Oliver Sacks - Man suffering acute sense of loss
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
The Man who mistook his wife for a hat – Oliver Sacks
I have recently encountered a sort of corollary of this case – a gifted man who sustained a head injury, severely damaging his olfactory tracts … and in consequence entirely losing his sense of smell.
He has been startled and distressed at the effects of this;
‘Sense of smell?’ he says ‘I never gave it a thought. You don’t normally give it a thought. But when I lost it – it was like being struck blind. Life loses a good deal of its savour – one doesn’t realise how much savour is smell. You smell people, you smell books, you smell the city, you smell the spring – maybe not consciously but as a rich unconscious background to everything else. My whole world was suddenly radically poorer…
There was an acute sense of loss, and an acute sense of yearning, a veritable osmalgia; a desire to remember the smell world to which he had paid no conscious attention, but which, he now felt, had formed the very ground bass of life. And then, some months later, to his astonishment and joy, his favourite morning coffee, which had become insipid, started to regain in savour. Tentatively he tried his pipe, not touched for months and here too caught a hint of the rich aroma he loved.
Greatly excited – the neurologist had held out no hope of recovery – he returned to the doctor. But after testing him minutely using a double blind technique, his doctor said ‘No, I’m sorry there’s not a trace of recovery. You still have a total anosmia. Curious though that you should now ‘smell’ your pipe and coffee’.
What seems to be happening – and it is important that it was only the olfactory tracts, not the cortex which were damaged – is the development of a greatly enhanced olfactory imagery, almost, one might say, a controlled hallucinosis, so that in drinking his coffee or lighting his pipe – situations normally and previously fraught with associations of smell – he is now able to evoke or re-evoke these, unconsciously and with such intensity as to think at first that they were ‘real’.
The power – part conscious, part unconscious – has intensified and spread. Now, for example, he snuffs and smells the spring. At least he calls up a smell memory, or smell picture, so intense, that he can almost deceive himself, and deceive others into believing that he truly smells it.
We know that such a compensation often occurs with the blind and the deaf. We think of the deaf Beethoven and the blinded Prescott. But I have no idea whether it is common with anosmia.