Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Annals of Anosmia 2: The Congenial Congenitals

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.


Anonymous said...

Phew! If I was going to be cliché and predictable, at least I got in before it was too cliché and predictable.

No, seriously: Interesting post. I had no idea the theme swept so broadly.

Avery Gilbert said...


Didn't mean to knock your journalism skillz. I liked your piece: good interviews & quotes; some real leg work went into it.

Weird thought: what if science found a way to restore/re-install your sense of smell? (Cochlear implants for the nose...) Would you volunteer?

Anonymous said...

I've wondered that before. I am a little curious about what smell would be like, and would be tempted by the possibility of having it. But because I don't miss smell, I know I could also go on happily living life without it.

So I think it would come down to the procedure itself: If it were simple -- some drugs, say, or a very minimally invasive procedure -- I'd give it a shot. But if it were any more complicated than that, the potential discomfort would probably outweigh my desire to smell.

Or at least, so I think now. What's your prediction: Will science ever deliver the option?

Avery Gilbert said...

I’m a crazy optimist on this score. The nose continually produces new sensory neurons. We’re just learning what factors control this process. Once we know, a nasal spray could deliver genetically modified adenovirus to the sensory tissue in your nose. Soon your own cells would start producing the necessary growth factors.

Supposing there is enough residual function in the olfactory bulbs, in a few days you might begin to feel some new sensations. It could be a strange experience as you gain neural connections for more and more smells.

Then we’d all want to know: Does skunk smell bad? Does rose smell good? You’d be the ultimate arbiter of the olfactory nature/nurture debate.

Anonymous said...

A nasal spray would be great! Nice and simple. Sign me up.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that I liked the stories very much.

As a congenital anosmic I never get tired of listening to the stories other congenital anosmics can tell about all the trouble they have gotten into over the years due to their anosmia.

I could tell similar stories myself, but since they are similar I guess won't :)


Avery Gilbert said...

Dear Luna:

Don't sell yourself short--there's always a new angle.

There might even be a reality show somewhere in there . . .