“To impoverish our olfactory memory is to impoverish our emotional register”

Joël Candau, anthropologist of odors, is Emeritus Professor at the Laboratory of Cognitive and Social Anthropology and Psychology (Côte-d’Azur University). He is notably the author of Memory and olfactory experiences: Anthropology of a sensory know-how (PUF, 2000).

It is estimated that half of the people who contracted Covid-19 in 2021 suffered from anosmia, that is to say loss of smell. What physiological mechanism are we talking about?

Smell is a mental event. An olfactory experience is broken down into three stages. You need a fragrant source, whether it’s a flower or chemical factories… From this source will move in the atmosphere very numerous odorous molecules, of which we will only smell those which have a certain molecular mass – between a few tens and a few hundred daltons. These molecules are received at the level of the olfactory epithelium, an area that lines the inside of our nasal cavities.

At that point, either we process the information: from the neurons and the olfactory receptors located on the epithelium, the message passes through a bone tissue called the ethmoid, riddled with holes, which allows the axons to reach the olfactory bulb. The information is analyzed and coded before being sent to several brain areas. We then have a sensation, the smell. Either we do not process this information, it is anosmia.

How has the coronavirus pandemic been atypical?

Anosmia is a common occurrence. Each individual can be anosmic to one or more odorous molecules. What makes the specificity of the anosmia caused by the coronavirus is its massive character. The sick person can lose all of his senses. A study published in Science Translational Medicine in May 2021 describes the mechanisms of this dysfunction: the olfactory epithelium is a major site of infection by SARS-CoV-2 in particular olfactory neurons, support cells and immune cells.

The deodorant market fell drastically between 2020 and 2021 according to Nielsen, teleworkers having halved their purchase in terms of beauty hygiene compared to the average French. What is our relationship to our own smell?

Stercus cuique suum bene olet (“Everyone likes the smell of his manure”), writes Montaigne in the Trials (III, 8). Most of the time, our personal smell does not bother us, but by experience of that of our fellow human beings, we know that it can displease others. When social life is normal, we may be culturally accustomed to masking our smell by using cosmetics. But, in a context of confinement, this no longer seems essential to us.

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