Ah, the summer smell of sunscreen. I was covering some on my arms one of those really hot and muggy days last week when I remembered something. Smells can prompt your brain to time travel. The scent unexpectedly took me back to my youth.
As a small child, I don’t remember ever having anyone cover my skin with the uniquely scented lotion, but into my adolescent years I do. We didn’t call it sunscreen then. It was suntan oil or suntan lotion. Every teen girl I knew had a favored summer activity. “Let’s go lay out in the sun!” we’d say from the first warm day of spring until late summer.
I do recall smearing the lotion on my little brothers, Scott and Dale. Each warm evening after making them come in the house, their eyes were shiny against their tanned little bodies after a hard day’s play.
Smelling sunscreen also carries me back to a family vacation on the Lake Erie shore near North East, and a day spent in Hershey Park. It puts me in mind of the Gulf of Mexico in Alabama where my husband and I traveled each winter. The scent also carries nostalgia for our decade on Keuka Lake when he piloted our Bayliner and I’d sprawl, usually reading or napping, in the cushioned bow as Gordy would drift fish.
I have always had a keen sense of smell. Hyperosmia is defined as increased olfactory acuity or a heightened sense of smell. That can be a good thing, as when I find myself being carried on these little mind trips down memory lane. You don’t have to have a strong sense of smell to experience the time travel. Olfactory senses can be a big trigger to memory for some people.
You may have experienced it in your kitchen. The scent of baking cookies might transport you to a happy time with your grandmother. If I smell a roast with garlic, I’m taken back to a couple of Christmas Eve’s when my father-in-law made Beef on Weck. (My husband didn’t care for that level of garlic, but I loved it.)
Most places prohibit leaf-burning these days, but sometimes I still think I smell them, remembering Indian summer days of a warm fall. These also bring memories of the promise of a new academic year at Michigan State University and later the school district where I worked for 17 years.
There is also a condition called “phantosmia,” where a person smells something that isn’t actually there. One study showed, surprisingly, that 1 in 15 people, or 6.5 percent of those over 40 experience this. In addition to being hypersensitive to smell, I know this condition personally. It is described as a phantom smell or an olfactory hallucination.
I first encountered it during a troubled time when a mental condition brought a variety of weird experiences almost two decades ago. I could smell smoke — and, yikes, sulfur. When I worked in the MSU Chemistry Department, smelling this and other odd odors was nothing unusual but bothered my keen sense of smell. The phantosmia, however, was somewhat perplexing until I discovered it’s not that rare. Sometimes even today, I’ll think I smell someone smoking a cigarette when there is no one around. Sometimes I still smell smoke. And sometimes, I smell a pleasant odor seemingly coming from nowhere that gives me joy.
In several trips into medical facilities these past weeks, I have noticed one of the questions those taking temperatures at the doors will ask is, “Have you noticed any change in your sense of taste or smell?” Such characteristics must be a potential symptom for the coronavirus.
A colleague of mine had yet another condition: anosmia. This is a lack of a sense of smell and can be genetic, a result of medications or other causes. My friend was born with it. I don’t remember how many times I forgot. As others smelled the flowers my husband sent to my workplace, or food smells wafted through the air, she would remind me, “I can’t smell it.”
She had learned to compensate, however. The sense of smell and taste are often connected, so her taste buds weren’t especially developed, unless it was something strong. That’s why she chose things like Wasabi (horseradish dishes) and hot sauce.
Having hyperosmia can be bad when smells are unpleasant, too. I can walk in a door and know there is a baby in the house, or a cat, or a dog. I am hypersensitive to my own cat and her litterboxes, especially in humidity, and work hard to keep up. It’s not too bothersome, but even the scent of some perfumes can send me reeling, but not as bad as to some with allergies.
My work friend and I were a pair…one who smelled keenly and one who couldn’t smell at all. Maybe she was paying me back for every rose I held under her nose for a whiff, forgetting her condition, when she began opening cans of sardines at her neighboring desk, forgetting mine.
(Contact contributor Deb Wuethrich at firstname.lastname@example.org.)