Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Fifth Sense

Do you know what Anosmia is? It’s a disorder in which the patient loses the sense of smell. Medical science and society hasn’t paid much attention to this disorder. The lack of awareness and support for the sufferers of anosmia is so much, that a patient in UK started an organization called Fifth Sense to promote awareness and offer support to anosmiacs.
It is easy to understand why society does not pay much attention to anosmia. After all, losing the ability to smell does not sound like a big disaster, right? People should be able to get on with life, with a little inconvenience. We all experience this when we get bad cold. Smell seems to be the least important of the five senses, after taste.
Nothing is further from truth. The ability to smell, called Olfaction, has a very important place in our life. It is true that it does not seem to have much significance is our daily routine. But it is because we take it for granted. Let’s see the place olfaction plays in our life.
Smell bonds us to our close family. A newborn baby gets locked to the smell of the breast of its mother. This smell has a soothing effect on the baby. This might be the reason why crying babies calm down when held by their mother. The odor of close relatives, like parents, children or siblings, does not appear to us as smell. Brain processes these odors differently to create a feeling of familiarity and comfort in us.
Olfaction helps us in choosing our food. We detect the quality of our food from its smell. Remember how we feel disgusted if the food has gone a little bad? It is a built in mechanism to protect us from dangerous food, triggered by smell. It seems we can also detect the content of the food by smelling it. In an interesting piece of research, scientists have found that people can detect which food has more fat in it by its smell.
Thus in important matters of family bonding and food, olfaction is vital. But apart from this, it has a strong connection with emotions and mental health. Anxiety and fear can be triggered by disagreeable smells, and pleasant smells can trigger a sense of well being. Smells have a special memory facility in the brain, called Olfactory Memory. This memory gets linked to other memories, both good and bad. This is the reason why certain smells invoke past memories and strong emotions. A smell sometimes fills us with joy or moves us to tears, seemingly without reason. We have forgotten the incident but have retained the olfactory memory.
Researchers have found that the ability to smell gets affected in mental diseases like Schizophrenia. On the other side, losing ability to smell affects mental health adversely. We have seen above the disorder anosmia. The patients of anosmia experience depression and difficulty in social bonding. Most of the flavour of food comes from the sense of smell. Thus these patients lose interest in food, lose weight and even become anorexic.
Such is the important but neglected fifth sense – smell. So far, the research on this sense has been very limited. In 2004, a Nobel prize was awarded to two scientists for finding out how sense of smell works. A lot of research is now going on. I am sure it will bring up a lot of sweet smelling surprises.

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