“My sense of smell helps me build up a picture of the world”

Posted by
Lucy Partington
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From cinnamon buns just out the oven to freshly mown grass – imagine if your favourite smells drastically changed. In a new series, Stylist speaks to people with olfactory extremes.  

Altered Scents is Stylist’s new series which explores a range of olfactory extremes: from people who’ve lost their sense of smell, to others who can smell too much.

Here, we speak to Amy Kavanagh who was born partially-sighted. She relies on her sense of smell to invoke memories and to help her navigate her environment. 

“I use smell as a navigational cue: I’ll know to turn a corner because there’s a coffee shop, and I know what my street smells like”

“I was born visually impaired – I have partial vision sometimes and other times I experience total sight loss. When you’re born with less than useful sight, smell is an intuitive part of how you build up a picture of the world.

I don’t have extrasensory perception like a lot of people think – if my hearing or sense of smell was tested it would probably be no different to anybody else’s, I just use mine more effectively. I rely on it because my world only extends a couple of metres in front of me. The rest is a blur.

Amy Kavanagh was born partially sighted. She relies on her sense of smell to invoke memories and to help her navigate her environment.

I use smell as a navigational cue: I’ll know to turn a certain corner because there’s a coffee shop, or I know the next road because there’s an Indian takeaway, and I know what my street smells like. But it’s not always reliable – if the coffee shop is closed, for example.

Smell helps me build up a mental picture of an area – I quite like the smell of the brake dust on the tube that lets me know I’m near the platform edge. To me, London always smells of pollution and I can tell if somebody is in the countryside a lot, mostly because they don’t have a tell-tale grimy smell.

Those environmental smells were especially present while I was doing research for my History PhD in India. People often complain about the overwhelming smells of different countries, but I loved it, to me it just created a richer picture of life.

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South Asian culture is quite scent heavy: there’s night jasmine everywhere, even in really urban areas, and every corner has a different kind of shrine with incense. Alperton in northwest London takes me back to the streets of New Delhi every time I visit. 

The first time it actually stopped me in my tracks: the coconuts being cut, the smell of incense and the sugary sweets instantly took me back to my travels. It was quite emotional. My sister’s getting married in a temple there and I’m really looking forward to it – even though I won’t be able to see it, I’ll be able to take in the atmosphere.

Our sense of smell is one of those things people don’t really think about or focus on but it’s actually really powerful. It can provide a sense of place and makes me feel rooted to an environment. It can be very stabilising. 

There’s a whole world of smell out there if you pay attention to it.”

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Lucy Partington

Freelance beauty editor Lucy Partington is obsessed with all things skincare, collecting eyeshadow palettes that she'll probably never use, and is constantly on the hunt for the ultimate glowy foundation.

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