The Frontal Cortex


For the last week, I’ve been suffering from one of those head colds that won’t go away. The worst part of the cold isn’t the raw nose, or the sinus headaches, or the scratchy throat – it’s not being able to smell. I really hate not being able to smell. A world without scent is just so much less interesting, like a color photograph that’s faded to a monochromatic gray. You know something is missing but you don’t know what it is. Just this morning I was frying bacon and was seized by this peculiar feeling that something was wrong. That’s when I realized: I couldn’t smell the bacon. The most comforting of morning associations – the sizzle of lard matched to that hickory, meaty perfume – had been severed. I had the sizzle but no smell, and so my brain let loose a tremor of anxiety.

And that’s when I remembered this passage from Rachel Herz’s quite interesting The Scent of Desire:

In one study that contrasted the trauma of being blinded or becoming anosmic [losing you sense of smell] after an accident, it was found that those who were blinded initially felt much more traumatized by their loss than those who had lost their sense of smell. But follow-up analyses on the emotional health of these patients one year later showed that the anosmics were faring much more poorly than the blind. The emotional health of anosmic patients typically continues to deteriorate with passing time, in some cases requiring hospitalization.

Hopefully, I’ll regain my sense of smell soon. I miss my olfactory cortex.


  1. #1 Elizabeth
    February 22, 2009

    Not surprising as there are no ancillary devices to aid when the sense of smell is lost. Even the sound of the sizzle just made your situation worse. Your example is of the absence of smell, but what about incongruent smell? Certainly, an interesting study would be to look at situations where smell is incongruent with taste or visual cues or auditory cues. I know that smell and taste intermingle. I wonder what happens to the taste buds of people who lose their sense of smell.

  2. #2 Cheri
    February 22, 2009

    The book cites only one study about this? Are there others? I think very few people would have predicted anosmia to be more difficult to adjust to than blindness, so I wonder whether this study has been corroborated. Except for a couple of fleeting experiences, my mother has never had a sense of smell. She doesn’t differentiate well among foods, and tends to judge foods by their texture more than their taste.

  3. #3 Maria
    February 22, 2009

    As soon as you can sniff remember what they say about smelling roses and enjoy.

  4. #4 Luci
    February 22, 2009

    Your readers would offer up the traditional chicken soup, but it needs its olfactory component to work.
    If the book tour is over, there will be no more airplanes drying up your system for a while.
    It’s sad to see our favorite PFC guy brought low with MTL malfunctions. Today’s bacon scent could have triggered some cool insight – now we’ll never know.

    Sleep and heal

  5. #5 Peter
    February 22, 2009

    I’d like to know about the long-term health of the blinded vs. anosmic patients. It seems to conflict with what Dan Gilbert said about happiness.

    Except for a couple of fleeting experiences, my mother has never had a sense of smell.

    i’m guessing mom might have fared better than someone who had a sense of smell as an adult and then lost it. but, just a guess.

  6. #6 söve
    February 23, 2009


  7. #7 Pala
    February 23, 2009

    Yeah, as Cheri comments above, it would be nice to have a corroborating study.

    To me sounds like something that sounds nice. I.e. something an author of a book about the amazing-ness of smell might cherry-pick for the sake of narrative. (This of course is not to comment on the book itself).

  8. #8 sbh
    February 23, 2009

    First, let me extend my best wishes and hopes that you recover your sense of smell soon.

    That said, I don’t think lack of a sense of smell is any big deal. I was born without the ability to smell. I’ve never experienced the scent of a rose or the odor of bacon frying. I don’t know what those things are, so I really can’t miss them. Food–yeah, based on other people’s descriptions, I imagine I’m missing a lot. All wine is pretty much the same to me, for example, except that some wines are sweeter than others. I enjoy the taste and texture of foods–and taste, by the way, is a much more complex sense than I was taught in school. There are more tastes than the traditional four–mint and msg, to name two.

    I have trouble putting not being able to smell on the same level as not being able to see or hear. Again, I haven’t lost anything, so I don’t really know what I’m missing, but still, the results of this study seem counter-intuitive to me. I’ve got by in life just fine without a sense of smell; from where I stand it seems like a minor inconvenience to me rather than a major trauma.

    On the other hand, maybe if I’d been born blind I’d feel the same way about the sense of sight.

