted like chemicals to him now. And I thought, “Wait a minute, you mean the stuff is not supposed to have a chemical taste? No wonder I never got the appeal.”
Interestingly, my Dad – who knew that I had no sense of smell – always took my along when buying perfume as a Christmas or birthday present for my Mom. I learned some phrases about what scents my Mom liked by heart. “Fresh, sportive, not too heavy, not too sweet.” Once I accidentally said, “Nicht so schwul” (not so gay), when I meant “Nicht so schwül” (not so sultry), which caused some raised eyebrows. And the statement, “Nothing that smells like an oriental bordello” caused a few raised eyebrows as well, even though I rather liked it, because it at least described what the perfume was supposed to smell like or rather not smell like. Whereas “sportive”, what the hell does “sportive” smell like? I’d imagine sweaty, which is not what you’d want to smell like. Once the perfume lady got out her bottles, I always pretended to sniff whatever the sample was stuck under my nose. In truth, I inevitably picked the perfume in the prettiest bottle, unless there was one that irritated my nose. Because certain artificial scents, usually of the cheap and nasty variety used in scented pens and the like, trigger a pinprick like sensation at the bridge of my nose, which suggests that I probably experienced some kind of nerve damage as a small child.
If all of the perfume bottles were ugly (there was a time in the late 1980s/early 1990s where there was a fashion for very plain perfume bottles, which I hated), I insisted that I hated all of the scents and that I wanted to sample more. One of the perfume store ladies (for some reason perfume store employees are often insufferably superior) insisted that one cannot sample more than four scents and tell them apart, so I should pick one of the four she had already shown to us. I wanted to yell at her, “Lady, I can’t tell any of your bloody scents apart, because I can’t smell. So just show me a nice bottle and I’m out of here.” Alas, I kept my mouth shut and we just went to a different perfume store and never darkened the doorstep of that particular shop again.
As for myself, I use deodorizer and I sometimes even use perfume, though I can’t smell it. It’s a habit I acquired as a pre-teen, when using deodorizer and perfume was a mark of being grown-up. I still select those products by name and packaging rather than by scent. Honestly, manufacturers of cosmetics, just give your product an evocative name and nice packaging and you’ve sold it to me. Pick and unimaginative name and ugly packaging and I will never buy your stuff, no matter what it smells like.
Once, years ago I read a review of a new novel by some bestselling writer I don’t read, Tom Clancy or John Grisham or some such person. The reviewer seemed to like the novel, except for one detail. The protagonist was stuck in an elevator with a homeless person and there was no mentioned of the smell, which the reviewer found unbelievable. This caused me to panic, because it would never have occurred to me to mention the smell of a homeless person in an elevator either. So I started to occasionally fake description of smells in my writing by relying on what people say that X smells like. It’s not difficult to talk about the clogging smell of stale frying fat hanging in the air in the mall foodcourt or the pungent stench of vomit or urine in the pub toilet. Once or twice, I have even decided which perfume or after-shave a character would use (the same way I picked perfume for my Mom, by looking at the bottle and name and wondering what would fit), then looked up what the stuff was supposed to smell like and came up with descriptions such as he smelled of Earl Grey tea or she had the comforting smell of vanilla cookies.