Anosmia : Living Without Scents

Whenever I read about hackneyed surveys asking, “which sense would you give up,” and see respondents blithely give up their sense of smell as “the least useful”, I get a cold shiver down my spine. Anosmia is the condition of having no sense of smell, usually as a result of trauma, and it has few cures. It leaches color, texture and pleasure out of life, even more than the loss of hearing or sight does.

anosmie

Anosmia, like many other subjects related to brain and olfaction, is still poorly understood, but what’s without doubt is the suffering it causes. “The biggest shock of my life was tasting chocolate after my accident and discovering that it was the most vile thing ever. Sticky, bitter, pasty,” commented a friend who lost his sense of smell after a motorcycle crash. He also complained that making love was not the same when you couldn’t smell someone’s skin. Everything that brought joy previously now seemed blander, duller, poorer.

Photojournalist Eléonore de Bonneval recently launched an exhibit called “Anosmia: Living Without Scents” at the Espace des Sciences Pierre-Gilles de Gennes in Paris. De Bonneval has a degree from the ISIPCA and the London College of Communication–bringing her fascination with fragrance and research skills to the project, she demonstrates the crucial role scents play in our day-to-day life and the pain of losing the sense of smell.

The interactive installations feature scents composed by Evelyne Boulanger, perfumer at Symrise. The olfactory components of the exhibit are complemented by portraits and testimonials from sufferers of anosmia, in an aim to bring more awareness to the debilitating but misunderstood condition.

The free entry exhibit runs until July 31, 2015, and if you’re in Paris, it’s worth visiting. I also recommend taking a look at de Bonneval’s site for reviews and images.

Practical Information
10 rue Vauquelin 75005 Paris
Open: Tu-Sat, 2-5pm
Free entry

Photography via de Bonneval

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45 Comments

  • Austenfan: The whole anosmia thing isn’t that well documented. When we discussed it the other day I did a brief online search and one the more serious side effects is loss of appetite to the point that some people really start to lose weight. I wonder if it is just the loss of smell or that the injury or whatever is causing the anosmia affects other functions of the brain.
    I think the loss of any of our senses seems to have it’s own “side-effects”. For instance, people going deaf tend to be more likely to become slightly paranoid.

    I’d rather not lose any of them. June 17, 2015 at 7:48am Reply

    • Michaela: May be… sounds logical, smell and taste are closely related.

      Me, neither! June 17, 2015 at 9:34am Reply

      • Victoria: I was thinking that too, but it’s true that our brains are extremely complex and still poorly understood. June 17, 2015 at 2:06pm Reply

    • limegreen: It’s so true about loss of appetite! Whenever a bad cold or allergies take away my sense of smell (fortunately a rare occurrence), I have to force myself to eat and nothing tastes good.
      My husband has a lot of allergies (not to perfume, lucky thing) that takes away from depth of taste, so he can’t appreciate the “fifth taste” of “umami” (mushrooms!).
      I was recently in an imposed perfume-free situation for two weeks (a chemically sensitive relative) and though it was “unnatural” to not wear perfume, I could still smell and I did with great gusto! Apple blossoms, blooming lilacs! Even the coffee smelled extra delicious because I was perfume-free. 🙂 June 17, 2015 at 10:05am Reply

      • Victoria: I haven’t been wearing much perfume at my grandmother’s because the scents around here are so wonderful–mock orange, roses, lindens, strawberries, fresh air. Sometimes it’s a good idea to skip fragrance and enjoy the natural aromas in the air. June 17, 2015 at 2:11pm Reply

        • limegreen: Indeed! It’s fortunate that we can still smell even if we can’t wear perfume! I was hanging around outside a lot, smelling all the wonderful blooms. I learned that my nose needs stimulation, just as my mind does. June 17, 2015 at 3:50pm Reply

          • Michaela: limegreen, I feel the same!
            What a rich world of smells we live in, it’s a great discovery to smell anything from coffee from a distance, in somebody else’s cup, to linden blossoms enriched by summer rain, fresh mountain air or books. June 18, 2015 at 4:04am Reply

            • limegreen: Michaela — I love the smell of books, too! 🙂 June 18, 2015 at 8:41am Reply

          • Victoria: A great way of putting it! Yes, mine does too. June 18, 2015 at 10:19am Reply

    • Victoria: I also wanted to have all of them intact.
      I imagine it’s similar to when you have a cold and food doesn’t taste that appetizing. But my friend also commented that he lost a lot of weight, because food no longer tasted of anything. He simply lost his appetite. June 17, 2015 at 1:56pm Reply

    • Reg: There is someone in my family who lost his sense of smell after a severe head trauma. He didn’t lose his appetite, but his sense of empathy has also disappeared since the accident, which makes the situation not only difficult for him but also for the rest of the family. Perhaps there is a connection between the two. June 17, 2015 at 6:40pm Reply

      • Austenfan: The olfactory nerve and it’s processing brain areas are probably in the frontotemporal region of the brain. These areas are linked to emotions as well. So there you go. I don’t know the details as it’s been a long time since I did neuroanatomy and neurophysiology, but my first intuitive reaction is that it makes sense.
        Brain injury is such a ghastly thing to happen as it so often alters someone’s character. It’s so hard to accept that the outside of a person is more or less similar but that what made him who he or she was is gone. June 18, 2015 at 4:27am Reply

        • Reg: Indeed. June 18, 2015 at 6:35pm Reply

  • NancyM: My mother has advanced Parkinson’s disease, and has almost no sense of smell. It has taken away much of the pleasure of eating, and has even made it something of a chore. She has to be diligent about eating enough to keep her weight up, and with the institutional food especially, it is very difficult.

