December 29, 2006 2:42 PM   Subscribe

Perfume, the new movie (IMDB) is about the world of a man who has an unparalleled, acute sense of smell where the BBC go on to ask "But what is life like for the millions of people who have lost it / Imagine burning the toast unawares, every day. Mowing the lawn without a breath of fresh-cut grass ... That is day to day life for the thousands of people with anosmia, who lack a sense of smell."

I lost my sense of smell in 1995 and refer to the Anosmia Association for contemporary developments. Links from this dysfunctional victim's website are helpful, there are 91 incidents of anosmia at Furl (sign up) and there are Smell Disorders Discussion Groups. Earlier metafilter here and here.
posted by Schroder (40 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Whoa- talk about timing. I've never had a sense of smell, and this Christmas, like ever Christmas before it, someone has sprayed me in the face with some damned perfume while shreiking "Can't you smell this? It's soooo pretty! *squirt squirt* Okay, can you smell it now??"
Do these same idiots wave paintings in front of blind people and scream "But it's a Van Gogh! Just get closer!"

Sorry for the rant. I'm off to explore your links.
posted by maryh at 3:06 PM on December 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

"But it's a Van Gogh! Just get closer!"

That would be cruel. Some people have no taste.
posted by hal9k at 3:12 PM on December 29, 2006

Stevie Wonder lost his sense of smell in 1973. I've always been curious what effect is has on his toilet habits.
posted by furtive at 3:23 PM on December 29, 2006

Some people have no taste.

Hah! I get it!

I've been anosmic since birth as well. It's never been an issue. Maybe it would if I'd ever been able to smell and lost the sense, but as it is I just don't know what I'm missing. I never really expected to find a foundation for the disorder, and I must admit I'm rather surprised that people take it so seriously.
posted by Saellys at 3:30 PM on December 29, 2006

Anosmia isn't that uncommon. My ex-roommate suffered a head-injury (falling off the bridge in the front part of the loft we were in -- my landlord built it, not me) and lost her sense of smell and partially, her equilibrium (it could have been a lot worse, it was a heck of a fall) and I've known at least one other person with the same condition.

Perhaps the reason is that there are a lot of ways to destroy your sense of smell -- a blow on the head, a stroke, sure, but also constant exposure to certain chemicals, allergic reactions, or just being born that way.

Smell is great... but you could know someone their whole lives and never know that they couldn't smell. If they were deaf or blind you'd know it in a minute.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:47 PM on December 29, 2006

Please have pity on those of us who do have an acute sense of smell. Currently, I loathe my neighbour's plug-in air freshener (I think it is) the smell of which actually fills my entire yard quite often. Turns my stomach, makes me gag. Not smelling anything would be better for me. Of course the pleasure of food would be gone, but that would simplify things.
posted by Listener at 3:58 PM on December 29, 2006

Both my significant others have had Anosmia or close, while I have a very refined sense of smell. I just love deconstructing notes in perfume or fine wine and cheese... can people with anosmia do this with food? How are smell and taste tied?
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 4:03 PM on December 29, 2006

I have a good friend who has Anosmia Osgusia or however you spell it, meaning he has zero sense of smell OR taste.

We called it Tasty Smelly No No Disease.

He's actually really laid back about it though. I can't imagine what life must be like without smell or taste. Thanks for the post!
posted by lazaruslong at 5:05 PM on December 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

Not smelling anything would be better for me.

I doubt it. I, too, have a strong sense of smell, and know how annoying it can be to smell stinks other people are oblivious to. But think how often it's useful (not just pleasant) to be able to smell. Spoiled food that looks fine, boiled-dry pots you forgot about on the hot stove, mercaptan from a gas leak...

Smelling. It's not just for flowers.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:06 PM on December 29, 2006

The book upon which the movie is made: a masterpiece. (Perfume: The Story of a Murdrerer). Spare, cutting prose...and short.
posted by kozad at 5:24 PM on December 29, 2006

Is it off topic to mention that Perfume was an excellent, creepy novel? The main character not only has an excellent sense of smell, but he emits no odor. Hence the title of the Nirvana song seemingly about the book (though Cobain sort of wanders away from the subject), "Scentless Apprentice."
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 5:26 PM on December 29, 2006

I also have anosmia, and am also completely colorblind. I consider this combination a superpower that makes me immune to bad taste.

