Fifth Sense

at Sensation

The charity for those affected by smell and taste disorders.

The Sensation project featured a week-long programme of activities exploring how our senses allow us to connect and interact with the world around us.

Fifth Sense had a stand in the local shopping centre, which presented something of a challenge to Fifth Sense founder Duncan Boak and Fifth Sense members David and Christine Rudge and Barbara Brady  – how to interest busy shoppers in the sense of smell and its loss?

A major part of Fifth Sense’s remit is to help educate people on the role that the sense of smell plays in our lives, and in doing so raise awareness of the issues faced by smell and taste disorder sufferers.  At the Sensation festival we ran two simple activities to demonstrate just how important the sense of smell is to us.

The first of these was a very simple demonstration of how the sense of smell plays a major  role in flavour perception, using jelly beans.  We asked people to close their eyes, take a jelly bean and place it in the mouth and chew whilst holding their nose, and try to guess the flavour.  When we chew food, odourant molecules of it travel into the nose through the back of the mouth and are detected by the nasal receptor cells (this is called ‘retro-nasal olfaction’).  When we eat, therefore, we are actually smelling the food that is in our mouths.  Holding the nose stops the jelly bean molecules from reaching the receptor cells, so whilst the sweetness can be detected (by the tastebuds in the mouth), the bean has no flavour.  As soon as people let go of their nose, midway through chewing, they experience a rush of flavour into the mouth.  This simple demonstration perfectly illustrates just how detrimental the effect of a smell disorder can be on sufferers’ enjoyment of food.

Omar, a trainee chef whose childhood was spent between the UK and Tobago, takes part in our demonstrations. He interpreted the smell of Johnsons Baby Powder as being of coconut, and said it reminded him of his grandma – an interesting example of how people’s exposure to smells and how they interpret them varies between countries and cultures.

The second activity was designed to demonstrate the link between olfaction and memory.  It has been shown that smell is more closely associated with memory than any of our other senses, something that many people probably know about without ever thinking about it.  To get people thinking about their olfactive memories, we used a number of fragrant substances, chosen because we felt that they were likely to be associated with memories.  We asked people to close their eyes, take a sniff of one of the substances, and rather than try and guess what the smell was, tell us whether it reminded them of anything – memories, places, people, situations.  We chose the strong and unique aromas below in the hope that at the majority of people we spoke to would have experienced at least one of them and therefore have memories associated with them.  We felt that many of them would resonate with both children and adults, albeit for different reasons.

Germoline – cut knees during childhood

Vicks VapoRub – Applied by mum or dad during a cold

Johnsons Baby Powder – baby bathing and changing

Aniseed Sweets – childhood sweetshop aroma

Play Dough – a distinctive childhood aroma

Mixture of cloves and orange peel – Christmas

This activity worked really well, with lots of really interesting memories and connections being evoked amongst the people who participated.  Two of the smells worked particularly well, with the first one being Johnsons Baby Powder, with several people saying it reminded them of their mother or grandmother.  One lady said it took her back to childhood and being given a big hug by her grandma.  The other one was the mixture of cloves and orange peel, which did evoke memories of Christmas in many of the people who tried it.  Interestingly, this seemed to bring about the most detailed responses; one gentleman who tried it said to his wife ‘Oh, it’s like being in Germany when we were there for Christmas – the market we went to with the mulled wine, do you remember the smells there, and the big Christmas tree?’.  Perhaps there is something in this – are people more likely to respond better to more ambiguous mixtures of aromas, rather than very specific individual smells?  Plenty for us to think about before the next event!

The feedback we gained on the day from members of the public was excellent, and we all really felt that we had really helped open people’s eyes (as it were) to just how the sense of smell plays a vital, albeit largely hidden, role in their lives.  We also met a number of anosmia sufferers, several of whom had previously visited their GP and had been told that nothing could be done for them, and were able to pass on information to them on the handful of smell and taste specialists in the UK plus the benefit of our collective experience.

On a final note, we all felt that our participation in the Sensation was a huge success, and paves the way for Fifth Sense being involved in more public engagement activities.  It also demonstrated that Fifth Sense members have a huge opportunity to use their own experiences of living with a smell disorder to educate other people on just how important the sense of smell is to their quality of life, and we will be seeking to create more opportunities for our members to be involved in such activities going forwards.  As Barbara Brady put it:

‘As well as helping to spread the word about Fifth Sense and anosmia, attending the Sensation enabled me to meet and speak to people and get them to understand the impact the condition has on everyday life.

It was so refreshing to share our experiences face-to-face, motivating me to speak more about it and challenge the usual responses we get from non-anosmia sufferers, such as  “it could be worse, it’s not the most important sense”’.

The Bureau of Silly Ideas, with their Sweet Smell of Success project, were also present at Sensation