My name is Maryam and I’m a congenital anosmic. I was born this way. A rare mutant with a lifelong inability to smell.
Anosmia literally means ‘without smell’. While I most certainly do have a nose [my grandmother would even say it’s impressively large], it is incapable of telling my brain that it’s sensing anything. When the typical person smells, what their nose is detecting is actually a series of tiny odor molecules in the air. Different odor molecules have a characteristic shape, which is recognized by the nose’s odorant receptors in our olfactory neurons. on recognition, these receptors bind the odor, which initiates a series of changes in the neuron. This neuron then *fires* a chemical message, setting off a chain of events—a signaling cascade—that relays the presence of a particular smell up to the brain.
The average person can bind and distinguish up to 10,000 different odor molecules. [Which is a whole heck of a lot considering humans have a relatively poor sense of smell!] I, on the other hand, have a genetic mutation—a typo in my olfactory neurons’ assembly instructions—that leaves me unable to detect a single scent. While it’s likely that my nose’s odorant receptors can still recognize and bind odors*, this smelly message gets lost because some link in the signaling chain to my brain is defunct.
Unfortunate as that may sound, as a new yorker, I must say that I’d consider my deficiency more of a blessing than a curse. I shrug obliviously as my friends complain that a Bushwick street corner smells like pee. I don’t faint when Sparky the Dog passes gas in a closely quartered Lower East Side apartment. I even get the last seat on the train that no one wants just because it’s next to some [allegedly] super smelly person.
Of course, there are down sides too. For instance, one night, some friends and I were riding the subway home from dinner. The train that came was beyond crowded except for one car. I marched into that car, happy as a clam to find a seat—nay, a whole bench!—for myself. That is, until my friends followed me in and started choking on the stench. At first I panicked, thinking the smell was me [my friends are constantly assuring me that their p-u’s are never for me]. But then I saw the lone man in the car throwing up in his jacket. If not for my friends’ good scents, I would have unknowingly lounged in the smell of vomit for the next 20 minutes.
The biggest down side, however, is that my nose is deaf to the inaudible // invisibile // intangible language of odors. Animals silently communicate with one another through the smells they give off, and humans are no exception. Our brains have the capacity to translate olfactory stimuli into a behavioral response. We transmit emotion through scent—the stink of fear is contagious. We recognize our kin through their signature smell—infants sleep better with just the scent of their mothers nearby. And, most famously, we choose our mates by their fragrance. In a blind study, ovulating women preferred the scent of more symmetrical men based only on the way their slept-in T-shirts smelled. On the flip side, researchers have found that men tip strippers better while the strippers are ovulating!
Anosmics like myself are thought to be indifferent to these behavior-inducing odors. We’ve been accused of being more socially awkward and less confident than the average smelling human because we cannot pick up on these intangible olfactory cues. Reduced scent perception has even been implicated as a marker for psychopathy! As a non-smelling, well-functioning [albeit super nerdy] individual, I wonder if that’s truly the case. If a blind // deaf person makes up for the loss of one sense by heightening the others, who is to say that my other senses aren’t compensating in a similar way? That perhaps ansomics make up for what we can’t smell by being hypersensitive to a person’s tonal inflections or slight changes in facial + body language?
I doubt we’re all that inscentsitve… we just have a different way of smelling the world. Perhaps there is even a way to reveal the hidden world of scent to the unsmelling. A deaf person can ‘hear’ music by feeling its rhythms and melodies. Scientists have found ways to enable a blind person to ‘see’ by translating images into sound waves. Perhaps, then, there is still hope for the inscentient. A way to manipulate the anosmic’s brain—mimicking a smell to evoke a response—to give us a whiff how smell looks // feels // tastes // sounds.
* Humans have 900+ genes coding for smell receptors, so it’s highly unlikely that every one of these genes is defective in me.