To answer a question from above, it does affect how food tastes, but for most people it's a myth that you can't taste anything with no sense of smell. There are certain tastes that are much stronger than others, however. Both I and the other anosmic I know are extremely fond of garlic, and apparently that's a taste that registers particularly strongly to anosmics. There are other spices that are practically undetectable, apparently.
posted by kyrademon at 5:57 PM on December 29, 2006

Hmm ... but according to the sites linked in the FPP:

"I can assure you that one's experience of taste without olfaction is nothing like that with olfaction. It is like viewing a rainbow in black and white."

(Which I also do. Hmm.)

So apparently, I'm actually missing out on all kinds of cool stuff. Oh, well. Curse you, FPP, for shattering my happy illusions. In revenge, I and my mutant children will conquer the world and make all of you "smellies" our slaves.
posted by kyrademon at 6:08 PM on December 29, 2006

An old girlfriend lost her sense of smell--it would sort of wane in and out, and a one point stopped altogether. She went to the doctor who told her that her body had (for some reason) stopped producing an enzyme/protein that's necessary for a sense of smell. Luckily, though, doc said, this enzyme can be found in eggs. So she would eat (and I think still does) an egg everyday, and viola! her sense of smell came back.

Don't know how much of that is true, though. She was a consummate bullshitter, too.
posted by zardoz at 6:16 PM on December 29, 2006

Smelling is way overrated, just ask Agent Smith.
"I hate this place. This zoo. This prison. This reality, whatever you want to call it, I can't stand it any longer. It's the smell, if there is such a thing. I feel saturated by it. I can taste your stink and every time I do, I fear that I've somehow been infected by it."
posted by TravisJeffery at 6:28 PM on December 29, 2006

Such an interesting post Schroder. Thank you. I'd never heard of anosmia. I love the candor and clarity of Jennifer Boyer's info about anosmia. She created an excellent and informative site all around.

maryh, what idiots those dolts are to spray *anything* in your face or to insist you smell what they smell. Real jerks!

Celebrities who have publicly admitted to becoming anosmic via accident or illness:

Bill Pullman, actor
Michael Hutchence, lead singer of rock band INXS
Karen Duffy, actress, model, former VJ
Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues (he is currently recovering from a long-term bout with anosmia)
Trisha Meili, the crime survivor known as the Central Park Jogger
Laura Richmond, Playboy’s Miss September, 1988

Celebrities who are rumored to be anosmic:

Ben Cohen, one-half of Ben & Jerry’s fame
Brian Mulroney, Canadian Prime Minister from 1981 to 1986
William Wordsworth, seventeenth century British poet

Like some others here I have an acute sense of smell and taste. It can be a pain in the neck at times but like Ambrosia Voyeur I like deconstructing notes in perfume. A lot of my enjoyment of life has been around smell. Recently I had a 1 1/2 hour brain procedure where radioactive contrast was injected into my brain's arteries every minute or two, to check out the quality of the blood vessels. One of the odd things I noticed is how different each injection of contrast smelled. When I asked the doctors after if different smelling chemicals had been used, I was told it was only one and besides, it was inside the brain's arteries where there isn't any smelling equipment, lol. So that was weird. It made me wonder about what neurological functions are involved in smell. Now, I'm very interested in reading Perfume.
posted by nickyskye at 6:38 PM on December 29, 2006

I saw a documentary once about a former inmate of a German concentration some point her brain had decided it was better not to smell anything at all than to continue to smell incinerating humans day after day (good call, if you ask me)...Anyway, the documentary was about her visit, in (much) later life, to the camp, and to a factory where she'd been forced to work. Apparently, partway through that trip her sense of smell came back like a light turning on.
I just thought I'd add this to the thread as a case of psychologically induced anosmia -- and indeed, one that was only reversed by chance.
posted by uosuaq at 8:21 PM on December 29, 2006

Funny, I caught the anosmia episode during the "Scrubs" marathon last night. Never heard the word before last night.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 8:22 PM on December 29, 2006

I haven't yet read the book, but I thought the movie was essentially a snuff film.