  9. #9 KRobe
    February 23, 2009

    There is a definite trauma to losing something as opposed to never having it. If one was born without a hand, for example, they would have never learned to do anything two handed, there is no adjustment, but rather development. Say another person learned to do everything two handed, then lost a hand in an accident; development taught them the two handed method, now they must adjust to only having one hand. New connections must be made in the neural circuitry, which takes time and experience to overcome.
    As per the different tastes, research has identified at least two new types of taste buds: one for MSG, and the other for water. Mint is an interesting variation.
    As far as having a cold, Jonah, I am in the same boat. With my diminished olfactory sense I find my taste sense a bit muted as well, mostly on sweet things and much less on salty things. Perhaps depending for so long on smell to do some of the tasting for us, we’ve allowed our taste buds to become a bit lazy?
    The situation in the book begs the question: Which would be more initially traumatic, a loss of sight or a loss of taste?

  10. #10 A.K.
    February 23, 2009

    In cases where the anosmia is the result of an acquired traumatic brain injury, there is usually orbital frontal damage as well…certainly a potential confound in assessing the cause of personality change and adjustment difficulties associated with anosmia vs blindness. I recall a study showing that people with closed head injuries and acquired anosmia have far poorer outcomes, measured as ability to return to previous employment, than people without anosmia but a comparable Glasgow Coma Scale score. (sorry, I do not have the reference). Interesting to consider whether this result reflects underlying frontal lobe deficit as was suggested in that study, or, as you suggest, feeling bereft at the loss of such a fundamental, and emotionally connected, sense (maybe a bit of both).
    Get well soon!

  11. #11 Milt Lee
    February 23, 2009

    In answer to the question of taste buds, I have lost my sense of smell for most of the last 20 years. Once in a while it comes back, but most of the time it’s gone. However, my taste buds really work well. I can distinguish between very subtle flavors, but I still can’t actually tell you what it is that I’m eating – just from the taste. Apples and pears are really pretty much the same to me. Having said that, I love to cook, and people love my cooking. I can only assume that it’s because I can mix tastes in excellent ways – who knows?

    The other thing is that not being able to smell really is a lousy thing. So many memories are triggered by smell that I really miss that. It can be dangerous too. I have walked into the kitchen and found a pan smoking, and food burning that I never knew was happening. I had started something and got distracted and when I came back the kitchen was filled with smoke. Not a lot of fun.

  12. #12 sbh
    February 23, 2009

    A couple of comments:

    KRobe: I find that interesting about the msg taste bud. There’s never been any doubt in my mind that I can taste msg any more than I have doubts about seeing the color blue, but I’ve been told repeatedly that msg has no taste–it’s a flavor enhancer. Of course I was once told in grade school during a unit on the five senses that I did too have a sense of smell and I should quit fooling around and spoiling the presentation.

    I’ve never really noticed any diminution in my ability to taste when I have a cold. Obviously this is subjective, but my impression is that foods taste the same when I have a cold as when I’m well. I’ve always attributed the tastelessness of food that people mention during a cold to their temporary loss of the ability to smell. Of course this is just a guess on my part.

    Milt Lee: Yeah, I love to cook too, and people do seem to enjoy my cooking. I rely partly on feedback though. I once made a Thanksgiving stuffing that I thought tasted great, and everybody said was fine–but nobody had seconds. I didn’t make that particular stuffing again.

    I can tell apples from pears; I think it’s more a matter of texture than taste, though. This actually came up, years ago, in grade school, when I wasn’t supposed to be able to tell the difference while blindfolded if somebody held the wrong fruit up to my nose. Ah, memories.

    Regarding danger–the possibility of gas leaks is the one that scares me. After an earthquake some years back that cracked the plaster in my house I had to bring somebody in to smell whether any gas pipe had broken. And once while I was typing alone in a room a small electrical fire broke out behind me. A frayed cord (I think it was) caused the carpet to smolder while I typed away oblivious. Fortunately somebody came in and caught it. Didn’t you smell the smoke? he asked me incredulously. Well, no, actually I didn’t. I would have noticed it sooner or later, when my eyes started burning, I suspect. Still, it was a good thing he caught it.

  13. #13 Blair
    February 23, 2009

    I have a somewhat unusual experience in this regard. I was born with a fully functional nose and could smell all smells. As a young child, however, my septum was sufficiently damaged/deviated that I could not breathe through it. As a result, I lost most of my sense of smell. In my late teens, when my face had finished growing, the doctors were able to surgically repair the damage (this included removing most of the cartilage in my nose). Now I can breathe through my nose and have regained much, but certainly not all, of my sense of smell (I still have no clue what shrimp tastes like). Like anyone who has lost and partially regained a sense/skill, I had to re-learn what others take for granted. I distinctly remember my first encounter with the smell of cinnamon. I quizzed my mom because it had such a distinct (I would describe it as red) smell. I don’t think my family really understood what I was missing back then, for them all my nose meant was that I snored very loudly and became a picky eater.

