The ‘Simon Tatham Has No Sense Of Smell’ FAQ

I have no sense of smell. When people find this out, they always tend to ask me the same questions. The standard geek response to this situation is to write a FAQ, so here one is.

Of course, most people who find out I have no sense of smell are talking to me in person at the time, so they won't have the chance to read this FAQ before they start asking me questions about it; so I don't expect this FAQ to be very useful in cutting down the number of times I get asked these questions. But I enjoyed writing it, and hopefully people browsing my web site might enjoy reading it, so never mind.

This FAQ is about me, Simon Tatham. I don't claim to speak for everybody with this condition. Other people with no sense of smell might find that their own answers to some of these questions aren't the same as mine. If so, I'd be fascinated to hear from them!

1. I can't believe you have no sense of smell!

Why not? You'd have no trouble believing somebody was blind, or deaf. I'm just missing a different one of the five senses, and I'm fortunate that it's not such a vital one as sight or hearing.

2. Is there a short word for the condition, like ‘blind’ or ‘deaf’?

Yes, but it's not a very well-known word: the condition is anosmia, and people with the condition are anosmic. (Some people claim this covers impaired senses of smell as well as completely absent ones, in which case mine is complete anosmia; other people claim that a merely impaired sense of smell is hyposmia, and ‘anosmia’ should be reserved for a complete absence.)

I don't tend to bother using these words, because I'd only have to explain what they meant most of the time.

3. Why don't you have a sense of smell?

I don't know.

It might be partly genetic: my mother has a pretty bad sense of smell (but not completely absent). My father has a very acute one, though, so I doubt genetics is the whole story.

I used to get a lot of colds when I was little. A biology teacher of mine once theorised that I might have all the physical machinery to detect smells, but that because my nose was permanently blocked up during the vital age range, my brain might have missed its chance to learn to interpret the signals coming from that machinery. I'm not sure whether this theory holds water, though.

4. Don't you miss having a sense of smell?

Not consciously. I've never had a sense of smell, ever. I can't imagine what it would feel like to smell things, so I don't miss what I've never experienced.

When I was at school, I mostly thought I was lucky not to be able to smell things. The number of times I heard someone sniff and say ‘Mmmm, what a lovely smell’ was about once a week or less, but the number of times I heard someone sniff and say ‘Faugh, who's farted?’ was more like once a day, so on balance I felt I was ahead of the game! These days the balance is closer to even, but I don't generally feel too disadvantaged.

Once, when I was nine, a school bully held a bottle of really foul-smelling stuff under my nose in order to upset me. I knew I wouldn't care, so I took a huge sniff, looked up at him and said ‘So what?’. This made him look like an idiot in front of two of his friends, and he went out of his way to be nasty to me for months after that, but it was well worth it just for the look on his face.

It causes me the occasional practical problem. I get nervous of gas appliances, for example, because I can't detect gas leaks by smell. If my smoke alarm goes off in the middle of the night but I can't find anything obviously burning, I tend to have to wake up a neighbour and get them to come and see if they can smell any smoke anywhere. But it's not something that generally bothers me in my daily life.

5. Since taste is partly smell, does that mean you can't taste things?

You have to be a bit careful with the terminology here.

I have a functioning sense of taste, in the sense of the thing you do with the taste buds on your tongue. ‘Sweet’, ‘sour’, ‘salty’, and ‘bitter’ are perfectly meaningful words to me.

What most people perceive when they put food in their mouth is a combination of taste (which I can do) and smell (which I can't). That combination of senses is sometimes referred to as ‘flavour’. My sense of flavour is therefore equivalent to my sense of taste.

There are certainly some kinds of food which I don't find particularly interesting, but which other people appear to like, and I speculate that this might be because the flavour of those foods is mostly in their smell.

So I probably wouldn't make a good restaurant critic or wine taster, but on the other hand there are still foods I like and dislike, and my limited sense of flavour is still broad enough for me to find plenty of variety in food. Perhaps if I'd once had a sense of smell and lost it, the spectrum of tastes I can perceive would feel flat and uninteresting; but since this is all I've ever had, it doesn't bother me in the least.

6. Are there other people with this condition?

Yes. There's a web site full of them here: The Congenital Anosmia Pages.

Copyright © 2004 Simon Tatham.
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