Your average day may begin with the smell of coffee and end with that of soap. In between are odours ranging from your boss’s (overbearing) perfume and the office cleaning agent, to that of the loo and gym. But it’s not just about registering a smell and moving on, it’s also about triggering memory and association, and our ability to make changes.
Memory and meaning
The olfactory system is closely related to the limbic system (the part of the brain that governs instinct and mood). A paper published in the International Journal of Research in Ayurveda and Pharmacy , says that “human attitude varies towards olfaction,” and that “it may have positive or negative effects on emotions and memory.”
Decoded, this means that the smell of vanilla can take you back to a childhood of happy baking memories, or it could trigger nausea from the time someone dunked a whole bottle into a cake as a prank. Worse, if the cook who smelt of vanilla was particularly nasty to you, you will probably dislike the smell altogether well into adulthood.
In extreme cases, “Smell can be a trigger to a dormant memory of abuse,” says Anuja Gupta, founder and executive director, Rahi, and a therapist herself based out of Delhi.
“For instance, a child may remember a mother cooking chana in the kitchen at the time of abuse, and perhaps the smell has always made her uncomfortable; she’s not sure why, though.” The memory may suddenly come flooding back, triggered unexpectedly by the smell of cooking chana .
“It’s important for the person to know that this happens and he or she is not going crazy,” she says. Reach out to a trusted friend or family member to speak about the trauma, and do consult a psychologist who works in the field. Another stumbling block in cases of sexual abuse is the smell of body fluids or any other smell associated with the incident (such as aftershave). These may prevent a person from establishing a healthy relationship with a partner. See a professional to begin the process of healing.
A sense of loss
A bleak side to our olfactory ability is when we lose it. It is the first sign of both Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. “While science says yes, the loss of the sense of smell may indicate the onset of both, in practice it is difficult to detect, because age-related degeneration is slow,” says Dr A B Dey, Professor and Head, Department of Geriatric Medicine, AIIMS, Delhi. Dementia (of which Alzheimer’s is a part), has now been included in DSM-5 , the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the standard classification of mental disorders used by mental health professionals.
Listed as a major neuro-cognitive disorder, the loss of memory is no longer the only red flag. “Instead, we look at the loss of cognitive functions, of which smell is a part,” he says. So if an elderly friend or relative does not register the burning of milk, it’s time to take her to a doctor. “The sense of smell is, after all, protective, and if there is medication that can postpone cognitive decline, it’s better to take it sooner, than later,” says Dr Dey.