The quail with rose petal sauce in Like Water for Chocolate (where Tita puts her desire for Pedro into the dish, with a dramatic effect on Gertrudis) did exactly the same as Jean-Baptiste's perfume, but nothing died but the birds.
posted by brujita at 8:53 PM on December 29, 2006

It sounds like the film is only so-so, and the book is such a pleasure and a treat to read, please do pick it up first if you can. It made me very interested in cold enfleurage.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:18 PM on December 29, 2006

Shit, man, I couldn't IMAGINE not being able to taste or smell. If I were forced to choose, like, with a revolver to my head, I would totally trade my sense of sight or hearing (hell, I've heard Beethoven's Ninth AND all of Bach's cello concerti. What else is there? (Yeah, yeah, yeah, westo-centric, I know--FUCK YOU, CHESTER!!!)) to be able to taste or smell things, if I had to make a choice.

(I say this as a friend of someone who had a closed-head injury that took away his sense of smell or taste. Poor son of a bitch LOVED wasabi and kimchi. Not anymore he didn't. Yeah, thanks, God, for your sense of kindness and mercy!!!)!
posted by John of Michigan at 9:30 PM on December 29, 2006

I didn't love the movie.
posted by muckster at 10:47 PM on December 29, 2006

Once when I was really depressed for an extended period I lost my sense of smell. I noticed this when making spicy spaghetti. It is gross to eat those slippery wormlike things and mealy chunks in the sauce. I perceived it as dishwater -- just hot and steamy. Very bizarre, because I'm not a bad cook. Eating was just a chore. I took zinc supplements and within a couple days, my sense of smell came back.
posted by Listener at 11:22 PM on December 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ambrosia Voyeur, thanks for the tip about cold enfleurage.
posted by nickyskye at 1:48 AM on December 30, 2006

My dog has no nose.
How does he smell?

My father lost his sense of smell after years of suffering from cluster headaches.

I've always wondered if one loses his sense of taste can one eat very hot peppers without wincing?
posted by Gungho at 6:02 AM on December 30, 2006

Gungho: "I've always wondered if one loses his sense of taste can one eat very hot peppers without wincing?"

Probably not, since capsaicin triggers heat/pain receptors, not taste buds.
What I find most fascinating about the sense of smell is how close it is tied to the limbic system and thus to emotions and moods. It's very much subconscious, so that businesses that use smells to keep workers more attentive or that stimulate good feelings to lower the buying threshold of shoppers have come under scrutiny lately.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 6:19 AM on December 30, 2006

I had a bit of a jolt when you mentioned garlic, kyrademon. I love it too, but I've cut back on cooking with it because my family and friends (even the garlic lovers among them) tell me I use way too much. The taste for me is pleasantly zesty, even in raw cloves. I love to bake and cook, and I've always assumed that I have a fairly refined palate for someone with no sense of smell, but now I'm wondering what I've been inflicting on the household. Yikes. On the other hand, I'm also much more aware of food texture; I'm always suprised when I'm eating out and friends give high marks to dishes that are obviously soggy or burnt.

BTW, a friend read me her favorite passages from Perfume years ago, and I loved it. It was a revelation to hear scents described in such particular ways instead of the usual 'it smells like it tastes.'
posted by maryh at 6:28 AM on December 30, 2006

My aunt got hit by a guy on his bicycle, smacked her head off the pavement and lost her sense of smell. I think she has it mostly back now. For a long time her favourite food was Triscuit crackers, because of the texture.
posted by autodidact at 6:32 AM on December 30, 2006

Oh and I had an ex-gf who lived on one floor of a two-floor house. She had 3 cats, which means 3 kitty litters, and I honestly used to wonder if she had any sense of smell at all. Her house smelled like a cat's asshole. Sorry, but this thread about people who can't smell reminds me of the few times I tried to address the problem of the smell in her house and she acted like it didn't smell that bad. Meanwhile she's getting notes from the people upstairs on a weekly basis and they have actually called the health dept. a couple times. Stinky!
posted by autodidact at 6:41 AM on December 30, 2006

