One night, Stephen D, aged 22, medicine student, drug consumer (cocaine, psycho-stimulating drugs, mostly amphetamines) had a vivid dream: He was a dog in a world filled with unbelievably strong and meaningful smells ("The brilliant smell of water… the brave smell of a stone"). Waking up, he found that his dream had turned into reality. "As if I had been totally colour-blind up to that point and suddenly found myself in a world full of colours."
Indeed, his perception of colours was also stronger than before. ("I could differentiate between dozens of shades of brown where before I had seen nothing but brown. My leather-bound books, which used to look all the same, suddenly showed all different shades.") His eidetic perceptive capacity and memory had also drastically improved. ("Before, I never used to be able to draw, I could not "see" images in my mind, but now it was as if I had a drawing prism in my head: I "saw" everything as if it was projected onto paper, and all I had to do was copy the lines I was "seeing". All of a sudden I was able to create exact anatomic drawings".)
The farthest-reaching change in his world, however, was caused by his intensified olfactoric perception: "I dreamed I was a dog - it was an olfactoric dream - and when I awoke, I was in a world of countless smells, a world where all other sensations, even though they were reinforced, paled into insignificance compared to the intensity of the smells." All this came along with a trembling, vivid emotion and a strange longing for a half-forgotten, half-retained, lost world.* (*States which are to a certain extent similar - strangely reinforced emotions, sometimes taking the form of nostalgic longings, "reminiscences" and déjà-vu experiences and accompanying intensive olfactoric hallucinations - are characteristic for "partial fits", a type of temporal lobe epilepsy which was first described about one hundred years ago by Hughlings Jackson.
Usually, the experience is quite specific but sometimes a general intensification of the olfactoric perception (hyperosmia) occurs. The uncus which in phylogenetic systematics belongs to the old "olfactory brain", or rhinencephalon, is functionally connected to the complete limbic system, the importance of which for determining and directing the general emotional state is becoming increasingly obvious in modern research. Any stimulation whatsoever of the limbic system results in reinforced emotions and intensified sensory perceptions. David Bear did research into this subject and all its fascinating implications (1979).) "I went into a perfumery", he continued.
"I was never good at recognising different smells, but now I recognised them at once, and each one was unique to me - each one reminded me of something, each one was a world of its own." He also noticed that he could identify all his friends and patients through their smell: "I went into the clinic, sniffed like a dog and recognised all twenty patients present before I could see them. Every one of them had their own olfactoric physiognomy, a fragrant face that was far more plastic and memorable, bore far more associations than their real face." He could smell their feelings - fear, content, sexual arousal - like a dog. He could recognise every street, every shop through their smell and infallibly find his way around New York by orientating himself through smells. He was driven by an impulsive desire to sniff and touch everything. ("Nothing was real before I had smelt and touched it."), but in the presence of others, he suppressed this desire in order to not make a negative impression.
Sexual smells were arousing and more intensive, although, in his opinion, no more than other smells, such as for example the smell of food. Enjoyment of smells was reinforced - just as dislike of certain smells -, however, it was not so much a new world of enjoyment and dislike that he had discovered, but rather a new aesthetic, a new criterion, a new meaningfulness surrounding him from all sides. "It was a world consisting of amazingly concrete details", he said, "a world of which the directness, the immediate meaningfulness was overwhelming." Before, he had been rather intellectual and tended to reflective and abstract thinking. Now however, he noticed that, in the face of the overwhelming directness of every experience, thinking, abstracting and categorising had become quite unreal and difficult for him.
After three weeks, this state came to a quite sudden end - his olfactoric perception, all his sensory perception returned to normal again. With a mix of regret and relief, he found himself back again in his old bland world of limited sensory perception, of non-directness and abstraction. "I am glad to be back again", he said, "but it is also a huge loss for me. I now realise what we have given up by being civilised human beings. We also need the other, the "primitive"." Since then, sixteen years have gone by, and the time of his studies when he used to take stimulating drugs, is long gone. States which would even slightly resemble those from back then have not occurred anymore.
