I mentioned once that I had let slip to Longsufferinggirlfriendoftheblogbeth that “I didn’t solely come back from [stroke-y] death because I had to see her one more time. I wanted to see her one more time, and tell her that everything was going to be OK.”
And that that was a a lie, solely to the extent I didn’t think I was going to survive.
I read something last week that, had I known it at the time, would have meant I could have delivered the message with a clear conscience.
[Research has found that t]he inability of older adults to identify scents is a strong predictor of death within five years . . . . Olfactory dysfunction was better at predicting mortality than a diagnosis of heart failure, cancer or lung disease. Only severe liver damage was a more powerful predictor of death. For those already at high risk, lacking a sense of smell more than doubled the probability of death.
The link between loss of smell and mortality is, as yet, unclear. One might think it’s a little like left-handedness, in that those with a poorer sense of smell are less well-equipped to live in the world. The anosmic (my new favourite word) and hyposmic “can’t tell when foods have spoiled or detect odors that signal danger, like a gas leak or smoke.” But the link is apparently too strong to explain in these terms. Other hypotheses are much more interesting. Particularly if you’re a stroke survivor and interested in nerves and nerve damage.
The first suggestion is that
[t]he olfactory nerve, the only cranial nerve directly exposed to the environment, may serve as a conduit . . . exposing the central nervous system to pollution, airborne toxins, pathogens or particulate matter.
Lovely. Another alternative is that
the olfactory system . . . has stem cells which self-regenerate, so a decrease in the ability to smell may signal a decrease in the body’s ability to rebuild key components that are declining with age and lead to all-cause mortality.
Nor did I see a tunnel of (or leading to) light. But there was a near death experience (or NDE) vibe to the whole thing. Floating above the body, symbolic hallucinations, that sort of thing. A pal recently shared this 2012 article on the subject. Therein, a woman with a giant brain aneurysm (not like my two cute little Cheetos) agrees to be shut down at low temperatures whereby her brain will not function, but will be able to survive longer without oxygen, and the low temperature will soften the swollen blood vessels, allowing them to be operated on with less risk of bursting. A bit like Anna Bågenholm and her frozen heart, it’s fascinating stuff.
U.S. and German studies suggest that almost one in twenty people have had an NDE. That is, vivid mental experiences close to death or during “clinical death”. And further studies “have shown that most NDErs are profoundly and positively transformed by the experience.”
Perhaps that’s not surprising: it’s common for NDErs to claim that they can pass through walls, project themselves wherever they desire, and even read people’s thoughts.
But yeah, Dr. Manhattan was actually a total buzz-kill.
The Salon article is interesting, in that it runs through a number of the features or NDEs, as well as a number of possible explanations for the phenomenon. After attempting to debunk these theories, Professor Mario Beauregard doesn’t offer any other alternatives, and it feels like he wants to write
But his position as an associate research professor chilled that urge at the time. P.Z. Myers, another associate professor (of biology), presents a debunking of the original article in the follow-up here.
I think I’m pretty thoroughly a humanist materialist who accepts the importance of grafting narratives onto our lives. In my narrative, my NDE is a story of a life with potential, beginning to be well-lived, presenting the potential of an immediate denouement that’s tidy and emotional, but also — and more strongly — the necessity of return to add further chapters.
Further reading has revealed the existence of “neurotheology“, a field of study that “attempts to explain religious experience and behaviour in neuroscientific terms.” Although I suspect I’m going to agree with those who suggest we use the term “neuroscience of religion” instead. One way or another, I think this is going to throw up some interesting secondary reading.
But, smell, right? I may still be in a quandry qbout that:
Can’t decide if “Something Fishy” is the best or worst name for a fishmonger ever. Oh. Wait. Yes I can.
— Ricky Brown (@ricky_ballboy) April 11, 2014
4 thoughts on “Something Fishy”
I saw that article on inability to smell predicting death – and skipped it because it scared me. Though thank you for introducing me to the words “anosmia” and “hyposmia”.
Mainly I just don’t notice smells; it’s not that I wouldn’t be able to smell them. I usually don’t know there is anything to smell unless someone points it out.
Though maybe I am hyposmic after all. I end up throwing away an obscene amount of food because I can’t smell test anything. I don’t know how you’re supposed to smell test milk, eggs, meat, etc. They all smell kind of rancid to begin with.
Hate to be that guy, but in your situation, that’s not always a bad thing. You know, we were in . . . London? recently, and there were a bunch of areas that smelled like some of the hoods where you are.
Don’t know if it’s cropped up on here, but my super-unpower is that I never am aware of dreaming. I go to bed every night and am dead for seven hours. I had one when we moved to Edinburgh, and we wondered if the neuro-reset and the move might change things. But no, I’m being cheated out of 1/3 of my life.
P.S. – I may have to stop reading your blog, or I’m going to end up self-diagnosing myself with every neurological condition ever discovered.
Och, away. Keep reading. Maybe we’ll all be diagnosed with religion next week….