This is a fabulous post.
posted by LoriFLA at 6:51 AM on December 30, 2006

autodidact, I've known quite a few cat lovers (and dog lovers and new mothers) who apparently just 'got used to' an overpowering odor in thier homes, but were very aware of bad stinkiness everywhere else. Never troubled me in the least. Ha!
posted by maryh at 6:56 AM on December 30, 2006

Perfume, the novel, is something of a cult classic among folks in the coffee trade (and probably other foody types who take a deeply personal bent on their craft). Also compelling reading, The Emperor of Scent, a marvelously well told tale of Luca Turin, a biophysicist and maverick aesthete who turned the perfume industry on its ear, and The Secret of Scent by Luca Turin. Both are part science, part sensory perception, and altogether rewarding reads on the uniquely evokative nature of scent and smelly things.
posted by deCadmus at 7:27 AM on December 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

My sense of taste is actually better than it was when I still had a sense of smell. Anosmia was great when I had to change my daughter's diapers, not so much when I didn't know there was a kitchen fire.
posted by Ruki at 9:00 AM on December 30, 2006

I think my husband has a touch of this; he is partially color blind also. And loooves garlic, and peppers, in amounts that I can't handle. I have a good enough sense of smell to bake things without a timer, just pulling them out when they smell done. I once stopped crushing on a really cute guy because he always smelled like moldy laundry to me, even in freshly washed clothes.

Sometimes a good sense of smell can hurt you; some toxic things, like gasoline or certain kinds of synthetic plastic, are kind of appealing to smell, even though they're killing off your brain smells, and you have to make yourself stop sniffing them. Or at least I do.

Those of you who think you have a so-so sense of smell might be interested in this study about how well humans can follow scent in the right conditions.
posted by emjaybee at 11:17 AM on December 30, 2006

Killing off brain *cells*. Sorry.
posted by emjaybee at 11:19 AM on December 30, 2006

Reiterating Kingfisher, Perfume is an extraordinary novel, one that I have had to buy multiple times becuase I lend it to people and they lend it onwards. Highly recommended.
posted by wilful at 2:58 PM on December 30, 2006

"..I didn't know there was a kitchen fire .." Ruki

It was for this reason I posted these anosmia links following my second fire alarm in six months when I did not switch on the kitchen timer ping thingy and smoke from a neglected oven was everywhere - except registering in the brain cells or drifting past my eyes in a different part of the house.

Apart from really useful additional links posted to this page, what strikes me most is the underlying good humour of Mefite remarks. I'd not before associated the condition with mood swings because I don't suffer from such things and the pointer to 'Odors Summon Emotion And Influence Behavior' is raw education.

How do anosmics manage day to day? It's common to shower twice a day; use mens' fragrances or a/shave my girlfriends liked 15 years ago; avoiding spicy restaurant dishes; take suits, jackets and trousers to the cleaners every four weeks .. and so on.

I've just ordered the book from amazon (says he, wondering if it may replace my most favourite classic novel ...)
posted by Schroder at 4:27 PM on December 30, 2006

I love Perfume. There's a copy of it on the wall in the original MTV short segment Joe's Apartment. I, too, have a very good nose, which can lead to strange behavior on my part. I actually find myself sniffing for things, or able to tell if someone I know is around. Telling someone's gender and if they're old or young by their smell. Or that whole nutty pregnant smell, menstruating smell, etc. Sometimes, breathing through your mouth is just not enough.
posted by adipocere at 7:38 PM on December 30, 2006

Further to deCadmus (and now a total derail), Luca Turin used to have a thing called "Scent Blog", now discontinued. You can find a PDF of it at the old URL though. Definitely worth a read for anyone interested in scent and it makes me damn glad I'm not anosmic.
posted by polyglot at 8:39 PM on December 30, 2006

Perfume was one of my book club books recently. I found it quite enjoyable, except for that weird ass segment where he was living in the mountain. Maybe it comes off better in German, but I found that whole section to be very much of the "WTF? What the hell is going on right here?" variety of writing.
posted by antifuse at 8:48 AM on January 2, 2007

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