A Sense Of Smell

Post by Ainslie Walker
Hello APJ

I recently learnt a friend of mine lost her sense of smell 2 and a half years ago. I find the subject fascinating so wanted to share. Here is her story;

“It wasn’t until the day after I fell and hit my head that I realised that I had totally lost my sense of smell. At first, all my senses had been dulled so it was not obvious to me but as I found myself struggling to enjoy food I realised it was because without smell, I couldn’t fully taste – the two are inextricably linked. It’s a weird sensation holding an apple to my nose and sniffing with no response coming from my brain (but I remember what it smells like which confuses me). Not to mention, hugely frustrating being unable to experience the full sensual onslaught of my morning coffee. I was in tears when I first realised. It’s like a plug has come loose and I can’t locate it.

Coffee sachman75 FlickrPhoto Stolen sachman75 Flickr

It’s also amazing how disruptive it is to my full understanding and appreciation of the world around me. I find myself craving the smell of petrol fumes as I cross the road or dreaming of cigarette smoke as I stand drinking outside the pub. Perhaps it is because it’s the most primeval and instinctual of the senses – without it, I feel like I can’t sense danger, I can’t quite feel safe, something’s not right and my brain won’t let me forget it. It’s like I can’t actually see properly because in many ways, I’m not getting the full picture.

Cheese Factory FotoPediaPhoto Stolen FotoPedia

Certainly it’s the most evocative of the senses, strongly tied to memory and place. And as the days wore on without a sense of smell I found myself experiencing “phantom” smells – memories of smell rising from the backwaters of my mind and overwhelming me at unexpected moments: bike grease, camembert cheese, suntan lotion, shitake mushrooms, lager and lime, orange ice lollies. Some of these you can probably taste as you read but they were definitely aromas in my mind – and strong ones – showing how symbiotic the two senses are. A lot of the time I get what I can only describe as a warm, organic chemical smell. I imagine this is what molecules smell like, or molecular fusion – the reforming of my sense of smell.

It can take three months for the “olfactory bulb” to restore itself and occasionally, when I’m not thinking about it too much, I notice that I’m picking up the subtleties of scent: I can smell soap on my skin or strawberry jam on my toast, and I can’t help but feel gleeful, giggling to myself. Being able to smell is truly wonderful. I hope it comes back fully and if/when it does I won’t ever take it for granted!”

Season to Taste Molly Birnbaum Book Depository.jpgPhoto Stolen Book Depository

A book about this subject: Season To Taste by Molly Birnbaum – she was an aspiring chef who got hit by a car whilst jogging and lost sense of smell and taste.

Secret Of Scent Luca Turin Book DepositoryPhoto Stolen Book Depository

Another on the science of smell, with much more links to perfume is Luca Turin’s Secret of Scent. Fascinating!

It’s amazing that scientists still don’t understand mechanics of smelling or even its full purpose!

Luckily for my friend her sense of smell is returning and she can FINALLY begin experimenting with new perfumes again. (she stuck with the same perfume because there was no way to choose new ones) Needless to say she went a bit crazy on perfume purchases once it was coming back!

Ainslie Walker

22 thoughts on “A Sense Of Smell

  1. Hi Ainslie
    thanks for drawing attention to the problem of anosmia – no one ever talks about it. Partly probably because it’s invisible – in fact I’ve seen it referred to as the hidden disability because it can’t be seen but affects lives in so many different ways. But I think it’s also because our society undervalues the sense of smell. Another personal temporary anosmia story is by Bonnie Blodgett Remembering Smell: A memoir of losing and discovering the primal and Rachel Herz talks about it in The Scent of Desire (in relation to Michael Hutchence amongst others). There are websites and blogs by and for anosmics who talk about its impact. I recently read of the return to work of a policewoman who was severely injured in Kings Cross. She is now limited in the work she can do – for example now won’t go to car crashes or fires on her own because she can’t smell petrol or smoke. The estimates of the number of people with a decreased sense of smell or total anosmia varies wildly but it’s much more common than we think and has major health impacts. Your friend is really lucky.


    • Thanks Catherine-you are right, she is extremely lucky and knows it! I was unaware Michael H was anosmic. I will look up more info. Ta for book recommendation too!


