All entries for Thursday 10 September 2009

September 10, 2009

Anosmia FAQ

I can't smell.

I have congenital anosmia, meaning I have never been able to smell. Since people usually have never heard of this condition, they tend to ask the same kind of questions. So, as a way of informing you about anosmia in general, and as an illustration of how unimaginative people are, here's a collection of things I get asked very often.


Q: What do you mean, you can't smell?
A: It simple, really. I just can't smell anything. My nose doesn't work. It's like being blind or deaf, except that your sense of smell is lacking, rather than your sight or hearing.

Q: Do you have a cold?
A: No I don't have a cold.

Q: Are you taking the mick out of me?
A: No I'm not joking. Check Wikipedia or WrongDiagnosis. I'm not making this up.

Q: So you really can't smell anything?
A: No.

Q: Can you smell food, or flowers? Or farts?
A: NO.

Q: Can you smell perfume?
A: Is it the 'N' or the 'O' that you don't get?

Q: How come you can't smell?
A: I don't know, really. I was born that way.

Q: Isn't it nice that you can't smell all the bad things, like garbage trucks or people with body odour?
A: Yeah I guess so. Now imagine if I lost all my other senses as well, I wouldn't be able to hear all the bad music and tragic news in the radio, or see all the ugly people and buildings in this world, or feel any pain whatsoever. I'd be the happiest man on Earth. Right?
Also, I'd like to point out that being being unable to smell the dog poo you trod in this morning, is not an advantage.

Q: Can you taste?
A: Why does this question always crop up? Blaaaargh! See? I've got a tongue. That's all you need in order to taste stuff.

Q: But when I pinch my nose I can't taste anything. So how come you can taste if you can't smell?
A: I dare you to pinch your nose and then take a large bite out of a lemon. Then think about your first statement again.

Q: If you can't use your nose, then you can only taste sweet, salt, sour, and bitter (plus umami if we are to believe those zany Japanese). So doesn't that mean that you can't taste as much as normal people?
A: There's some truth hidden in this, but I'd like to be precise about the vocabulary we use here. 'Taste' is the the sensorial input we get from out tongue, 'smell' is what we get from our nose. Combine these two, and you get 'flavour'. Often, however, people mistakenly use the word 'taste' when they mean 'flavour', because they don't realise that at least 3/4 of the experience they get from eating is actually provided by their nose. So in my case, I don't get all of the flavour (I lack the smelling part), but I certainly get all the taste. What this means in practice, is that the sensorial input I get is different from what you get, probably weaker. Most spices affect the taste of the food very little (with a few exceptions like curry or pepper), so words like "parsley" or "saffron" mean nothing to me, and I'm still amazed that other people can actually tell the difference between those. The difference between canned food and fresh food is almost non-distinguishable in my mouth - as long as we're talking about the same product, of course. A lot of kinds of tea taste exactly the same to me, although I've heard someone say that this is not too unusual. Also, a lot of sweets are based on smell, so something that is meant to taste like strawberry, simply has a nice sweet taste to me. However, saying that I'm limited to four basic tastes is very misleading, since everything still has its own taste to me. To take an example where texture and temperature give no hints: I can taste the difference between apple juice, orange juice, ananas juice, grape juice, cranberry juice, blueberry juice, tropical juice, ... Heck, sometimes I can even taste the difference between different brands of water (as long as they're not too similar). I don't like the taste of salad, and I prefer milk chocolate to dark chocolate, so saying I can't taste is plain wrong.
Something that is also worth taking into account, is that since I don't get the smell of food, I tend to focus on other things such as temperature and (especially) texture. Nothing beats the feeling of teeth slowly grinding through the flesh of a ripe apple. Fried potatoes is the perfect balance between soft and crunchy. "Squishy" foods, however, like mushrooms, make me want to gag. Redberries have a nice taste, but they get stuck in the teeth afterwards. And so on.

I think the best analogy I've heard, is that being anosmic is like being totally colour blind. When you watch TV, you can still see everything that is going on, and understand it perfectly, you just don't get the colours. In the same way, when you can't smell, you can still enjoy food and get the taste, but you don't get the full experience because you're lacking the smell.

There are other much more interesting questions, but I never get asked those. I'll include a few of these Unfrequently Asked Qustions, for fun:

Q: Do you know anyone else with anosmia?
A: No, but I wish I did.

Q: Is there a cure for anosmia?
A: No. Most doctors haven't even heard of it. I don't think that some kind of cure would be too hard to find, but the problem is that the condition is so uncommon, not to mention unimportant, that little research has been done. Medical students, get crackin'!

Q: When did you discover that you couldn't smell?
A: By the age of 15, I had understood that something wasn't quite right, but when I was 18 did I fully realise that I couldn't smell anything. The realisation came in the same time as the discovery that there were other people out there with the same problem.

Q: Why did it take you so long to realise?
A: That's an interesting question that would take us into a long discussion about subconscious beliefs, social conformity and the philosophy of knowledge and perception. I might save that for another post. The short answer is that I thought it was something you gradually learned as you grew up. The surprise wasn't only that I couldn't smell, but that others could.

Q: Do you get annoyed when people talk about smells?
A: No! I can understand why you'd think I would, but no! If someone says, "It smells really nice here," I'm glad he's actually informing me that the present smell is nice. Otherwise, how would I ever know? If someone compliments me on my perfume or deodorant, I feel exhilerated because I then know that I smell good, and I'm somehow relieved. If someone forgets that I can't smell, I don't feel offended because I know they don't do it on purpose. Rather, I'm strangely amused and uplifted by the way they profusely apologise afterwards. It's like a comedy show, in a way.

Q: If you could fix your sense of smell, would you do it?
A: Er... I'm not sure I would, actually. If someone offered me an operation that could give me a sense of smell, chances are I would be too scared to take the operation, scared that afterwards I would be overwhelmed by a sensation I couldn't understand. If someone offered me a magical potion that could restore my olfactory abilities, I would buy it and then hide it somewhere in my closet, only to peek at it occasionally in a mixture of awe and fear.
If I ever did drink it, it would be out of curiosity rather than longing to smell.

You can't miss what you've never had.

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