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Smell, involuntary memory and COVID-19

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It started on New Years Day. I sat down with my family for a steaming dinner of the holiday’s American staples — corned beef, black eyed peas, mashed potatoes and collard greens. It was delicious, except for one thing — the food produced a strange sensation in my nose, identical for each component of the meal. I figured I must have a cold or something.

I know what you’re thinking — it’s COVID-19! — but the thing is, I’d already contracted and recovered from the virus just two months ago. I lost my sense of taste and smell for a few bleak days, but they returned within a week or so.

And yet, every day since the start of the new year, I have encountered this same strange phantom taste, usually when I’m eating meat, eggs or beans, though it can come from anywhere. I’m not even sure whether taste or smell is the right word for it — neither feels quite right, because the sensation is always there in my nose, not in my mouth, while I eat. I’ve found it impossible to articulate what it is like, though I think it comes close to a phrase I encountered in an essay about migraines from Helen McDonald’s newest book “Vesper Flights”: “There’s what the doctors call a post-nasal drip, which makes the world taste of scalding metal and brine,” except I have no post-nasal drip.

However, that still sounds too harsh. Its presence is irritating and sometimes dampens my appetite, but it’s not totally overpowering. I thought maybe this strange sensation I now experienced when I ate meat would give me the push I need to become a vegetarian. I could rationalize it into a harmless, maybe even good, thing at first.

*****

The weekend before winter quarter started, I found myself watching Mulholland Drive for what was perhaps the seventh time. It’s a film that is infinitely giving, and I find myself struck by new parts of it every time. In the days that followed, I kept hearing amnesiac Rita’s voice in my head, from the scene where she tearily confesses to Diane, “I… I don’t know who I am.”

It was around this time that I began to realize the distortion of my senses was not limited to this phantom taste. My shampoo, which is green apple scented, now smells inexplicably like protein powder and milk. Brushing my teeth is different — the mint is bitter and dirty-tasting rather than fresh and sweet.

The vague sense of destabilization I’d been feeling this month began to crystallize in my mind. These little scents that ground me in reality everyday had suddenly vanished and been replaced with imposters. And who knows how many others have changed that I have yet to notice? I find myself lamenting the distortion of even the negative smells in my life, like the chemical odor of the no-bite polish I apply to my nails every few days. I had begun to associate this smell with the pride I had in the fact that I was finally able to kick my destructive habit. But I feel none of that dopamine when I apply it now — all I’m left with is a bitter odor that means nothing to me.

*****

We all know by now that loss of smell is a hallmark symptom of COVID-19. It seems to occur widely in mild cases, but only rarely in moderate or severe ones. Yet for a small minority who have recovered from mild COVID, this loss of smell seems to persist, entirely or partially in the long-term. 

We also know that mental illness has a seemingly bidirectional association with the virus — studies have suggested that people with preexisting mental health conditions are an astounding 65% more likely to contract the virus, and one in five people who have recovered from COVID have developed a new mental health condition within 90 days.

A New York Times piece earlier this month covered the myriad ways in which the permanent loss of smell or distortion of smell negatively affects the lives of COVID survivors. I’d like to hone in on their suggestion that the increase in mental health problems we’re seeing is linked to the enduring sensory loss or distortion some people are experiencing. 

It makes sense that as our capacity for sensory experience decreases, so does our capacity to feel joy and pleasure — hence its link to anhedonia. The world simply becomes less vivid and appealing for us. But I believe perhaps even more sinister is the way that losing smell and taste jarringly disconnects us from our sense of self. An example from 20th century French novelist Marcel Proust will help me illustrate this.

*****

This quarter, I’m taking a course where we are reading as much as we can of Marcel Proust’s seven volume masterpiece “In Search of Lost Time.” A recurring theme in this massive novel is the way our sensory impressions can trigger involuntary memories that enrich our world.

In the first volume titled “Swann’s Way,” the adult narrator is trying to remember his childhood in Combray, but all he can recall is this one little piece of it: “the bedtime drama,” the moment each day when his mother would come in his room to kiss him goodnight. It’s not until he visits his aunt’s house, dips a madeleine in a cup of tea and takes a bite that this whole period in his life cracks open and the memories unlock.

“And as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me… immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening to the garden which had been built out behind for it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and…”

We all have moments like this in our lives. While they probably don’t launch us into recounting a seven-volume epic story of our lives, they at least bring back some memories we thought we couldn’t access anymore, which solidify into associations we carry with us. The smell of garden hose water splashing in dirt takes me back to the backyard of a blue house in Pikeville, Kentucky where I frolicked around as a three year old. The smell of Purell and that bitter liquid ladybugs emit when you touch them are indelibly linked to my experience of first grade, reminding me of the portable classroom where I was taught and the grassy field behind the track. The scent of Bath and Body Works’ Pink Chiffon lotion brings back memories of BBC’s Sherlock, which was apparently the biggest thing I had going on in my life when I used it as an eighth grader.

Proust’s narrator’s theory suggests that there are two kinds of memory — a voluntary, working memory that we can freely access, and an involuntary one, which can only be unlocked by these little sensory keys we encounter in the world, of which taste and smell are the most enduring:

“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more immaterial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

But now, when I smell those scents from my past, they may not smell the same as they did then. And if they don’t smell the same, there will be nothing to viscerally transport me back to these past selves. I’m sure many past versions of myself are hidden in various tastes and smells in the world, but now I may miss them. The involuntary memories they hold may be forever locked out of my reality, and the reality of thousands or maybe even millions of other people who do not smell the same after recovering from COVID-19. 

So I worry a lot these days, about the sense of familiarity I have lost with my own daily routine and physical environment, as well as the deeper losses of memory that lurk under the surface of that. Is this why, after having an enjoyable and satisfying fall quarter despite the circumstances, I’m struggling desperately to find my rhythm, my focus and my motivation this winter? Perhaps. If I’m just an accretion of all the sensory experiences I’ve had in my life, and now my senses no longer work the same, am I who I was before? I don’t know. 

*****

Even in my mild case of olfactory distortion, I can trace the negative consequences this is having on my mental health and the stability and coherence of my sense of self. I cannot even imagine how someone like Katherine Hanson, a cooking virtuoso, is coping after losing her sense of taste and smell ever since contracting the virus. 

I have no good solutions to this problem. Maybe smell will return to normal for some people after many months or even years, though maybe it won’t. Maybe scientific research will uncover ways to help people rehabilitate this sense. 

As for me, I’m doing the little things that I can. I’m trying new recipes I’ve never tasted, crossing my fingers that the phantom taste doesn’t show up in them. I’m buying soaps and lotions with unfamiliar scents so I can’t be saddened by how they’ve changed. How I’ve changed. And I’m reading Proust, to help me understand why this loss that feels so small when I describe it has made me feel at times like I don’t know who I am.

Contact Carly Taylor at carly505 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Carly Taylor '22 is a Managing Editor of Arts & Life. She studies comparative literature and creative writing. On campus, you can find her organizing concerts and practicing martial arts. Contact her at ctaylor ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.