“I say, I say, did you know my dog has no nose?” “Really? How does he smell?” “Something awful!” Old music hall joke.
Five senses are traditionally recognised: hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste. They contrast with the five wits, or inward senses, of the Ancient Greeks: “common wit”, “imagination”, “fantasy”, “estimation”, and “memory”. Shakespeare knew them. In Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice says of Benedick:
“In our last conflict four of his five wits went halting off, and now is the whole man governed with one: so that if he have wit enough to keep himself warm, let him bear it for a difference between himself and his horse, for it is all the wealth that he hath left to be known a reasonable creature.”
Today, people largely depend on sight and hearing to function socially. But primitive human beings depended for their lives on a third sense: smell. Its loss may seem less catastrophic than that of sight or hearing, but as Bee Wilson wrote in “I’ve been told bacon smells lovely – life without a sense of smell” (The Guardian, 26 March 2016):
“To live without a sense of smell is one of the more unsettling forms of human disability, and one of the least understood. It’s a double trauma: you’ve lost something you probably never realised would matter. Where damage to other senses is recognised as traumatic, loss of smell is seen as trivial, even by doctors.”
Fifth Sense, a non-governmental organisation based in the United Kingdom, works to have the senses of smell and taste being recognised as essential to people’s lives, health, and general wellbeing. It says that:
“To lose the sense of smell is to lose a rich, powerful and emotional way of experiencing the world, something that is very difficult to understand without personal experience of it. The huge role that the sense plays in our lives often only becomes apparent to people, unfortunately, when they lose it.”
Scientists have studied a set of structures within the brain – called the limbic system – which is related to controlling mood, memory, behaviour and emotion. It was present in the very first mammals and still plays a significant role in our lives today.
Given the importance of smell to people’s psychological make-up, its absence can have a profound impact. Anosmia – the medical term for the loss of the sense of smell – makes sufferers feel cut-off from the world around them and emotionally dull.
Permanent loss of smell may be caused by the death of olfactory receptor neurons in the nose or by brain injury in which there is damage to the olfactory nerve or to brain areas that process smell. Anosmia may very occasionally be an early sign of a degenerative brain disease such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
The British poet William Wordsworth had anosmia. As the poet’s nephew Christopher wrote in his Memoirs of William Wordsworth (1851), “With regard to fragrance, Mr. Wordsworth spoke from the testimony of others: he himself had no sense of smell.”
Wild daffodils are said to be extremely fragrant, yet Wordsworth failed to notice, which may be why his are famously dancing:
“I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.”