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"In memory, all perfumes are imperishable."

Patrick Süskind, ‘Perfume’, 1985.

One out of every five people loses their sense of smell, either due to accidents, illness or hereditary predisposition. This pathology is called Anosmia and those who suffer from it say that it is like living inside a neoprene suit: You can see, touch and breathe, but you cannot smell.

"I don't know what my child smells like."

"I don't know what the rain smells like, and it's very strange to me that people can smell the weather."

"Still, when I take a shower, I like to put on scented cream and perfume to feel like any other woman."

"The new smell of a colleague's brand new car is one of the conversations in the office, and I don't know what to say about it. I miss a lot of chitchat because of my condition."

These are some of the comments recorded by Jacob Lamendola in his documentary about this condition.

Figure 1: Marc Chagall's painting the Birthday (1915).

Despite the vital importance of smelling, the detection of anosmia is not as quick as in cases of blindness or deafness from birth. Specialists speak of up to 10 years to identify that the loss of smell is what is not working well in our children and another 10 years more to diagnose the disorder.

However, a clarification, not all loss of smell is pathological. Presbyosmia is the natural decrease of this sense, which is due to the physiological involution that occurs with age, and affects men and women equally. We will not refer to this condition in this article.

Tell me what it smells like and I will tell you what you suffer from

It is still unclear whether it is our emotional life that impacts our sense of smell or if, on the contrary, it is the other way around; an insensitive nose that shakes the mood. Both theories lack sufficient evidence. However, on more than one occasion, one and the other phenomenon go hand in hand: Patients with schizophrenia who find it difficult to differentiate odors and people diagnosed with depression with hyposensitivity to aromas.

Schizophrenia. The neuropsychologist Paul Moberg of the University of Pennsylvania showed a few years ago that deficits in the sense of smell in schizophrenics mainly affect pleasant smells. The worse the ability to name scents of an older person is in the early stage of the disease, the higher seems to be his risk of developing schizophrenia as an adult. Some explanations for this relationship: 1) The nostrils of schizophrenics are smaller than those of healthy subjects, 2) Brain areas specialized in decoding social cues, interpreting emotions and labeling odors appear impaired in subjects with schizophrenia. These patients may confuse the smell of pizza with that of chewing gum, for example, or may be unable to match the odor with its correct label.

Depression. There is a bidirectional relationship between the olfactory bulbs and emotions because the olfactory channel feeds into the brain circuits responsible for generating emotions. Therefore, people with anhedonia, or lack of motivation, have diminished olfactory capacity and people with lesions in the olfactory bulbs are more likely to develop depressive states.

In a 2017 study led by Drs. Ilona Croy and Thomas Hummel, people who had lost their sense of smell were shown a series of photographs with high emotional content (weddings, birth of a baby, thunderstorm, are some examples) and the emotional response they got was significantly weaker than in the case of people without anosmia.

Alzheimer's disease. One of the explanations for the development of Alzheimer's disease has to do with the abnormal accumulation of two types of proteins in the brain, beta amyloid and tau. And the excessive accumulation of these substances causes the destructuring of the brain architecture observed in Alzheimer's patients. On the other hand, the first place where beta amyloid protein accumulates is in the area of the brain responsible for the detection and perception of odors. Therefore, the deterioration in the sense of smell usually manifests itself long before cognitive processes are affected.

Figure 2: Marc Chagall's painting Over the Town (1918).

Border is one of those unclassifiable films, a mixture of horror and drama, under the direction of the Swedish-Iranian Ali Abbasi. A work of art that, at the same time aesthetic, pierces our soul with a point of reflection as original as it is intense. Border presents the ability of some "special beings" who can, through smell, perceive the emotional states of people. I won't say more because I want you to see the movie. Just to add that Ali Abbasi was probably unaware that human beings, too, can discern other people's fear through the nose. This is confirmed by a study conducted by German psychologists at the University of Düsseldorf.

This is a phenomenon that has so far only been known in insects and animals: Flies, fish or rodents all communicate stress chemically. However, Dr. Bettina Pause has recently shown that when a person feels fear, they develop certain molecules in their sweat and when another person smells them, the regions in their brain that recognize the state of distress and fear and develop the feeling of compassion are activated.

Figure 3: Marc Chagall's painting The Promenade (1917).
Odor is not just odor. You know?

Smell is not only a physiological phenomenon, it is also a moral phenomenon, since odors are considered as positive or negative, good or bad. It is this moral dimension of smell that makes this sense of smell of such compelling sociological and economic importance. Smell is an important component of our moral construction of reality and is our construction of moral reality. The fundamental assumption is simple: What smells good is good. Conversely, what smells bad is bad.

This olfactory symbolism is evident in the extreme case of encountering a headwind when approaching a beggar in the middle of the city. Routinely, smell remains a useful tool for medical diagnosis. But the symbolism is clearest in our language, which embodies and reinforces this value system. We may describe someone by saying they smell "divine", "rich", "delicious", or simply "good" but all of those adjectives are also moral evaluations and judgments. To describe is to prescribe. Aromas change from being physical sensations to symbolic evaluations.

We say that someone "smells like roses" when they come out of a situation well and conversely, something that annoys or irritates us is "a stinker." We tend to describe immoral actions as "filthy" or when we perceive a problem we say, "this smells bad to me". Bad refers to ethics and smells. In short, to describe someone or something by saying that it smells good or bad is to suggest that someone or something is good or bad.

And what if you couldn't smell?

Video 1: National Geographic short film titled "This is What It's Like to Live in a World Without Smell" (2017).

So, if you had to lose a sense... Which one would you choose?

Bibliographical references

Urban-Kowalczyk, Strzelecki, ŚMigielski, Kotlicka–Antczak. (2019, March 5). Odor perception and hedonics in chronic schizophrenia and in first episode psychosis. PubMed Central (PMC).

Croy, I., & Hummel, T. (2016). Olfaction as a marker for depression. Journal of Neurology, 264(4), 631–638.

I. (2019, November 29). Dr Bettina Pause - More than Just Words: The Chemical Communication of Social Information . Scientia.Global.

Léna, P. (2012, May 11). Perte d’odorat : un handicap réversible. Le Figaro.

Larrea Killinger, C. (1997). La cultura de los olores. Una aproximación a la antropología de los sentidos. ResearchGate.

Abe, T. (2005). Odor, Information and New Cosmetics--The Ripple Effect on Life by Aromachology Research. Chemical Senses, 30(Supplement 1), i246–i247.

Aromacología: la disciplina que ayuda a lograr bienestar emocional a través de los aromas. Mazalán Comunicaciones. (2018, March 20). Mazalan.

Synnott, A. (2002). Sociología del olor. Anthony Synnott, 65.

Visual sources


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María José Puebla

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