Wake up

and smell

Yes, I consciously omitted the rest of the phrase involving roses but that’s because this editorial is all about olfaction.

I recently listened to a fascinating podcast, a talk between master of wine Tim Atkin and Barry Smith, a professor of philosophy and founder of the University of London’s Centre for the Study of the Senses. (https://timatkin.com/cork-talk/cork-talk-with-barry-smith/ – if anyone is interested.)

There were so many fascinating insights which appealed to me as a keen wine taster, but the biggest one is how underrated smell is. Smith posed the question to a group of young students: would you rather lose access to your social media accounts or your sense of smell? Naturally, smell was ditched rapidly … “Because it’s always there, we pay it less attention,” he said in a Ted Talk at Oxford in 2018. “It modulates our mood, affects our attention and awareness and consolidates our memory of familiar things.”

Prof Smith said the common misconception is that we only smell when we are actively sniffing, such as when we’re wine tasting. Not so: we’re constantly smelling because we breathe! One of the commonest indicators of Covid infection in the early stages of the pandemic more than two years ago was a loss of smell and taste. Around 65% of the 320 million or so people affected reported it. But here’s the interesting thing: around 2% of people will NEVER get their sense of smell back! Anosmia is the official term for it and Covid has prompted an increased interest in this area of study.

In a fascinating aside, Prof Smith said there are more than just five senses too. We are taught that sight, sound, touch, taste and smell are the five – but science now recognises that there are, in fact, between 22 and 33! There’s proprioception or an awareness of the position and movement of the body, so important for gymnasts and cliff divers, for example. Or the sense of balance which you become hyper aware of when you get a middle ear infection and feel wobbly or dizzy as a result. Touch is also not a single sense – there are different types of touch. Think about someone tapping you on the hand or stroking your hand. The sensation is totally different, as is your reaction to it.

But back to anosmia and smell. The sensation of taste and flavour is linked directly to smell. Smell is picked up by the olfactory bulb and travels to the amygdala in your brain – which is part of the brain’s limbic system, linked to arousal, emotion and memory. (That’s why smells can trigger strong memories – and not just that you recollect something, you feel transported in time to that place, gran’s kitchen baking ginger cookies or whatever.)

The loss of smell and taste cuts people off from their senses – as well as friends and family. It dulls the enjoyment of food and drink, be it wine, coffee or cooldrink. Prof Smith said people have described being “behind a glass,” cut off from the world as well as from their bodies which contributes to depression. “And the depression linked to anosmia also lasts longer than that experienced by people who lose their sight,” he said.

The good news from Prof Smith is that smell can be trained. It’s impossible to improve your hearing or sight through training … Research has also shown that sniffing different essential oils (lavender and mint, for example) first thing in the morning and last thing at night can keep the brain more active and engaged than doing a Sudoku puzzle. It’s a skill and needs to be exercised!

It’s one of the things I love about wine, just how complex and intricate the aromas of a glass can be. Think about that next time you walk past the spice rack in the kitchen. Do you really know the difference between cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg and cardamom? Give it a try: you might be surprised by the results.