I (don’t) smell

Fascinating article on synaesthesia in The Economist this week: Smells like Beethoven.

It turns out that people who would not normally consider themselves synaesthetic will still relate musical sounds to flavours – and with an interesting consistency between individuals.

Sweet and sour smells were rated as higher-pitched, smoky and woody ones as lower-pitched. Blackberry and raspberry were very piano. Vanilla had elements of both piano and woodwind. Musk was strongly brass.

Also of note: the same toffee tasted different depending what background music was being played while the subjects ate it. The right music could add bitterness to it.

Ah, brains! Aren’t they wondrous, with all their crossed wires and obsessive (mis)interpretation of data! I don’t find the article surprising at all, but it’s nice to see scientists actually attempting to explore and document the phenomenon.

About seven years ago, I lost my sense of smell in a tragic olfactory accident (not really: I had a rhinovirus so terrible [according to doctors] that it left scar tissue in my nose). My sense of smell has recovered enough that I can now distinguish a fair number of odours, but it’s still far from great.

Back in the early days, however, when it was truly terrible, I used to experience smells oddly. I would use eyesight as an analogy: many of us have glasses, so we know there are gradations of sight. Legally blind people often have some sight, enough to make out large shapes, or distinguish light from darkness. That makes intuitive sense. Gradations of olfactory ability are less intuitive, but they exist. When I first began detecting smells again, for a long time my nose was only sensitive enough to tell that there was a smell present. I couldn’t discern what it was.

The next step was a sense of pitch – or alternately, of brightness. I could determine whether a smell was low (dark) or high (bright), but again, not what it was exactly. That was a very weird bit of information to have, but not as useless as you might suppose. Low-pitched smells often required my attention — diapers, mould, dinner burning.

I can smell all kinds of things now, even some I wish I couldn’t (dog poop), but I’m still not 100%. The thing I smell most clearly: oregano (which I’d say is bassoon-like, ha ha). Oranges, I fear, may be lost to me forever. They have a low, bitter, vomitous dissonance lurking beneath the high, sweet orangy smell; the sweet smell is the stronger of the two, so most people never notice the other one, but it’s the sweet smell that is still muted in my nose. Instead of tasty orange, I mostly smell vomit (trombone?)

Hehe. “Vomit trombone”. I suspect my amusement at THAT juxtaposition says more about my brain than anything else here.



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