If she only had a sense of smell, Alison Bernstein has told friends, she would be perfect. But as it is, she wanders the world cut off from the sensations and signals that guide those around her. She can’t identify her boyfriend by the smell left on his shirts. When she passes the Nuts4Nuts vendor, and friends exclaim over the delightful aroma, she can only nod and smile.
How did Ali lose her olfactory connection to the things and people around her? “There are a couple of family myths, but no one knows for sure. One involves a very mean son of a family friend,” she confides, “who was babysitting me when I was two; while our parents were eating dinner he stuffed a huge Styrofoam peanut up my nose. It was a big disaster: the aftermath, that is. It’s definitely possible that something got messed up or ruptured when I was little because of that.” She offers an alternative explanation: “Just that I have awful, awful allergies.”
Odorant molecules – tiny particles that fly off of objects and carry smell signals – are normally picked up by odorant binding proteins. These are located under gobs of mucus at the back of the nose, in a patch of nerve cells called the olfactory epithelium. When an odorant molecule – from apple pie, say – floats into your nose and dissolves, it is picked up by a receptor protein in the olfactory epithelium. This sets off a chain of reactions that convert the chemical signal that the pie-smells are giving your nose into an electrical signal. The nose gives your brain this electrical signal, via the nervous system: “pie!”
Our mammalian genome has genes that equip us to recognize at least a thousand different odorant molecules. However, humans only express about 40% of these genes, which is why we can’t smell the trail of a possum the way that a coon dog can. Yet, even the limited number of individual odorant molecules that we can perceive, is enough for us to recognize millions of different scents. This is because each odorant molecule may have its own series of odorant receptor proteins to bind with; this system allows the brain to recognize an exponentially increased number of different odors.
Smell-less Ali’s condition is called anosmia: an inability to perceive odor. The American Academy of Otolaryngology warns: “Loss of the sense of smell may be a sign of sinus disease, growths in the nasal passages, or, in rare circumstances, brain tumors.” For this reason, Ali’s mother has frequently urged her to visit a physician about her condition. “I haven’t. My mother’s always telling me to, mostly because she’s always worried of some cancerous growth (God forbid!). But it’s one of those things: the more your mom tells you to do it, the more you don’t. Like wearing socks in elementary school.” She adds: “I also don’t miss it enough to want to do something about it. I don’t consider myself seriously handicapped. I’ve learned to live with the difficulty.”
One way Ali deals with the difficulty is by relying on other people’s sniffers. She has her boyfriend tell her if slightly-worn clothes smell dirty – a concept which she finds mysterious. “Laundry is a huge issue – like I never know what needs washing. Shirts: a lot of people would wear [them] two or three times before throwing in the wash. I just have a regular amount of times I’ll wear something before I wash.” She enlarges on this subject: “Laundry is a strange issue: the idea that people can just”—she pretends to smell a garment—“‘Oh, this is clean or dirty.’”
As for other aspects of personal hygiene: “I always use deodorant. Occasionally people I’m very close with will buy me perfume; I almost never wear it. If I’m going out to dance or something I’ll spritz some on, but I never know how much is too much. Certainly if I’m seeing someone, I’m not averse to using it. And I hear my hair always smells of coconut.”
Other types of useful smelling amaze and puzzle Ali. She cannot identify people by their individual smells. “No, not at all. And like I always find it very interesting when people remark that people have different smells.” Then, indicating what a different world of perceptions she inhabits, she continued: “but sometimes when I’m walking by a place that is really polluted like an outhouse, the air almost tastes bad – like it’s really thick somehow.” She wonders what the special air quality is… “And then I find out it’s smelly.” Smelliness is to Ali a foreign – an almost mystical – concept.
Ali experiences revelations about fragrance all the time: whenever she finds that the way a substance makes her feel corresponds to a smell. She learns, then, that everyone else associates that sensation with some particular scent. “There are the things like when I was in elementary school, I used to love the smell of rubber cement and I didn’t even know that was a thing. They told me it was bad; I just used to love the way it made me feel. And those markers,” she continues, “I loooove Mr. Sharpie.” And so she deduced that “even though I couldn’t smell them, there was something going on.”
But, clearly, Ali cannot always know what is going on. “Apparently smells travel in your clothes sometimes – like if you’re in a smoky place,” Ali reveals, her eyes wide and serious. She adds: “I don’t know what cigarette smoke smells like; I don’t know what marijuana smells like,” and she only realized that these things had definite odors when her mother pointed them out to her angrily after she had returned from a high school party.
