Research published by Anna Seecharan, MA Anthropology of Food student at SOAS, University of London
In 2018 we worked with Anna Seecharan, MA Anthropology of Food student at SOAS, University of London, who decided to tackle the impact of olfactory impairment on the enjoyment of food and drink for her dissertation. Anna has completed her work and was awarded the School Prize for Best Dissertation! Fantastic news, we’re sure you’ll agree. Anna has very kindly produced a summary of her work to share with Fifth Sense and the people we represent.
Dear Fifth Sense members,
Last summer, 2018, I sent out an invitation to participate in my research via the Fifth Sense mailing list. I was truly astounded by the number of replies I received. This overwhelming response highlighted the extent to which anosmia is an “invisible” condition – not only is it literally unseen, it is also not commonly known about, poorly understood, and there is a significant lack in public resources to support those living with smell disorders. Furthermore, the huge response I received demonstrated a widespread desire for members to be able to talk about their anosmia, often for the first time, with others.
I would like to express my gratitude to all who replied, and especially to those who shared their personal experiences so generously with me. I would also like to thank Professor Carl Philpott and Duncan Boak for their support of the project. I hope that I have been able to do justice to your many and varied contributions.
What follows is an overview of the research I submitted for my MA dissertation in the Anthropology of Food at SOAS, University of London, entitled: “When flavour is only a memory: The impact of Anosmia on Food, Identity and Belonging.”
If you would like to read the full version, please let me know – I would be happy to share it. (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
With my very best wishes,
Why this research is important:
A high proportion of participants in this study reported difficulty in receiving advice or help with anosmia from GPs and other health professionals. The fact that anosmia is not currently highly prioritised by public health services, and the reasons for this, require further investigation. However, it was extremely troubling to hear how many participants felt that medical professionals were dismissive of their concerns or trivialised their condition. For many (even globally), Fifth Sensewas their only source of information on anosmia. The relative ‘invisibility’ of this condition – in both the health service and wider public arena – reflects a lack of information about and understanding of anosmia, resulting in insufficient resources to support people with living with a smell disorder.
This study attempts to give voice to the multiple ways in which smell disorders are experienced by anosmics in their daily lives. It addresses the physiological reasons why the senses of smell and taste are highly subjective and, rather than attempting to measure these objectively, takes an ethnographic approach which allows patients to articulate their own personal experiences. By identifying the role sense of smell plays in shaping our sense of self and our social relationships, this research begins to shed light on the often-devastating impact that the loss of sense of smell can have not only on physical health but also on mental well-being.
This research takes up the task of gathering information on how anosmics – in their own words – experience living with smell disorders on a daily basis.Collecting data for further research and analysis of anosmia will help to inform our understanding of why anosmia is ‘invisible.’ Providing space for participants to share their difficulties and discuss common challenges can help to identify coping mechanisms and strategies which can be shared more widely, as well as enabling anosmics to find new ways to talk about their condition and talk about it with others. Research is also valuable in highlighting areas in which further support and resources are needed.
While I talk about ‘anosmia’ in general terms to indicate a lack or loss of the ability to smell, it is important to emphasise that different types of smell disorders are experienced in very different ways. The most frequent causeof anosmia is viral and/or traumatic and, for the majority of participants in this study, the most difficult challenge was the shock of being suddenly deprived of access to a world of smells which they had hitherto been able to participate in. However, not all participants experienced anosmia as negative or traumatic – most notably those with hyposmia, for whom sense of smell had reduced gradually over a long period of time. For congenital anosmics, navigating a world of aromas without a concept of what smells arepresents different, but equally difficult challenges.
This research focusses on the impact of anosmia on experiences of food and eating. The theoretical approach I used (called ‘olfactory ethnography’) takes into consideration the sensory perceptions of the body, such as smells, tastes, textures and sensations, in order to analyse anosmics’ daily lived experiences in three key domains: the body (physiological), the individual (psychological), and the group (social).
The way in which the brain simultaneously processes the aromas and tastes of food molecules means that sense of smell plays a crucial role in our appreciation of ‘flavour’. While there are other ways to find pleasure in food (e.g. texture or ‘taste’ sensations), without the ability to smell aromas, participants reported a dramatic reduction in their ability to experience flavours. In the case of parosmia (distorted aromas) or cacosmia (bad smells), eating can be an extremely unpleasant experience. Being able to remember and recognise ‘good’ flavours is perhaps the biggest contributor to our enjoyment of food, therefore not being able to fully enjoy favourite foods has significant consequences for appetite (such as not wanting – or simply forgetting – to eat) and satiation (for example, not feeling satisfied by food or knowing when to stop eating).
In addition to how we physically ‘taste’ the flavours of foods, memory-making processes are crucial in explaining why food can be so emotionally meaningful and how group belonging can be created and maintained through eating together. For anosmics, the implications of losing access to these memory-making processes can be profound, and many described lacking or losing their sense of smell as a deeply traumatic experience. Furthermore, because sense of smell is highly subjective, it can be extremely difficult to verbalise – we do not have any language in English to talk about smells. Many of the participants in this study reported feeling excluded or isolated by thedouble loss – firstly of their sense of smell, but also the ability to communicate this loss with loved ones.
The considerable response to my call for participants (99 replies within a week) strongly shaped the way in which I carried out this research. My analysis was based on 31 written responses, 14 in-depth interviews, and one week of ‘auto-ethnography’ (in which I blocked my own sense of smell while cooking or eating). The stories I heard were so powerful that I felt a responsibility, first and foremost, to give voice to this ‘invisible’ condition and to convey the richness of the ethnographic data. This led me to take a ‘bottom-up’ (data-driven) analysis.
This paper was necessarily space-limited, however I identified multiple potential avenues for future research, including:
· Further investigation of other problematic issues raised by participants, such as: medical concerns; safety concerns; health, nutrition and dietary concerns; personal hygiene; non-food related social concerns, and intimate relationships in particular.
· Deeper analysis of the differences between different types of anosmia, for example, congenital anosmia (where the patient has never had any concept of what a smell is) raises very different concerns to the experience of viral/traumatic anosmia (in which the sense is lost);
· A ‘top-down’ theory-driven analysis would be complementary to, and further illuminate, my data-driven approach;
· An exploration of anosmia using alternative methodological approaches, such as ‘sensory ethnography.’
I am delighted to have been awarded the School Prize for Best Dissertation, 2017-18 for this paper, and this may provide a firm basis for funding applications and enable me to carry out further research on anosmia in future.