  2. I have always been amazed by the fact that if you can’t smell, you can’t taste. I also think it’s interesting that many of us have experienced smelling a perfume and getting a sense of tasting it also. It happens to me with some of the more synthetic fragrances.


    • Agree. You can practice smelling through breathing through your mouth with your nose blocked. It gives completely different characters and is interesting when really analyzing perfumes 🙂


  3. Hi Ainslie, thanks for posting this. I recently discovered my Dad’s sense of smell has disappeared. He is quite elderly (I think I’m safe to say here…. 😉 ) so it is a slightly different situation that having an accident and losing it suddenly, but it did get me thinking. What if? – particularly when I’m finding my sense of smell is becoming more acute now that I’m using it more. And Catherine is totally right, losing one of your senses is absolutely a disability so why does the sense of smell going out of action seem to not have the same weight as losing hearing, or eyesight? Because it seems to be easier to live without? Not such a primal survival instinct? But the comment above “without it, I feel like I can’t sense danger…” is totally valid – smelling food, for example, eating off meat or seafood could make you so sick and you may not be able to tell just by looking at it.

    Interesting, and thanks (to all) for the book links.



    • Hi Tina
      I didn’t mention in my comment that the sense of smell decreases with age and that may be one of the reasons that older people eat less – they can’t taste. Losing your sense of smell is also a symptom of some neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, and forms of dementia. Not that I’m suggesting any of this applies to your father. I also think there’s a real use it or lose it element here. I totally agree that your sense of smell improves if you use it a lot. Mine certainly has and I did some work with someone last year who was very uninterested in smell when we started and it now fascinated by it and has a much improved sense of smell. There are huge dangers to anosmia. A friend of mine was cutting up chicken to freeze it – she has four children and can’t smell – when one of them came in and asked what the terrible smell was. She had no idea there even was a smell and has also burned countless saucepans. She always has very good smoke detectors in her house as she can’t smell the smoke. I could go on…


      • Hi Catherine,
        OK, right! so the sense of smell can deteriorate with age the same way that some people can experience hearing and eyesight loss. Makes sense. Your poor friend re: burnt pots, and the chicken story, scary for lots of reasons. I suppose I’ve been taking an interest in perfumes for about 12 months now, maybe a touch more, and the increase in sensitivity for my sense of smell has been noticible on an every day level, an increased interaction with the world around me in ways I didn’t expect – however there are definitely two sides to that coin aswell! 😉



    • Thanks Tina. It really is fascinating and overlooked. Sometimes taste and smell decreasing can be a side effect of some medications. Also if one is low in zinc it can reduce. There is a test nutritionists do called the zinc tally test which he could try to see if zinc supplementation would be useful xx


  4. I’m slightly anosmic to a few perfumes and just that little bit is very frustrating. I can’t imagine what it would be like to not smell much of anything ever. I guess it might be like having a really bad sinus infection where you’re all stuffed up and even when you can move some air through your nostrils you still can’t smell much. That’s probably why nothing tastes good when you’re sick.
    I hope things continue to improve for your friend. Great post!


    • Thank you Poodle. Apparently that’s quite common. My teacher of perfumery is actually unable to smell the entire musk group of aroma chemicals. He said when he smells a fragrance with them in he can kind of feel their presence like a piece of the puzzle is missing, without even smelling them.


  5. A close family member made her living as a sommelier (and super taster) until a head injury and the resulting partial anosmia put an end to her career. As Catherine says, anosmia can be a serious disability.


    • How devastating for her. I hope she recovers overtime. I am sure her story would be very interesting to hear, especially from going from so attuned with her taste/smell to loosing it. I am sorry to hear this has happened.


  6. I’m troubled to read another anosmia story with a happy ending, like Molly Birnbaum’s book. I’m anosmic since a concussion in 1993; of the hundreds or anosmics I know online, almost none have any type of recovery. For most of us, anosmia is a lifetime event. No scents. No real flavor in food; shrimp tastes like cardboard. For me, no memory of smell. It’s disappointing to see someone who has experienced anosmia treat it like a temporary interruption of perfume-smelling fun.