Perhaps most astounding was Ali’s miraculous and singular day of smelling. “You see, one day I was in Penn Station,” she relates, “and I walked by some sort of hotdog stand or store and I thought: hot dog! And it was the strangest thing ever and I realized that I could smell it! And for about 48 hours I had a sense of smell and I ran around smelling everything in the apartment: cinnamon candles, food, my boyfriend at the time.” Ali finished the tale with frustration and resentment in her voice: “and he allowed me to smell nail polish remover, and [after that] I couldn’t smell anymore.”
Ali Bernstein, it turns out, is not the only person to have experienced a brief but significant change to her olfactory abilities. While a medical student, Dr. Stephen D. had an extraordinary olfactory incident after taking mind-altering drugs. For the next week his sense of smell became extremely acute: he could distinguish each person’s personal smell from a great distance and from amongst a gathering of people. “Each had his own smell-face,” he said, “far more vivid and evocative than any sight-face.” After a few days this power vanished. But he, like Ali, still yearns for those moments of intensified smelling.
Smells are often tightly linked to memory: coming in contact with a particular odor can evoke past events, when a similar odor was present. The brain stores a memory bank of smell formulae – combinations of odorant molecules, each of which create something that the brain recognizes as, say, the smell of a toasted marshmallow, or of a horse. The brain updates this file as the nose encounters new odors. This can be an important information resource, allowing a person to recognize the warning scents of fire, bacteria-laden waste, spoiled food, or carbon monoxide. (Just kidding about that last one; carbon monoxide is particularly dangerous because it has no scent at all.)
Fortunately, Ali has other types of associations besides olfactory ones to help her to remember events. “I have an okay memory…maybe if I weren’t impaired, it would be a super memory. I honestly – I don’t know. I do have a very, very good sense of hearing and very good eyesight, which maybe goes well to compensate, in terms of everyday stuff. I’m very responsive to the power of music to bring back memory, but I may have been sensitive to that regardless of the loss of smell. There are times when I hear a song and it will almost physically transport me to either a physical episode or to a time in my life.”
The fact that Ali feels her senses of hearing and of sight can suitably substitute for that of smell shows that she’s really human! Human beings have developed speech, and also song, complex auditory communications that may to a great extent replace olfactory ones. Facial expressions, too, are a form of inter-person communication that seems to not be as accessible to, say, salamanders as it is to us.
It is a further sign of the power of olfactory experience that humans have elevated it beyond unevolved chemical communication and incorporated it into many rituals. In these cases, it is not what the smell of myrrh or incense itself communicates that is significant; rather, what matters is what it symbolizes. Ali describes how, even though insensitive to odor, she participates in religious ceremonies in which odor plays a role. “During havdala [a Jewish ceremony marking the close of the Sabbath]…when people pass around the evid [spice-box whose fragrance evokes the sweetness of the Sabbath day], I just raise it to my nose. I feel like it’s kiddush lavonah.” She explains by comparing this ritual to another, also sense-based: “A blind man blesses the moon because he benefits from it: even though he can’t see it.”
Listening to Ali list the host of good scents that she cannot experience, you realize that she is repeating items that she’s heard others exclaim over all her life. “I can’t smell a piping hot calzone. I can’t smell freshly baked cookies. I can’t smell a guy’s cologne.” And she continued: “Sometimes I do have a sense that there’s a whole level of the world that people are responding to without thinking about, and I’m just excluded from.”
“It’s very strange to know that everyone else is just subconsciously responding to things all the time that you’re just walking by – literally. And I’m really interested in this idea that people smell differently. I wonder whether I would have different friends. There are all these other things about friends that attracts you; maybe my life would be totally different.”
Yet, in a number of ways, Ali feels that her “handicap” is actually a boon. “I wonder whether in some ways it’s an evolutionary advantage. There are definitely times when it’s significant. I can, like, go into places other people can’t go into. I worked at a camp for several summers and I could clean outhouses: very seriously it didn’t bother me. I could muck out stables no problem. If I were living in a pre-industrial world, maybe I’d be a better stable-mucker than other people.” She stopped to consider.
“Actually, I don’t see much stable mucking in my future [she is a first-year law student]. Maybe –” and here’s where we’d really better pay attention to her nose – “Maybe I’m just beginning a whole new chapter in human history.” Maybe, compared to Ali, we smellers are backward, stinky, and squeamish. Maybe Ali is perfect after all.