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How the pandemic made us rethink our sense of smell

Losing your sense of smell temporarily may not be debilitating but it can be frustrating, in its own peculiar way

Our nose, mouth and brain work together to interpret and generate experiences, in ways that we are still unravelling.
Our nose, mouth and brain work together to interpret and generate experiences, in ways that we are still unravelling. (Unsplash)

In late February, chef Aditi Keni was in a Mumbai laboratory, tasting flavours for a line of salad dressings. Some of the flavours, even the chillies, seemed insipid. Flummoxed, she bit into a wedge of lime, only to find herself assailed by the unfamiliar taste of absolutely nothing. It was the first sign that she might have contracted covid-19.

When we spoke 43 days after her diagnosis, she was only slowly regaining her full palate. “I am second-guessing myself at work,” said Keni. “If I chewed on a basil leaf, I don’t know how to explain it but it’s less basil-y to me.” After two months, her flavour cognition is still not “100% back”, with gaps in her perception of salty tastes.

For someone acutely attuned to odours and textures, the olfactory setback was both personal and professional. “It has been rough, frustrating,” she says. “I had to at times rely on someone else.”

Also read: What growing up in the pandemic has been like

More than a year after the covid-19 pandemic struck India, there are many things we are still learning about the virus and its new variants. But often one of the first telltale symptoms of infection is loss of smell and taste. One review of 8,438 patients across 13 countries found that 41% of those who tested positive had smell and taste dysfunctions. A European study of 2,581 patients across 18 hospitals found smell loss in 74% of all cases, and in 86% of the mild cases.

Since mid-April, India has been reporting record numbers of new infections daily; the official death toll has crossed 250,000. Covid-19 has cut short lives, devastated economies, shuttered businesses and left a trail of long-term sufferers.

The pandemic has also shone a light on our under-appreciated sense of smell. Losing it temporarily may not be as debilitating as long-term neurological damage, or as distressing as post-covid depression, but it can be frustrating, in its own peculiar way. “My stomach would tell me I was hungry but there was no motivation to eat,” says Sumedha Tiwari, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist. “That is when you realise the importance of smell.”

It’s what Ann-Sophie Barwich, a cognitive scientist, philosopher and author of Smellosophy: What The Nose Tells The Mind, calls the “Cinderella sense”; a neglected sense, on the margins of the human sensory experience. “The sense of smell has traditionally been dismissed as purely subjective and somewhat animalic. It did not seem to tell us that much about how the human mind and the brain works compared to our visual sense,” says the assistant professor at Indiana University, US. “Nothing could be further from the truth! Our experience of smell radically connects with cognitive processes such as memory, learning, association and imagination,” she adds.

Also read: How covid-19 changed the lives of the elderly

Through our senses, we stitch together a rich tapestry of emotional and physical sensations and ways of reading the world. Many have described food tasting like cardboard and cooking becoming an act of faith. For Tiwari, the weeks without olfaction dimmed everyday experiences. Her favourite Forest Essentials products, suffused with lavender, honey and vanilla, had top notes of nothing. Her Issey Miyake perfume may as well have been chlorine. Pizzas and burgers were all texture, no flavour. “I remember cooking on Holi and wondering whether the salt and masalas were right,” she says. When we spoke last month, all she wanted to eat once her olfactory system was back fully was red sauce-based pasta.

In 2018, an American survey asked people which sense they would miss the most and found that sight was at the top (70%). Smell (2%) clocked in last, after hearing (7%), taste (5%) and touch (3%). “It’s something I had taken for granted,” says Kenath Arjun Nair, head of a Hyderabad-based company who lost his sense of smell temporarily after a bout of covid-19 last year. “You want music in your ears and visuals in your eyes but you don’t think of smell on the same level as the others. I am definitely more appreciative of it now.” It also hits you in creeping, imperceptible ways; Tiwari describes missing a minor gas leak that her husband sensed.

For Keni and Nair, it was also a chance to more closely understand their bodies. Nair was inhaling various oils and scents, trying to gauge his changing perceptions. Keni’s husband would bring her a different item each day to sample. And the first smell and taste that truly hit her after she contracted covid-19 was the bitterish character of radish.

Smell and taste usually return in a couple of months, though for some people anosmia (loss of smell), hyposmia (reduced smell) or parosmia (altered smell perception) can last longer. This is not unique to covid-19, it can also be due to other viral infections. “In any upper respiratory tract infection, the mucosa of the nasal cavity may lose its function temporarily,” says Ashish Gosar, a consultant neurologist at three Mumbai hospitals who has seen several such cases. “Because of inflammation, the sensory cell receptors (that are part of the olfactory nerve) are unable to carry messages to the brain and smell is not perceived.”

Also read: How to improve your sense of smell—and why you'd want to

Smell is deeply tied to taste, accentuating the specific, variegated identities of the things we put in our mouths. “... the aromatic molecules in your food travel from your mouth up to your nose via the back of your throat. So, in a way, we actually have two senses of smell: sniffing or inhaling (orthonasal smell) and mouth-breathing (retronasal smell),” says Barwich.

But smell has been difficult to study, she adds, because it is “so variable and linked to many interacting mental mechanisms”; the sensory receptors in our nose were only discovered in 1991. Our nose, mouth and brain work together to interpret and generate experiences, in ways that we are still unravelling.

For those with congenital anosmia, the pandemic has focused some attention on an invisible disability. “There is a little more momentum around this now,” says Shivangi Pande, a Bengaluru-based experience designer who has congenital anosmia. She has been trying to raise awareness about the issue and is setting up a non-profit. “It’s like seeing the world through a glass door. You can see everything and touch everything but you are just not connected with it enough. There is a sense of alienation.”

Pande does not have an olfactory nerve, so her experiences of the world are muted, less visceral, more learnt. “I know people love the smell of the soil after it rains, of coffee, of old books, I have collected this data all my life,” she says. “There are things you have read, seen and heard people talk about. It’s just something you haven’t experienced and you keep imagining what it would be like, to hug a person and remember their smell, to recognise someone with a blindfold, to appreciate a new culture or cuisine.”

For Pande, food is a panoply of textures she has consciously taught herself to appreciate; crunchy, chewy, gooey. The experience she could not always precisely articulate suddenly became real for her father when he caught covid-19. She tried to give him tips on how to navigate mealtimes. He complained about food tasting bad, an experience with which she was deeply familiar. “You are just not used to it,” she told him. “This is what it has tasted for me all my life.”

Also read: The science of flavour

For those who have had a mild case of the infection, to examine or think about their smell and taste loss was a relief, even a privilege in a sense. “It was annoying but I accepted it,” says Tiwari. “Intellectually, you know that it will be back.” The human body has tremendous capacity to regenerate, says Dr Gosar. “There is nothing you can do to speed it up, you have to just wait.”

Until then, tastes and smells may feel unfamiliar or underwhelming. Monaz Mistry, a Mumbai resident who recovered from covid-19 last year, is inching her way back to the full intensity of the world. She still has to go close to objects to smell them and double-check her Brut deodorant.

“In a way, it’s good,” she laughs. “I can’t smell the garbage or other dirty smells.”

Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.

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