Smelling mindfully, or how to ditch the negative thoughts about anosmia

Smelling mindfully and smell training

Mindfulness is very much in the news at the moment. The Mental Health Foundation,, defines it as

  a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.”

Mindfulness is being used as a powerful tool to improve symptoms of anxiety. The intentional and non-judgemental attention to one’s surroundings, with particular attention to the sensations of the body in the moment, are the foundation of this therapy. It is being used to help people with chronic pain, anxiety disorders, depression, and other mental health issues. Mindfulness has now been studied extensively in clinical settings. 

It would appear that the act of practicing mindfulness can actually alter the brain. This is called neural plasticity – when brain structure changes based on repetitive experience.

A number of scientific research papers have discussed this subject. A famous study of London cab drivers in 2006 found that the complex learning involved in the London cab driver’s “knowledge” changed the brain structure of the subjects. What does this mean? It means that the more experience cabbies had navigating around London, and the more reinforcement they had in this spatially related task, the more they changed their brain structure in one sector of the brain. Our thoughts have a powerful affect on our brains.

This idea of mindfulness, and how the regular use of it might alter the brain, is something that I think underpins the concept of smell training. I think the key to smell training is mindful smelling

I always tell the people who smell train with me to be as attentive as possible during smell training. To try to shut down all the other sensory distractions and really seek some sensory input that they might try to hold onto, think about, and interpret. But this seems an impossible challenge for people who are just recovering from full anosmia and find that they have either a very poorly functioning sense of smell, terrible parosmia, or something like “white noise” where their sense of smell ought to be.

Often when I am teaching smell training, I will ask the subject to open a jar and tell me what, if anything, they can smell. Usually, the top comes off, they take a quick whiff, and put the jar down, saying “nothing”. Smell, for the healthy nose, is immediate. A normosmic (a person with a healthy sense of smell) knows in an instant if they recognise a smell, or if it is good or bad. But post-anosmia olfaction is different.  If you think you would respond as in my example, and you feel you may benefit from smell training, you might try a blindfold. Have someone help you. Then, when you begin to smell, draw in your breath through your nose slowly. Then experiment with short sniffs. Take as long as you like, spending as much time as you would if you were studying a map and trying to orient yourself. This, in itself, is a skill that can be developed over time. Learning to consider smell is a much harder task than it would appear. 

Here is another example. Let’s say you have an attic full of stuff. You go up the ladder, flip the switch, and instantly see everything that’s up there. Let’s allow that to be the analogy for an intact sense of smell. Now imagine that your lightbulb is broken, and you have a small LED light with a very narrow beam. When you want to know what is up there, or where something is, you have to climb the ladder and shine your light slowly around the entire space in the attic, looking carefully. Anosmia has taken out the bulb and in the recovery phase you have just a narrow beamed torch. If you have enough recovery to have a little narrow-beamed LED torch, you can learn to use it more effectively to know what is going on in the attic. 

So if you are smell training now, or are thinking about smell training: make every smell training experience a mindful one. Draw your attention to the sensation of drawing in your breath through your nose, experimenting with longer slower breaths as well as short sniffs. Take yourself down, down, into the smell – or perhaps it may be easier to visualise the smell coming into you. While this is happening, try not to be judgemental, or hear the chattering in your mind that tells you that anosmia stinks, and other negative thoughts. Battling these thoughts is a large part of learning to cope with anosmia. 

With each smell training session, remember:  you are reinforcing new neural networks in your brain. This is why smell training is so much more than sniffing a few little jars. 

For more information on mindfulness and neuroplasticity, you can try these links.

5 papers on meditation and neural plasticity

The abstract of the paper about London cab drivers and neuroplasticity

What does mindfulness do to the brain? An article from Scientific American