Thursday, June 19, 2008

To see or smell?

While reflecting here on the challenges posed by dysfunctional sense organs, I had quoted Oliver Sacks to the effect that a person born deaf was likely to be more handicapped than a person born blind.

What about ‘becoming blind” and ‘becoming anosmic ( losing the ability to smell)? Jonah Lehrer quotes from a book called “Scent of desire” by Rachel Herz:

In one study that contrasted the trauma of being blinded or becoming anosmic [losing you sense of smell] after an accident, it was found that those who were blinded initially felt much more traumatized by their loss than those who had lost their sense of smell. But follow-up analyses on the emotional health of these patients one year later showed that the anosmics were faring much more poorly than the blind. The emotional health of anosmic patients typically continues to deteriorate with passing time, in some cases requiring hospitalization

Jonah adds:

As you can probably guess, the French novelist was right: there is something uniquely sentimental about the buttery whiff of a seashell-shaped cookie (or any other odor). This is because smell and taste are the only senses that connect directly to the hippocampus, the center of the brain's long-term memory. Their mark is primal and indelible. All our other senses (sight, touch and hearing) are first processed by the thalamus and only then sent along to the hippocampus. As a result, these senses are much less efficient at summoning up our past

What a finely tuned and optimized system the human body is!

Update 09/07/08; An article in Slate, written by a person suffering from anosmia, talks about the miseries of losing one’s smell. The author, Elizabeth Zierah, partially disabled by a stroke at an early age, writes that she found the experience of losing her smelling ability later on, far more traumatic. “As the scentless and flavorless days passed” she writes, I felt trapped inside my own head, a kind of bodily claustrophobia, disassociated. It was as though I were watching a movie of my own life. When we see actors in a love scene, we accept that we can't smell the sweat; when they take a sip of wine, we don't expect to taste the grapes. That's how I felt, like an observer watching the character of me”

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