21 Dec When I could no longer smell the sea
When the clock strikes midnight on 31 December I’ll be celebrating not only the arrival of the New Year but also coming to terms with having no sense of smell… absolutely none!
Smell is powerful. Coco Chanel referred to it as the only sense that was still “instinctive”, writes Justine Picardie in her book Chanel.
French novelist Marcel Proust wrote that perfume was “that last and best reserve of the past, the one which when all our tears have run dry, can make us cry again”.
I had a road accident 6 years ago. As a result, my head was knocked & my olfactory nerves severed. “Oh, those roses do smell lovely!” said the nurse. Lying on my hospital bed, it was only then that I realised that the world had deprived me of that ‘instinctive’ sense… I could not smell the roses.
Smell is our gatekeeper, it sparks memories, creates anticipation, & it helps us ascertain whether someone is a potential lover or a potential enemy … the difference between love & death.
The strength of this often unappreciated sense stems from when our ancestors used smell to record the past … during times when they still weren’t able to “encode” their memories in language, whether words or pictures, writes Charles Fernyhough in Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory.
For babies and small children, smell is still pivotal. That’s why emotional memories from childhood are among our strongest and most vivid.
And smell is about place. Each city, town, house, building has its own unique smell.
When I travelled for the first time after my accident, I went to Paris. Something was different. The city seemed like London. “The effect of globalization,” I thought. Paris had lost its charm, its uniqueness. It then clicked. I couldn’t ‘smell’ Paris. No Gitanes, no garlic, no saucission or whatever Paris smells of.
When it comes to food, and wine, smell accounts for around 80% of what we usually think is taste. When we chew our food, our mouths release gaseous compounds, or volatiles. These volatiles, made up of molecules, as everything is in life, travel up the nose to the brain, where they meet the taste sensed through our taste buds, and hey presto the brain identifies the flavour.
Taste is no more than salty, sweet, sour & bitter, as well as the savoury taste of umami, so beloved by Asian cooks and found in soy sauce and monosodium glutamate.
When it comes to smell, for me, Earl Grey tea no longer tastes of bergamot, truffle oil of truffles or mulled wine of cinnamon & cloves. As a result, I’ve developed a new taste for marmalade (bitter & sweet), salted caramel tarts (salty & sweet) and dark chocolate (bitter & sweet).
No smell, big new world
Every cloud has a silver lining, opening doors to new possibilities. Untethered by past memories & anticipations of what is round the corner, both of which are triggered by smell, I find myself free to live in the moment. I practise ‘mindfulness’ without having to read any books or go to any classes.
But rather than my experience of the world shrinking, it has grown. My sensual experience of the world, or my umwelt, in the words of US neuroscientist Dave Eagleman, has taken on a new, wider dimension.
I now classify myself as a super-taster – I even took the test, and passed – while my other three senses have also been heightened: appreciating the textures & consistencies of food, the roundness of wine, the sound of a popping cork, or the visual experience of food as art.
Yet there’s something more. Something deeper. We only experience a thin “slice of perception”, says Eagleman in his Creating New Senses TED Talk. This slice is only as big as permitted by the evolution of our brains. As humans, for example, we see less than ten trillionths of what is out there – we don’t see X-rays or UV light, for example. We just don’t have the biological receptors to do this, Eagleman explains.
Taking the concept of brain ‘plasticity’, or the ability of the brain to modify its own structure & function, the possibilities are endless. Many neuroscientists believe we have 20 senses, if not more. We just haven’t found a name to describe the other 15.
Whether real or not, my ‘feeling’ is that my range of biological receptors has expanded. When I drink a good wine – I avoid bad wine – it’s as if the wine interacts with every cell in my body to give an overall sensation. It’s a new type of interaction with the world around me – an expanded umwelt: an interaction so profound that I cannot find the words to describe the experience … in the same way that our ancestors of old had no words or pictures to record memories.
If I get into the ‘zone’, as sports professionals call that precious mental space when they are at their most dynamic, I can choose my own perfume; guess what food is put in front of me, even though I am blindfolded: cook to my heart’s content without a recipe: & appreciate wine like I have never done before… even though I can’t smell the coffee burning (I have had to throw out my stove-top espresso maker).
Blissful, phantom smells
For several years, I had ‘phantom’ smells. These smells drifted in whenever I was in the ‘zone’, & then would linger in and out for days, keeping me company & with a blissful almost hallucinatory effect.
The specialists said it was because my brain was struggling to get used to the idea that it couldn’t smell, so it was creating its own very distinct smells. The last one I can recall, because I noted it down at the time, was a smoky mix of sandalwood & tobacco, reminiscent of 1950s Cuba. How did I know? I didn’t. I just felt.
Back in the 1930s, US scientist Malcolm Dyson discovered that molecules quivered and shook. I have a theory that my brain also recalls the vibration patterns of the shaking molecules of the volatiles travelling up my nose. This not only creates a sensation, but it also sparks a memory of what that component might be – hence why I can guess individual items of food when my eyes are blindfolded. Who knows … we as humans don’t seem to have many of the answers.
As 2016 approaches, I am content with experiencing life in a ‘different way’ to those who can smell … but in a way that is no less powerful. And as I’ve always believed in life, there is no going back … only forward. Saying that, oh my God, I miss the smell of the sea & how that smell makes you feel … free, excited, reassured … but there’s no going back.
The main picture is of a view towards Beachy Head, in Sussex, one of my favourite parts of the English coastline.