Someone working in a kitchen without a sense of smell is like a blind person driving a taxi.
By Ben Jhoty
Broadly speaking your sense of smell has three main functions. To avoid harm, by smelling fire or recognizing food that’s off, to aid social communication and to help with the ingestion of food and drink. But while there are biological imperatives, olfaction’s role extends beyond survival, says Dr Mehmet Mahmut, a senior lecturer in psychology at Macquarie University’s Food, Flavour & Fragrance Lab. “It’s important to be aware of the impact that your smell may have on your behaviour, on your decisions and the consequences of that behaviour.” It’s crucial to our enjoyment and appreciation of life.
People born without a sense of smell are more likely to experience depression. Men born without smell have less sexual partners while women experience more insecurity in their relationships. Odours also help encode memories, especially emotional ones and your smell directly affects your levels of empathy.
Mahmut’s initial interest in olfaction stemmed from its impact on psychopaths, known for their low empathy scores. “In each study we did we found the higher someone’s psychopathic characteristics the poorer their sense of smell,” he says. If you’re worried your inability to smell funky socks behind the dryer means you’re liable to begin slaughtering your workmates, rest assured, a psychopathic diagnosis relies on meeting a range of criteria.
Of the myriad ways his absence of smell, clinically referred to as anosmia, has affected Forrest’s life, the most obvious is in regard to food. It’s been a particularly cruel blow for someone who had worked in hospitality since he was 16 and dreamed of one day owning a restaurant. “I enjoyed smell and taste so much I was basing a career on it,” Forrest says. Now, he regards it as too risky. “Someone with no smell or taste working in a kitchen is like a blind person driving a taxi.”
Less immediately obvious but just as distressing has been the social impact of Forrest’s condition. Especially in regard to women. If he’s ‘Ken’, women as a whole are a sea of plastic Barbies. He can appreciate their looks in the same way he can admire the sheen on a freshly detailed car. “I just don’t feel anything for them,” he says. “Even ones who tick every box – good looking, good head on their shoulders – they’re just nothing more than a person. Your libido is just gone.”
Mahmut recently conducted a review on the role of olfactory ability in the three broad stages of relationships: initiation, maintenance and breakdown. It’s well established that in the attraction stage, the more you like someone’s body odour, the more genetically compatible you are in terms of producing healthier offspring, he says.
Less well known is olfaction’s role in the maintenance phase of relationships. Here, having a good sense of smell is associated with being able to understand your partner’s emotions and being able to respond to them. “People with a better sense of smell can detect the differences between the different types of sweat we produce,” says Mahmut. “So, when you detect anxiety sweat you can respond with empathetic responses.”
It’s in this stage that Forrest has experienced the most trouble. “I don’t show emotion,” he says. “I’m really hard to read. Everything’s got to be forced. If I get past the initial stage there’s just an invisible wall there.”
Research on the role of smell in relationship breakdown is still emerging but anecdotal evidence shows that during a break-up some women find their partner’s body odour disgusting. “That’s quite repellent compared to finding somoneone visually ugly,” says Mahmut. “It might be signalling, ‘Hey, they’re no longer good for me’.”
This has implications if a woman is on the contraceptive pill, which can alter her odour preferences. What happens when she comes off the pill? In Mahmut’s review, women using contraception when they met their partner and still using it, reported higher relationship satisfaction than those no longer on the pill.
We all like to believe we’re conscious agents of our own destiny. But the truth is our instincts often guide us as much, if not more, than our rational thoughts. Which raises an intriguing possibility: our so-called sixth sense may in fact be a response to the unconscious cues provided by our smell. “Something that’s driving your behaviour might be driven by cues like body odour that you’re not making a connection between,” says Mahmut. “It might be labelled intuition.”
FOLLOW YOUR NOSEChrissi Kelly lost her sense of smell in 2012. Unlike Forrest, though, she got it back. Kelly’s case started with a sinus infection, then one morning she woke up and immediately realised her smell was gone. “I went into the bathroom and I couldn’t smell my toothpaste,” remembers Kelly, who has an academic background in archaeological science. Panic stricken, she frantically tried smelling everything in the bathroom. “It was awful,” she recalls.
After seeing numerous doctors and ENT specialists, Kelly plunged into severe depression and it wasn’t just because she missed the smell of jasmine or the taste of a bacon sandwich. “It’s a much more complicated mechanism than that,” she says, citing research that shows a person who is clinically depressed has a higher chance of having reduced volume in their olfactory bulb, a structure in the brain that receives neural input on odours from the nasal cavity. Similarly, she says, in people like her and Forrest, who lose their smell, olfactory bulb volume also decreases.
Kelly began to feel all forms of emotion draining from her life. By the time she hit rock bottom, around six months after the sinus infection, she felt, “So emotionally flat she couldn’t feel sorrow anymore”. This sense of helplessness was something Kelly, who went on to start the anosmia awareness group AbScent, has seen again and again. “People who lose their smell feel like they’re behind a glass wall, that they’re spectators in their own lives,” she says.
At her wit’s end, Kelly scoured the internet and found one doctor who knew something about smell loss. He tested her smell using the standard Sniffin’ Sticks test. She scored zero. He told her to come back in a few months. By that time she had noticed the first signs her smell might be returning. “The second time I was classified as ‘hyposmic’, which is just the tiniest bit of smell.” On the way out the door, the doctor said, “You should try smell training”. A new field – the first research paper was written by Mahmut’s supervisor Professor Hummel only in 2009 – it involves smelling four essential oils twice a day for four months.
Kelly started sniffing, keeping a diary to note down whether things smelled the way she expected they would. Eventually she put her methods onto a website for anosmia sufferers to try.
Today her sense of smell is at expert level. She scored 46 out of a possible 48 on the Sniffin’ Sticks test. But it’s her appreciation of her smell – she’s like the owner of a new car who basks in the odour of unalloyed freshness – that is perhaps most instructive. “Having lost it once, the joy I experience from smelling something that’s really good is exquisite.”
The pay-off might go beyond mere bliss, though. In that conscious appreciation and reverie could lie the keys to enriching your life in ways you’d ordinarily conclude are, if not profound, certainly not to be sniffed at. It’s just that in this case, that’s precisely what you should do.
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