No one knew my mother couldn’t smell until the day the septic tank was replaced. She was a curious girl and sat nearby to watch, while the rest of her family kept as far away as possible. Stench? she’d said. What stench?
My mother has no recollection of ever having smelled anything. She was either born without the sense or lost it at a very young age. Scientists call this ‘developmental anosmia.’ Thankfully, it’s a lot less incapacitating than losing other senses, such as sight or hearing. Mom’s lack of smell is good fodder for conversations (and blog entries), but other than the risk of missing a gas leak, she isn’t impaired. Since flavor depends mostly on smell, her ability to taste is probably restricted to the few types (e.g., salty, sweet) that the tongue detects. Still, she claims she gets a full spectrum of flavors, thank you very much, and she reminds me in stinky public bathrooms that her quirk is also an asset.
Although my mom is perfectly happy, it can be catastrophic when people lose their sense of smell later in life. This can happen for many reasons, including head trauma (wear your helmets!) or complications due to antibiotics. Even though most of us aren’t consciously aware of all the things we smell, odors are woven into all of our experiences and are powerfully tied to memory. People who have grown accustomed to the world’s symphony of smells are often severely affected by its loss. They can experience a profound absence in their lives. They can lose their appetite, their sex drive, even fall into depression.
I’ve tried to describe scent to my mom and she’s tried to imagine it, but always to no avail. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to be left out of an invisible, inaudible, untouchable secret that everyone else shares. I’m pretty sure I’d be frustrated. And why should we cause anosmics frustration? Let’s give them a break and announce that olfaction is a hoax. While we’re at it, let’s say the same about telepathy, prophesy, and channeling the dead. I hear some people were born without those too.