    All of our senses should be cherished and enjoyed while we have them. Thank you for having such a wonderful blog! June 17, 2015 at 9:23am Reply

    • Michaela: Sorry about your mother. It must be really difficult for her. Hope she’s strong to be able to cope with it.
      You are right! June 17, 2015 at 9:37am Reply

    • Victoria: I’m sorry to hear of your mother’s condition. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for both of you.

      It’s true, all of our senses should be enjoyed, cherished and taken care of. Taking a few moments to smell attentively makes such a difference. Also, if one notices their sense of smell getting duller, it’s a good idea to see a doctor, because it might indicate serious health problems. June 17, 2015 at 2:06pm Reply

  • Michaela: I admire the talented photojournalist for her beautiful idea! She must be a warm person because she takes notice, understands and cares about other people pain. The exhibit is original and worth visiting, for sure.

    I remember a smell exercise article you wrote some time ago. For some forms of anosmia smell exercise is a form of treatment, right? June 17, 2015 at 9:48am Reply

    • Victoria: I like the idea behind this project very much. Very timely as well, since there has been more research into olfaction and anosmia.

      You can take a few moments to smell daily and do simple smelling exercises. Nothing improves the sense of smell like ordinary smelling does. Of course, you have to smell consciously and pay attention to what you’re smelling.

      Anosmia may not be cured, but in some cases, and this depends on the cause of anosmia, people are able to gain some sense of smell back. June 17, 2015 at 2:09pm Reply

  • Celeste Church: Great article. I have such sympathy for those afflicted. I have a cold right now that makes it hard to smell much, but I can still smell and know it will be better soon. To not have that assurance would be devastating.
    I worked many years with the elderly, and know what a sad thing it is not to smell, and subsequently not to taste. I will notice every smell that comes my way and makes it past my cold today! Wait, maybe not, I’m heading for the DMV….still, better to smell humanity (and their perfume!) than not. Ya gotta take the bad with the good! June 17, 2015 at 10:48am Reply

    • Victoria: Please feel better! I had a small cold last week, and I couldn’t wait for it to end so that I could have my usual sense of smell back. I could smell, but it wasn’t as intense as usually.

      Yep, just got off a crowded bus. I know what you mean about the good and the bad. I’d rather have it this way than nothing at all. June 17, 2015 at 2:13pm Reply

  • Aurora: What an interesting subject, Victoria: I went to have a quick look at the site and will get back to it to read the related articles featured on the subject, the exhibition must be wonderful, just reading the address makes me homesick for Paris. I feel so sorry for people afflicted, indeed your friend should not despair as his anosmia may retreat. Your thoughtful post made me stop and think and give thanks for being able to smell as in your exchange with Celeste. When is the next scent diary? June 17, 2015 at 2:42pm Reply

    • Victoria: The links are very interesting, and I like the way the exhibit was designed. It feels very poignant.

      Thank you for reminding me about the scent diary. Let’s do one next week! June 18, 2015 at 10:20am Reply

  • Aurora: PS I’m wearing Badgley Mischka now that I’m home (it’s not an office scent, but I enjoy wearing it after hours). June 17, 2015 at 3:03pm Reply

    • Victoria: It’s one of the best fruity gourmands, whimsical and fun. June 18, 2015 at 10:19am Reply

  • Joy: I have a friend and colleague who developed anosmia due to a prescribed oral medication to eliminate toenail fungus. He could barely eat for several months. Looking at food made him ill and all he could tolerate was oatmeal. This was a little known side effect of this drug. My friend lost so much weight. his clothes hung on him. It finally went away; his sense of smell returned.
    I can’t even imagine how ones attitude to food would suffer. I would never get the benefit of the fragrance of rose petal jam! June 17, 2015 at 6:18pm Reply

    • Victoria: This is a frightening story, Joy, but I’m happy to hear that his sense of smell returned. My friend also mentioned that the only foods he can now tolerates are the ones with particular textures. Oatmeal was one. Another was vanilla ice cream. He can’t taste it, but he feel the creamy texture. June 18, 2015 at 10:23am Reply