    Food-wise I retained my tongue-tastes and many of my current food preferences are still based on tongue taste (I love anything sweet). As I grew most of my food preferences were texture-based. Regarding the apple/pear discussion above, they are night-and-day differences on the texture front, I will take a crisp apple over a squishy pear every day of the week and twice on Sundays. I still don’t eat most shellfish, as I still lack the ability to detect fine tastes and the texture of most shellfish is quite bad, but surprisingly have come to enjoy mushrooms.

    My wife appreciates my nose when it comes to changing the baby but not as much when it comes to noticing when he needs a change. The most interesting part of this experience is that I developed a different way of describing foods. Except for the tongue tastes, I had great difficulty describing foods without describing them using colours. I am assured, by my friends and colleagues, that foods do not have colours, except even 25 years after the surgery I can still “see” some (but not all) flavours. I’m not sure if it is a left-over from when I was very young (as I cinnamon’s colour is pretty close to the colour of a cinnamon heart) or an interesting byproduct of them re-configuring my sinus cavity.

  14. #14 OftenWrongTed
    February 23, 2009

    Great Biographer that she was, Virginia Woolf pointed out that sense of smell was the sharpest sense in Flush, hope your sense of smell returns promptly.

  15. #15 SJR
    February 23, 2009

    Your description of living without smell is spot on! I lost mine 3 weeks ago after having an olfactory groove meningioma removed. Now all I smell is chemicals… a smell that only exists in my head! Having no smell makes life quite perilous when you are used to having it… you cannot smell if milk is fresh, if public washrooms are clean, the list is endless.

  16. #16 HY
    February 24, 2009

    SBH, my 21 year old cousin too doesn’t have the sense of smell since she was born. But she doesn’t seem to be missing anything in life. She loves to eat and she can distinguish different tastes fine. A funny thing, when someone farts, everybody runs away from the culprit but she stays put because it doesn’t make any difference to her. One thing that worries me about her, like you said, is that she wouldn’t come to know if there’s a gas leakage and it could be dangerous.

  17. #17 lee pirozzi
    February 25, 2009

    The headcold that I have just prompted me to eat jalapeno peppers with great hope for one breath of air. It did not work. I had asthma and really almost suffocated a few times with attacks as a child : consequently, a stuffed nose to this extent provokes panic. I’m working on a piece of art and it might get a nostril in the middle of it before I am finished today.

  18. #18 Kreq
    March 2, 2009

    Um, does the fact that the olfactory nerve sits right at the top of the cranial nerve bundle, or the fact that it’s right there, the most available/exposed/direct source/transmitter of our senses, closest to the brain, add weight to V. Woolf’s observation? I have no idea, but it would seem that smells evoke direct memories, and there’s some kind of close association there. I’d think if one were born without, there would be compensations that would allow for perfectly fine adaptation, but that to suddenly lose the sense of smell would in fact be difficult for a trained-by-then brain to deal with. I recommend the Emperor of Scent (Chandler Burr) as an interesting look at the sense of smell.

  19. #19 OftenWrongTed
    March 2, 2009

    Kreq: Virginia Woolf, brilliant writer that she was, made her observation about the protagonist in her excellent biography, “Flush”, and her observation might only apply in the case of Flush. I do hope that Jonah’s sense of smell has been restored and that he is sniffing out all the scents of London.

  20. #20 eddie
    March 2, 2009

    I lost my sense of smell over 30 years ago. It’s a blessing at times and other times it could be deadly. Good thing I have friends and family to be my nose for me.

  21. #21 Amber
    June 5, 2009

    I have never had the sense of smell. As a child, I never said anything because inwardly I thought that I must not be trying hard enough. Even when my brother would fart, I would act as if it were horrible. Now, I tend to ask question on what does or doesn’t smell and for descriptions of the smells. Most people find it very difficult to describe a smell…it’s just something they’ve always known. I love red wine, but don’t understand all the complex flavors that real wine enthusiasts describe. What is “oaky” anyway?

    Would love to find a cure for it. There is a local doctor in the DC area who claimes to cure at least half of his patients. Insurance however, does not cover it, which is bizarre given all of the health ramifications of lacking smell. Oh for an extra $5k. 🙂

  22. #22 komik videolar
    November 18, 2009

    Your description of living without smell is spot on! I lost mine 3 weeks ago after having an olfactory groove meningioma removed. Now all I smell is chemicals… a smell that only exists in my head! Having no smell makes life quite perilous when you are used to having it… you cannot smell if milk is fresh, if public washrooms are clean, the list is endless.

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