    • Hi Ken, thank you for sharing your story. I’m sorry if the article came across as insensitive to you or anyone suffering with anosmia. I wrote the article with best intentions, to share my friends story-who is indeed lucky and grateful for her recovery. As I was writing for a perfume blog, it felt necessary to talk about how she celebrated, once her smell returned again-with perfume. As I see it her story and recovery is actually beneficial to those with more long term issues as she can be used for research purposes and hopefully scientists can discover more about how this symptom can be reversed/healed.
      Her story also helps people, passionate about perfume, who had no knowledge on the subject, learn there are people unable to enjoy smell, or even use it as a basic sense for day to day life. I hope I can reassure you I was not taking the subject lightly. Thanks again for your input.


      • Hi Ken
        I am the friend that Ainslie talks about – firstly, I’d like to say that I empathise with your situation; I confronted the very real possibility of living without smell for the rest of my life. Luckily Molly Birnbaum’s book was published right about the time I lost my sense of smell and I found it deeply comforting as it became apparent just how little research there is in this particular area – when I asked my doctor if I would be able to smell again, he said, “It’s in the hands of the gods”; hardly the scientific response that I wanted. I also hoped to explain through my writing what a vital sense smell is to our general wellbeing – it is debilitatingly depressing not to be able to smell and I don’t use those words lightly, as I’m sure you are more than aware. Previously, the belief was that neurons connected to the nose regrew after a trauma; I believe that now, the thinking is that smells have different vibrations. But we still don’t have the answers and this is still very early research. My love of cooking and eating forced me to try to become enthusiastic about colours, textures, and trying to remember smells in the same way that Molly Birnbaum did. I forced myself to try to find joy in the other senses which somehow built a fuller picture. If nothing else, Ms Birnbaum’s inquiry into why there is no research or support for anosmics has brought this issue to a lot of people’s attention. Maybe I was just lucky but I still have gaps in my smelling memory – I know there are smells that don’t quite smell the same as they did before but I’m thankful for what I’ve got to work with. I’m sorry that we only hear the “success” stories of people whose sense of smell comes back but I for one, have not stopped looking for answers and believe that unlocking the mystery of smell could provide answers for so many other things and possibly medical breakthroughs (e.g. why people develop Alzheimer’s). I have also been in touch with a fantastic journalist/author called John McQuaid who is brilliant at seeing parallels such as these and furthering theories. He is currently writing a book about the science of taste – of course, inextricably linked to smell and which probably has as little research allocated to it as smell. I know that this post was written with good intentions to explain why being able to smell is not just a nice added bonus of our existence, and of course perfume is loaded with emotional memory – for lovers of scent it is not just a consumable, it has the potential to provide great happiness and a sense of security; and potentially the possibility of helping people to relearn how to smell. If it has offended anyone I hope this response goes some way in to explaining that the issue is taken very seriously. I hope we are able to find more answers and I can only wish you the best on your journey too.
        Thanks, Claire


  7. I’d like to compliment you Ainslie and Claire on your beautifully thought out, expressed and written responses to Ken, whose position is most valid and I have had some illnesses that have stolen my smell-o-vision which scared me plenty. Unimaginable loosing it forever.
    Great too that you have started such an interesting conversation Ainslie, I have learned a LOT today.


  8. I read Molly Birnbaum’s book last year and really enjoyed it, it brought home for me how much most of us take our sense of smell for granted – anosmia really is a hidden disability. I’ve got a friend struggling with parosmia right now (innocuous odors smell disgusting to her) and it’s been very difficult for her.


  9. Anosmia is a condition not many people are aware of. It can be temporary or permanent.
    E.G. due to colds, congestion, surgery or one can be born this way.

    Whether we can’Smell’ or not on some level we will have a positive response, we just many not realise it.

    Even though we may lose the ‘Smell’ factor, we still have receptor cells that work like a lock and key theory that pick up molecules that we breathe in, these molecules are then taken in and converted into electrical impulses that are received buy our limbic system. Our limbic is the oldest part of our brain which consists of the Thalamus and Hypothalamus.

    The Thalamus is the part of the brain in which assists us in perceiving what we smell and the Hypothalmus is the control centre of some hormonal levels, digestive activity, feelings such as anger our sexual feeling, BP and more.


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