Wednesday, January 7, 2009
A newly popular genre of newspaper features is the “how I lost my sense of smell” essay, or the first-person anosmic as we like to call it here in the olfactory blogosphere. I described its key elements in a previous post: list of doctors seen, mention of the 2004 Nobel prize, etc.
It turns out there’s a parallel universe of essays written by congenital anosmics—people born without a sense of smell. In July, 2004, for example, Lucy Mangan published a piece in the Guardian about her lifelong inability to smell. Her anosmia doesn’t seem to weigh very heavily upon her—like many people who have never smelled anything, she finds it hard to understand what all the fuss is about. Her pioneering account gives the new subgenre its definitive element: how perplexing life is for a child who doesn’t get the whole odor thing.
In October, 2005, Jason Feifer published a piece in the Washington Post about his congenital anosmia. Like Mangan, he is nonchalant about what he has never experienced. This doesn’t stop him from deploying the succession-of-doctors theme. He describes several visits to a taste and smell research center where, after a battery of tests confirms the obvious, they advise him to buy a gas detector.
Suzy Banks arrived in print two months later, in the January, 2006, issue of Texas Monthly. Like Mangan and Feifer, Banks makes light of her in-born deficit. She boasts that she has turned it “into my greatest parlor trick.” She doesn’t stress the succession of doctors theme (her parents take her to only one neurologist) but she does mention Buck and Axel’s 2004 Nobel Prize.
Finally, Karen Ravn staggers across the finish line with a first-person congenital essay in an August, 2007 edition of the Los Angeles Times. She displays the blasé attitude often found in those who have never smelled, but is chagrined when the vet scolds her for not taking better care of her dogs’ teeth (“Didn’t you smell their breath?”). Her main concern is with food: nearly all of it feels disgusting in her mouth. Genre points: doctors, two; Nobel Prize, zero.
I’ve spoken with congential anosmics now and then and found they shared a puzzled curiousity about their condition. They do get the occasional nasal sensation when they sniff ammonia or rubbing alcohol, for example. But those tinglings and stingings come courtesy of the trigeminal nerve fibers; true smell sensations are carried by the olfactory nerves. And while these folks presumably have been at increased risk all their lives of eating spoiled food or incinerating themselves in a gas explosion, they are noticeably less anxious about it than the adult-onset anosmia crowd.