Adventures in Phantosmia

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I recently read Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks. Chapter 6 was on a phenomenon called “musical hallucinations.” In contrast with musical imagery, where a person imagines the sound of music in her head, musical hallucinations entail truly feeling like you’re hearing music. According to the book, brain scans show that people experiencing musical hallucinations show the same brain activity activity as those actually listening to music. Some who suffer from musical hallucinations are entirely unable to rid themselves of constant and uncontrollable music, to the point that their lives can be overwhelmed by it.

I’ve never experienced this, but reading it did remind me of an experience I had during the winter of 2010-‘11, where I hallucinated a smell. I was in the last couple miles of a 16 mile run with my cross country team on a cold winter morning. We were running by a community center off Marshall Avenue in St. Paul, and I smelled the strongest scent of bubble gum I’d ever smelled. It was quite pleasant. But my mouth was seemingly frozen solid so I didn’t mention it until we finished the run and I had a chance to unthaw. To my surprise, nobody else had noticed the scent.

The top Google image result for "phantosmia."

I had all but forgotten about this experience until I read Musicophilia. I decided to dig in to see what the web had to say about hallucinating smells. Apparently it’s called “Phantosmia”, and usually it’s an unpleasant smell, according to the UK’s NHS.

Wikipedia assures me that phantosmia “often occurs with neurological and psychological disorders such as schizophrenia, mood disorders, Parkinsons disease, epilepsy, neuroblastoma, and frequent migranes,” so I’ve got nothing to worry about. also paints a bright picture: “Phantosmia may occur after a head injury or upper respiratory infection. It can also be caused by temporal lobe seizures, inflamed sinuses, brain tumors and Parkinson’s disease.”

I don’t recall suffering any brain injuries (then again, who remembers suffering a brain injury?), so I’m going to chalk it up to being toward the tail end of an endurance workout and being affected by the cold temperature. Regardless, I’ll be on the lookout for further signs of temporal lobe seizures and brain tumors. I had forgotten about the hallucination until I read the book; I think this is a pretty good argument for not reading anymore, lest I uncover further signs of brain damage hidden from my memory.

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It’s 3:44am and I’m writing this post in an airport cafeteria waiting for a restaurant called Toast Box to open at 4. In a couple hours I’m flying from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

For my last month or so in KL, I didn’t do a whole lot. Lots of relaxing and slowly lounging around town. I started working on software to make building websites easier with two close friends and former co-workers. (That’s here.) KL has been great, but saying I’m excited to get out would be an understatement. I’m ready for something a bit smaller, and I’m ready for a hotel room with windows.