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Arts & Life
KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

'It Feels Hollow': Why Losing And Regaining A Sense Of Smell Is More Disorienting Than You Might Think.

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Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
Aaron Blake isn't someone who feels strongly about ketchup one way or the other, but for a while, it was all he had.

People who lost the ability to smell due to COVID-19 describe surreal experiences, like tasting nothing but ketchup for weeks. They also describe the jarring impact of not being able to rely on what scientists call a "primal sense."

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Part of surviving a pandemic is having that friend who got you through it. For Aaron Blake of Kansas City, that friend is ketchup.

Blake tested positive for the coronavirus in August. About a week later, walking just a few feet to get some water made him feel winded. He was tired and his mind was foggy.

The loss of smell was subtle, by comparison, but the accompanying loss of taste — which turns out to be caused by loss of smell — was deeply bizarre, even in his foggy state.

"I was equal parts miserable and fascinated," Blake recalls.

He'd gotten McDonald's for dinner precisely because he wasn't feeling well.

"I didn't want to prepare anything. I didn't want to spend a lot of money on something when I felt like crap. I just wanted something that I knew what it was going to taste like."

Blake got his usual: burger, fries, Coke. But it didn't bring any of the comfort he'd expected because when he bit into his burger, it was nothing but texture. Texture, that is, and ketchup.

"It really tripped my brain out," he says. "I was like, 'Well, maybe I'll get the salt from the fries, you know? Nope."

He describes those fries, instead, as "something soft with ketchup."

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Carlos Moreno
The taste associated with this image is familiar to most Americans. So familiar that when it didn't happen for Aaron Blake, during his bout with COVID-19, he says his brain "went cross-eyed."

Dr. Ron Yu, who studies smell at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, is amused but not surprised that ketchup outlasted other tastes. Very little of what we experience as taste is actually taste, he says. A lot of what we think we taste is really smell; aromas reach the nose from the back of the mouth. The only tastes that aren't reliant on smell are sugary-sweetness and that sour tang.

In ketchup, both are concentrated.

"Smell is one of those senses that you don't know how important it is until you lose it," Yu says.

Smell alerts us to danger instantaneously; our brains process other senses, such as vision, in more complex and therefore more time-consuming ways. We react to dangerous odors, on the other hand, without stopping to think, because our olfactory nerves go straight to the amygdala, what Yu calls "the ancient brain." It's the part of the brain that triggers fight or flight.

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Stowers Institute for Medical Research
Dr. Ron Yu studies smell in mice at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. He's pictured here next to a fancy device called an 'olfactometer.'

Andy Christopher of Topeka had COVID this year, and like Aaron Blake, he lost his sense of smell. Not long ago, he built a fire in his backyard fire pit. He couldn't smell the smoke.

"While I count my blessings that I am alive, it is extremely frustrating that I have lost 40% of my senses," he says. "Smoke alarms are valued much more now and thankfully my wife doesn’t mind smelling my food for me to make sure it isn’t spoiled."

But smell doesn't just tell us whether we're in danger, from fire or bacteria-ridden foods. It tells us when we're safe. It brings back memories and the emotions associated with them. The happy feeling that comes with grandma's cookies? It's in the smell. A cookie we can't smell doesn't have the cookie feeling.

Over the course of the pandemic, a lot of cookies lost that cookie feeling, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. The joy has been zapped from all kinds of things, maybe especially the things we turned to for comfort a year ago. Like food.

Remember when sharing perfectly styled photographs of elaborate pandemic meals on social media was a thing? Remember when grocery stores ran out of yeast because so many people took up baking all at once?

We sought refuge in food. Now, we complain of still having to cook and eat. Still! Dinner again? But I just made dinner yesterday.

Of course, making a dinner you can't smell or taste is infinitely worse.

For Aaron Blake, the frustrating part of losing smell was how slowly it came back. For about three months, he was only able to detect what he calls "whispers of smells."

It put him on edge.

Blake is in marketing and communications, where his ability to think creatively is his livelihood. Not being able to hold a thought for longer than a few seconds was unfamiliar territory. He didn't feel like himself. Being unable to taste or smell took it a step further; it made him feel like he wasn't there.

Trying to remember that period of time, Blake says, is like looking at a faded photograph, not because it's hard to remember but because that's how it felt when he was living it.

"Consider what life is and what living is ... being able to fully be present is having all of your senses give you information and make sense of that. And when you are cut off from two, three, four of those senses, it feels hollow."

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Carlos Moreno
Aaron Blake on a lunch break, having fully recovered from COVID-19.

So what's changed, for Aaron Blake, as a result of this crazy experience? It's pretty random. He tries not to buy canned foods. That's because, when he couldn't taste anything, he finally ate the pantry goods that had been sitting in his cabinet, untouched, for years. He's trying to be optimistic about the odds of another pandemic coming along. He doesn't want to set himself up for a time in the future when he'll say to himself: "Oh, we got another round of swine flu. Great. I've been waiting to eat that kernel corn."

The good news here is also the bad news. When all else fails, there's always ketchup.

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