Friday, May 01, 2009


Ever since Matt was called back into the Army and my days were suddenly laced with heightened levels of anxiety, I have been able to smell more.

It’s not that I’m noticing the scent of new things. There are still smells lost to me, like that of water in a stagnant pond or of certain types of flowers, which remain imperceptible now four years removed from the accident that damaged my olfactory neurons. This heightened emotional state doesn’t make a difference there.

It’s the intensity that has changed.

Last Thursday night, for example, I walked into a hair salon in the East Village just as the sun was beginning to set. The anxiety, usually swirling somewhere in the periphery of my day, had moved front and center that afternoon when Matt told me his official deployment assignment: a year in the mountains of Afghanistan. Suddenly it throbbed in the back of my throat, and I decided to get my hair cut. I could use the gossip-rag-fueled distraction, I thought.

When I entered the salon, which had red walls and glittery lights, I was immediately hit by scent. It was pungent and floral with notes of jasmine and a lingering chemical twang. It filled my head like a honeyed cloud and I inhaled and exhaled slowly as I sat to wait on a bench by the window. I could almost feel the sweet, fatty globs of conditioner, which I watched the stylist squirt onto a customer’s head over by the sink, on the roof of my mouth. The salon has never been so intense.

Is it possible to have an increased sense of smell due to a keyed-up emotional state? I’m not sure. Of course, there are physical factors known to affect the one’s ability to smell. For example, changes in the level of hormones due to pregnancy are known to cause a heightened sense of smell in women. I’m not pregnant, so that’s not it. But I’ve been stressed out. More than usual. And the body reacts to stress in many intense internal ways, including the release of such hormones as cortisol into the blood stream.

In the years since the car accident I’ve noticed a strong connection between my emotions and scent. When moving through moments of depression—whether at the tortured end of a relationship or in the months after the death of a friend—I’ve noticed that I hardly register smell at all. Scents are there, of course. But they are muted, lacking all sense of intensity. Like my mood, the olfactory environment around me becomes flat and dim.

Similarly, during times when I’ve been happiest, like in the heart-flapping beginning to a new relationship, or in the brief nothing-months of summer before beginning graduate school, I’ve found that smell is all around me, striking in its strength.

Brown University professor Rachel Herz writes about the connection between smell and emotion in her book, The Scent of Desire. The connection, she says, “is not only metaphorical but also is founded on the evolution of our brain.” The limbic system, where emotion, memory and motivation are processed, first grew from a primitive olfactory cortex, she explains. “In other words, the ability to experience and express emotion grew directly out of our brain’s ability to process smell,” Herz writes.

I’m not sure what exactly is going on in my nose right now. But for the (big, scary) writing project I am currently working on, which I’ll certainly be telling you more about later, I’m jumping headlong into research on the sense of smell, and how the science and psychology of it all relate to my own experience. I hope to soon learn more.

There are some things I do know, however. I know that on an evening in February, a week after Matt had been called back into the Army and only a few days into the resulting, panicked search for a new apartment, I stood in a parking garage on the Upper West Side. I was on assignment for a long-term story on high school kids building robots and was reporting with a notebook and pen amidst a crowd of teachers, students and electrical wiring.

Inhaling and exhaling slowly against the back-lit scent of dank concrete, I caught a whiff of cologne, a hint of sweat and the strong aroma of motor oil. Someone to my left opened the plastic lid to a cup of hot chocolate and the scent—rich, sweet—hit me from several feet away. A moment later there was the peppermint breath of an interview subject chewing gum. Someone was drinking orange juice; I could smell the pungent citrus before I saw the container in a teacher’s hand.

Everything smelled. Everything. I could hardly concentrate in the face of so many scents. What’s going on here? I remember thinking. I was exhausted but alert, jazzed on anxiety and caffeine. I was in a dark, cold parking garage, but it had been a long time since everything seemed so bright.


Rikki said...

An MD that I work with recently told me about you. I suffered a head injury a year ago and have Dysosmia. I left another comment on your initial post about your smeller. I cant wait to see what you are working on as far as your study on the sense of smell etc.


codfish said...

Great post. I'm so happy to see that you're undertaking a project on smells!

I feel that when I'm depressed or having a migraine, my sense of smell is off. I never end up cooking with the right amount of seasoning during those times, and I really heavily on scent for spicing.

nicola said...

I've just come across your blog, your writing, and your baking.
Really (really) nice work.
Hope you're well. Nicola