This Is What It’s Like to Live Without Smell

Just imagine yourself lying in bed on a Sunday morning with your partner and you’ve got the duvet pulled over you. You’re dozing and it’s the smell of your partner—the skin, the hair, their smell—because we all smell differently. We all have this individual, specific smell. It’s the smell that tells you that it’s them next to you and no one else. And think about how important that is in terms of that emotional connection to your partner. Then just imagine it was taken away and you were told you would never ever get that emotional connection to that person in that way again. How would that feel?

There are functional losses too. What adjustments do people need to make?

In terms of health and safety aspects, it’s about being very cautious when it comes to gas. Use a natural gas detector if you can get one. Definitely use a smoke detector. And another issue is spoiled food. It’s a lot harder for people who live alone. If you have someone you can rely on, use their nose—sort of a designated nose. I do this all the time. I drive my work colleagues mad. “Will you just smell the milk for me?”

But then, it’s really interesting because by involving someone to do that, if they don’t know me that can result in a dialog, and people can start to understand and appreciate it. Actually talking about it is really, really, important, because unless we talk about it, unless we talk about the impact, people won’t understand. It’s a very difficult thing to get your head around unless it happens to you.

Food doesn’t taste the same without smell, but you love to cook. How have you managed to find fun and joy in cooking without your sense of smell?

I’m actually known as quite a good cook amongst my friends, but I can’t actually appreciate a lot of the flavor of food. But what I do is I rely on my memory and also the knowledge of what flavors work together—and also following the recipes. For me, it’s very much about focusing on the elements I can still appreciate—so texture, temperature, spiciness, and also taste. I’m able to detect sweet, salty, bitter, and umami, which is actually really quite nuanced. I’ve learned to focus on my sense of basic taste. It’s about focusing on those elements you can still appreciate and paying attention to them when preparing a meal and eating it. Understand what works for you and experiment.

It sounds quite meditative in some ways. You’re really deepening your other connections to the physical world, even if you don’t have the smell connection.

It kind of is. I’m missing out on a big part of it here. How can I really maximize the elements that I can still appreciate, to compensate for the loss of that piece there? It’s a cognitive activity. You’ve got to apply yourself to it. I want to enjoy what I’m eating and drinking, so you’ve got to put a bit of effort in.

What’s your favorite dish right now?

Indian food is a massive, massive one for me. It always has been, even when I could still smell. It’s that combination of really strong flavors, spiciness, some big contrasts in there as well. Contrasting textures—crunchy papadams alongside the curry. And then also temperature is a really important one as well, having a tub of cold yogurt on the side with a hot curry. These contrasting elements are really important.

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