21 Dec When I can no longer smell the sea
When the clock strikes midnight on 31 December (2015), I’ll be celebrating not only the arrival of the New Year but also coming to terms with having no sense of smell … and that is 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 and my olfactory receptors “severed”, as my consultant explained. “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.
Our ancestors used smell to record the past
Smell is our gatekeeper, it sparks memories, creates anticipation, and 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. This was 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 felt similar to London. “The effect of globalisation?” I wondered. Paris had lost its charm, its uniqueness. It then clicked. I couldn’t ‘smell’ Paris. No Chanel perfume notes, no wafts of coffee, or the stench of less savoury smells down hidden alleyways.
Smell accounts for around 80% of taste
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 and bitter, as well as the savoury taste of umami, so beloved by Asian cooks and found in soy sauce and monosodium glutamate.
For me, Earl Grey tea no longer tastes of bergamot, or mulled wine of cinnamon & cloves. As a result, I’ve developed a new-found appreciation for marmalade (bitter & sweet), salted caramel tarts (salty & sweet) and dark chocolate (bitter & sweet).
A new way of interacting with the world
Every cloud has a silver lining, opening doors to new possibilities. Untethered by past memories and anticipations of what is round the corner, both of which are triggered by smell, I find myself free to live in the moment. And, 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’, while my other three senses have also been heightened: appreciating the textures and consistencies of food, the roundness of wine, the sound of a popping cork, or the visual experience of food as art.
Taking the concept of brain ‘plasticity’, or the ability of the brain to modify its own structure and 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, know what food is put in front of me (even when blindfolded), cook to my heart’s content without a recipe, and appreciate wine like I’ve 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 and 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. The response from my brain was to create its own, 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 ‘feels’ the vibration patterns of the molecules as they travel up my nose. This creates a sensation. It also sparks a memory of what that molecular component might be. Hence why I can guess individual items of food when I am blindfolded. Who knows … we as humans don’t seem to have many of the answers.
As 2016 approaches, I am happy to experience life in a ‘different way’ … and in a way that is no less powerful. And as I’ve always believed in life, there is no going back … only forward.