  • Anne: My mother caught the flu about 15 years ago and never regained snell or taste …. it is pretty horrible. She maintains weight by rote eating, but cooking is a struggle and she can’t learn new recipes easily. Dangerous too as she cannot identufy spoiled food. Unlike many who get some back and then have the issue of the brain misidentifying things and common smells becoming hideous she neverhad that… but for someone who loves gardening, flowers, food and scent .. still a long hard time. June 17, 2015 at 6:49pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m so sorry, Anne. Anosmia was overlooked by scientists for a long time, because it wasn’t deemed serious enough. But when you read clinical studies and stories about people who lost their sense of smell and taste, it’s clear that it’s a tragic deprivation. I hope that your mother is coping, and I hope that there is some way for her to regain her sense of smell back. It’s such a tricky condition. Some people had their sense restored, sometimes quite unexpectedly. June 18, 2015 at 10:26am Reply

  • Alicia: Michael Hutchence from INXS apparently had anosmia from a fistfight blow to the head. He was dating Helena Christensen at the time & complained bitterly about not being able to smell her anymore. I don’t think his sense of smell (or taste) ever recovered. Perhaps that was a factor with his subsequent severe depression and suicide.
    Interestingly, the world’s first face transplant patient fully recovered his senses of smell and taste after the surgery..an unexpected surprise to both his surgeons and himself! June 18, 2015 at 12:20am Reply

    • Victoria: I read that story too a while ago, and I also couldn’t believe he recovered his senses. Great outcome, of course! June 18, 2015 at 10:27am Reply

  • Michael: A very good article Victoria. Yes, smell and taste are very much related and Anosmia does severely impact on the enjoyment of eating. One person who places heavy emphasis on this issue is Heston Blumenthal, who gives practical demonstrations of the link between the two senses. June 18, 2015 at 2:00am Reply

    • Victoria: Blumenthal is one of the most interesting chefs in this regard. I know that he once collaborated with perfumer Christophe Laudamiel on a project. June 18, 2015 at 10:27am Reply

  • Iodine: The exhibition must be very interesting, hope I have the chance to visit it.
    As I’ve already told, my psychoanalist suffered from anosmia after nose surgery. When, towards the end of the therapy I started talking about my passion for perfumes, he once asked me about the shops I knew, where he maybe would have been able to find “a fragrance he could smell”… Funny and sad at the same time. He wore Farenheit, because he loved it when he could smell it, and always put beautiful, fragrant, heady lilies in his study and wondered if they had smell.
    I’m wearing Lys Méditerranèe in his honour, this morning. 🙂 June 18, 2015 at 3:55am Reply

    • Victoria: A touching story. I like the part about lilies that he put out for the enjoyment of others. June 18, 2015 at 10:32am Reply

  • Hamamelis: What a poignant comments and a sad but important article. I wonder if people suffering from anosmia also lose the ability to smell pheromones, and if that plays a role in losing empathy.
    Becoming much more aware of what I smell has enriched my life in many ways. I hardly drink wine because it gives me often migraine, but the other day I did and was surprised how many different flavours (notes) I could register.
    I am in Spain for 10 days or so, and oh the scent of fig leaves…I could live in that smell!
    Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. June 18, 2015 at 10:08am Reply

    • Victoria: As Austenfan mentioned, the two parts of the brain that control emotional responses and olfaction are located in the same area, so it’s possibly the reason and connection.

      Even if I never wore a single perfume in my whole life, I still would have cherished my perfumery school experience. It taught me to notice scents around me everywhere. Of course, one need not perfumery training for that, one only needs to pay attention. Making a point to smell consciously at least a few times a day is so important. Above all, you have fun, and the world around you becomes more colorful and interesting. June 18, 2015 at 10:38am Reply

  • SilverMoon: What an interesting and important article, Victoria. I cannot imagine missing out on all the pleasures that smell (and taste) give us.

    I remember meeting a lady who had lost both. It was my first Christmas in the US and my college room mate invited me to her home in Kansas City. An elderly family friend took us out to a posh brunch one day. I still remember her saying she took great pleasure in just watching us enjoy the meal and asked us to describe the tastes and smells of everything. It was so sad in a way, even though we were making her happy. I still remember this brunch, even though it was almost 30 years ago. June 19, 2015 at 4:43am Reply

    • Victoria: When a friend told me the story I mentioned in my post, I also couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was such a long time ago. He also mentioned not being able to relate to people the same way. What an awful condition. June 19, 2015 at 10:18am Reply

  • Maria: So frightening. I can’t imagine not being able to enjoy perfumes and food. June 19, 2015 at 9:37am Reply

  • MontrealGirl: Very interesting subject! I recall reading in some book of a woman in the UK who suffered from anosmia but would at times smell burnt rubber or other odd, awful items. They finally used epilepsy drugs on her and that helped to re-establish her sense of smell. I remember being intrigued by the smell-to-brain connection. June 19, 2015 at 7:10pm Reply

    • Victoria: Really incredible and still so poorly understood. June 22, 2015 at 1:37pm Reply

  • Sofia: This is very interesting and it’s not well known at all. Food must be so insipid, not being able to smell flowers,… 🙁 June 23, 2015 at 2:32am Reply

    • Victoria: Today I was walking down the street and feeling overwhelmed by the scent of lindens. It would be awful not to able to smell it. June 24, 2015 at 2:19pm Reply

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