What happens if you lose your sense of smell and how does this affect your memory?
‘Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath into our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.’
So says Patrick Suskind, author of the successful scent (and murder) oriented novel Perfume. His assertion is both eloquent and correct – not for nothing does the perfume industry boom and celebrities sell ‘signature scents’. An erroneous hierarchy of commodified smells exists, all to convince us that we can possess the same intoxicating sensuality of the brand’s figurehead. But maybe I’m not the target customer: the perfume-phobic who eschews all body sprays and deodorants in favour of my own sweat (and tears). My unsophisticated palate can’t get past the sharp vinegary floral scent that all perfume products seem to emit. When I try to wear them myself I feel like everyone else is a fine wine evoking layers and folds of taste, and I am a cheap alcopop.
‘scientists have found that scents are far more likely to conjure up past memories than visual signifiers of that smell’
Of the senses we consider when recalling memories, scent is not perhaps the most obvious. Visuals: certainly; sounds: most likely – and it is these elements that we tend to use to flesh out our storytelling, both to others and ourselves. But smell is very closely connected to memory, and scientists have found that scents are far more likely to conjure up past memories than visual signifiers of that smell (such as seeing a certain type of food in a shop window or reading it on a menu). Wherever I might find it I can always pick out with a sniff and a retch, the memory of the musty nursery school I attended. But without an unfortunate olfactory prompt I wouldn’t bother to recall my days of phonetics and orange squash.
Every day computers and devices bombard us with images and sounds that try to hook us into remembering a brand, a website, a song, a film. But until technology starts placing tiny chimneys of appropriately timed scent sprays into our monitors (please no), we aren’t explicitly encouraged to make these instant connections between smell and memory – and yet they still happen.
This almost synaesthetic link between scent and memory is called the ‘Proust Effect’, so named after Marcel Proust’s literary preoccupation with smell-memories as narrative devices that are often closely autobiographical. The Proust Effect is defined by scientist and sociologists Cretien van Campen, as “an involuntary, sensory-induced, vivid and emotional reliving of events from the past.” Sounds like quite a trip. But it is exceptionally common, and ties us to memories throughout our lives – both the good and the bad.
When we are young, we describe our experiences based on sensory impact – smells, tastes, sounds, images and touch – which might explain why certain evocative smells can be so hard to identify.
According to van Campen, we are more likely to experience the Proust Effect around formative memories, before we were able to construct full and connected narratives about our lives. When we are young, we describe our experiences based on sensory impact – smells, tastes, sounds, images and touch – which might explain why certain evocative smells can be so hard to identify. Van Campen pinpoints the individual’s sensory journey through olfactory memories: “sense memories often begin with a mood, an undefined feeling which the person finds difficult to place. It is only later that they understand where the feeling is coming from, are able to give it a specific context of sensory impressions, and can experience a past event anew.”
It makes sense. We’ve all stepped into a room we’ve never been in before and taken a few moments before realising the atmosphere makes us feel uncanny, a strange atmospheric de ja vu, before settling on the realisation that yes, that is the exact smell of your Gran’s living room, or that playground slide you once hid in. There are warm, heartening smells-memories like ‘outdoors’ and ‘outdoors at nighttime’ and ‘outdoors at nighttime near a bonfire’, and then there are gurgling acrid painful smell-memories, such as ‘Malibu rum from a plastic cup’.
Our smell memories can also be tied closely to people – most strongly to those who are dearest to us. It’s surprisingly easy for me to remember the scents of the people I love (fortunately all pleasant), but how long would those memories last if I lost my sense of smell? I asked Professor Tim Jacobs from the School of Biosciences at Cardiff University to clarify the connection between our sense of smell and our memories. “The part of the brain handling smell is right next door to the area concerned with memory (the hippocampus),” says Jacobs. “These two regions have multiple reciprocal connections and as a result smell is intimately connected to memory.” In addition, these two areas are connected to the emotional centre (the amygdala), meaning that smell evokes memory and also the emotions surrounding the memory more than any other sense.
The reciprocal, almost symbiotic nature of scent and memory, casts up the question of what happens when one factor is taken away.
In patients with Alzheimer’s disease, smell loss is one of the first things to happen to sufferers, meaning that the memories and associated emotions linked to smells are no longer available to them. “It’s not fully understood how or why anosmia is the first symptom of Alzheimer’s disease,” Jacobs explains. “There have been efforts to try and market smell tests as AD diagnostic kits. This is wrong and unethical since there are many causes of a reduction in smell and it would cause unnecessary anxiety in patients.”
Anosmia is most commonly caused by upper respiratory tract infections (caused by a severe cold or the flu), or a traumatic head injury. But whatever the root cause, anosmics’ olfactory memories are severely jeapordised or erased completely. “Anosmics lose contact with all biographical smells, and this is a very great loss,” says Jacobs. “People often erroneously talk of taste when what they really mean is flavour. Flavour is a combination of taste and smell, so anosmics’ flavour memories are lost too. In his novel Swan’s Way, Proust actually talks about flavour, rather than smell, evoking all those memories that kept him writing for the rest of his life.”
I’m feeling it now, albeit in a mild state. At the time of writing I’m getting over a cold and lamenting the fact that my curly chilli cheetos taste like sand. A lot of dinners become grotesque when your experience of them is reduced to a high temperature combination of textures. I’m idly connecting the dots to wonder if being unable to smell during a cold means you can’t have any smell-memories for that time, just as certain illnesses stop you having dreams at night.
In his essay How to Talk About the Body?, Bruno LaTour uses the example of perfume ‘noses’ in training to explore the suggestion that olfactory capabilities are an expansion of the physical body – that we can train ourselves to be affected by a wider range of scents. Using an ‘odour kit’ comprised of distinct fragrances, trained ‘noses’ can learn to distinguish the smallest contrasts within a week. Is it possible that the more refined our sense of smell becomes, the more memories we can formulate – and eventually tap into later in life? For LaTour, “the kit (with all its associated elements) is part and parcel of what it is to have a body, that is to benefit from a richer odoriferous world.”
To lose any of our senses has a very real physical impact on our lives, but also an emotional one. It is no surprise that sadly many sufferers of anosmia develop associated mental health problems. Not only are parts of every day life being lost, but connections to the past too. “A proportion of anosmics become clinically depressed but this is the tip of the iceberg – many will suffer from non-clinical depression or bouts of depression,” Jacobs says. “Anosmia is a psychological blow and will affect all anosmics to a greater or lesser degree, whether it’s a loss of libido, agoraphobia, etc.”
Most anosmics end up suffering with dietary problems since they no longer taste flavour and struggle to enjoy food as they used to. They can also experience ‘cacosmia’, which is the sensation of unpleasant ‘phantom’ smells. Therapies available to anosmics to help restore their sense of smell are not terribly common, and have an unpredictable success rate. “Topical or systemic steroids have had variable success,” explains Jacobs. “Smell training by regularly sniffing four or five distinctive aromas every day during the recovery phase is recommended, and the sense of smell can be recovered in a minority of cases.” There are also some experimental treatments in the works that will not be available for years to come – and only if they prove efficacious. “However,” Jacobs continues, “the nerves in the olfactory system are among the very few capable of regeneration, so there are some hopeful possibilities.”
Proust thought of the act of remembering as a creation, rather than a re-creation – an active and creative assembling of events rather than a mechanical withdrawing of a memory as a whole. We constantly rewrite history, whether we mean to or not. Perhaps the rather intangible connection of scent to memory means we are less likely to tamper with the truth of olfactory memories – so long as our senses remain with us.