My friend and colleague Dr. D. is a very successful internist in New York. He does not regret anything, but occasionally he longs for that time: "This world of smells and atmospheres", he sighs. "It was so vivid, so real! It was like visiting another world, a world of pure perception - a rich, colourful, bursting world. If only I could go back there from time to time and be a dog once again!" Freud pointed out on numerous occasions that the human olfactory sense was weakened and disappeared in the course of development and civilisation resulting from walking erect and the suppression of primitive, pre-genital sexuality. Indeed, it is verified that a specific (and pathological) reinforcement of the olfactory capacity occurs in cases of paraphilia, fetishism and related perversions and regressions.* (*This was well described by A. A. Brill (1932) who juxtaposed these phenomena with the rich olfactory world of macrosmatic animals (e.g. dogs), "primitives" and children.)
However, the dis-inhibition at issue seems to be of a far more general nature, and although it was connected to excitement (it was probably amphetamine-induced dopaminergic excitement), it neither was of specifically sexual nature, nor did it come along with sexual regression. A similar hyperosmia, which sometimes occurs in fits, can occur in hyper-dopaminergic states of excitation, for example in some post-encephalitic patients who are treated with L-Dopa, and occasionally in patients suffering from Tourettes syndrome. From all this we can see at least the all-round extent of the inhibitions which affect even the most elementary level of perception. We see the need to tame that which Head felt was filled with "tone perception" and primal and which he called protopathic. Only after suppression is the appearance of the differentiated, categorising, affectless "Epic critic" possible. The need for such inhibitions can neither be reduced to the Freudian level, nor should the breaking down of such inhibitions be nostalgised or romanticised, as Blake did. Maybe we need them, as Blake suggested, in order to be humans and not dogs*. (*see Jonathon Miller's critique of Head's thesis: "The Dog Beneath the Skin", in Listener (1970)). And yet Stephen D's experience reminds us, as in G.K. Chesteron's poem "The Song of Quoodle", that we must sometimes be dogs and not humans: "They haven't got no noses, The fallen sons of Eve, (…) The brilliant smell of water, The brave smell of a stone!"
Postscript I recently came across a contrasting, but somehow related case. A man suffered a head injury that seriously affected his olfactory nerve cords (which, due to their length and position in the frontal cranial lobe are not well protected). Through this injury the man lost all sense of smell. He was surprised and unhappy about this. "Sense of smell? I'd never wasted a moment thinking about it before. You don't normally think about it. But, when I couldn't smell anymore, it was like I had suddenly gone blind. For me, life had lost a lot of its attraction. You just don't realise how much you depend on smelling. You smell people, you smell books, you smell cities, you smell the Spring - maybe not consciously, but the smells build a broad unconscious background for everything else. With one blow, my world became much poorer…"
He had a strong feeling of loss, a great longing, practically an osmalgia - the need to remember a world of smells that he previously took no notice of, and which he now believes had to a certain extent built the basic rhythm of his life. And then, a few months later, to his great joy and amazement, he began to sense aroma in his beloved morning coffee, which since his injury had tasted "dull". Faltering, he filled his pipe, which he hadn't touched for months, and also discovered a trace of the full aroma that he loved so much. Excited - the neurologists had told him there was no hope of recovery - he went to a doctor, who, after thoroughly examining him, told him "I'm sorry, there is no sign of a re-growth. You are still suffering from total anosmia.
It's curious that you can "smell" your pipe and coffee…" Here it seems (and it is in this context very important that only the olfactory nerve system was affected and not the brain) that a strong olfactory imagination had developed - one could almost speak of a controlled hallucination. When this man drinks his coffee or smokes his pipe (that is, in situations that are loaded with aromatic associations) he is capable of unconsciously awakening or re-awakening these associations, with such intensity, that he at first believed he could actually smell again. These partly conscious, partly unconscious abilities increased and spread to other areas. In the meantime, he can for instance "smell" the Spring. At least, he so swears by such intensive aromatic memories and pictures, that he can almost make himself and others believe that he can actually sense the smells of Spring. It is known for such compensation to occur in blind and deaf people - just think about Beethoven and his deafness. I don't know, however, how often such shifts appear in anosmia.
About the author of this article - Clarissa von Reinhardt
I am the founder of the dog school concept "Animal Learn" in Germany and have run my own dog school since 1993. I have made a video about Calming Signals with an introduction by Turid Rugaas (which is available from Dog Games Web Shop) and am in demand as a guest speaker both in Germany and abroad as I specialise in behavioural disorders in dogs.
You are welcome to visit my web site - www.animal-learn.de
This web site has been written by Sally Hopkins (unless the author of the web page is stated otherwise).
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