So when you enter a recently occupied bathroom, you really have to just put up with smelling the poop? Sucks to be you.
October 6, 2012 10:20 PM   Subscribe

Can you turn your sense of smell on and off at will?

Because I can. So am I medical anomaly or can everyone do this?

When I'm somewhere that smells unpleasant, I can just shut off my sense of smell by not breathing through my nose - just blocking the airflow with whatever I've got up there that does that. But I've noticed other people around me can't seem to do the same. I've asked various people at one time or another if they can do this thing too and the answer is always no followed by some mild vaguely disbelieving wonder that I can - but maybe I'm just not explaining it well enough to them.

I hope this isn't the dumbest question ever. I've just always been curious.
posted by Jess the Mess to Health & Fitness (33 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If I don't breathe through my nose, odors are less intense, but I can still smell them - I can't block them completely.
posted by insectosaurus at 10:23 PM on October 6, 2012

I cannot smell bad smells if I don't breathe through my nose. I did not realize this was at all unusual.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:30 PM on October 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hm.... I'm pretty sure this is a thing that everyone can do but maybe other people just don't get the explanation? I mean, I get what you mean: it kinda feels like you can close your nasal passageways, right? I guess, to explain it, imagine you're going to hock up a loogie. That moment of pressure when you're accumulating mucus in your throat is similar to what you would be doing when you're closing your nose, except without all of that pressure and that air rushing through your nose when you release said pressure.
posted by Qberting at 10:32 PM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Are you asking them what happens if they breathe only through their mouths, or are you asking them "can you turn your sense of smell off?" Because I can (and totally do) breathe through my mouth when dealing with a bad smell, but if someone asked me if I can turn my sense of smell off, I'd say no. I'm not turning off the ability to sense bad smells, I'm just keeping the smells away from the part that can sense them.
posted by needs more cowbell at 10:33 PM on October 6, 2012 [6 favorites]

I had never even considered the possibility that anyone could do this until I saw this thread. I wish I could put these explanations into practice, but I don't think I can. If I go into an area where there's a bad smell, I have two choices: either tolerate it or leave.
posted by John Cohen at 10:36 PM on October 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yes, you're not really turning your senses off, you're just not breathing. It's like saying that you're blind when you close your eyes. Or you've lost your sense of touch when you're not touching anything.
posted by inturnaround at 10:38 PM on October 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

I can do this too. It doesn't seem that weird to me?
posted by joan_holloway at 10:40 PM on October 6, 2012

I'm likely a "super taster" - so, bad smells are AWFUL to me. I can not turn them off.

I don't know what others in this thread are talking about, but I am so jealous!

Bad breath of another in an open room or even outdoors can cause me to gag. Breathing through my mouth doesn't help.

You guys are all lucky.
posted by jbenben at 11:13 PM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read somewhere that the sense of smell gets tired and one can't smell individual odors after a few minutes.
posted by brujita at 11:27 PM on October 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

For me, it is way worse for a bad odor to enter my head via my mouth than it is through my nose. I feel like I can "taste" it if I am breathing it in through my mouth.
posted by wats at 12:05 AM on October 7, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I can do this— close off the passage to my nose, I mean; it's the same thing that closes when I'm making an 's' (or 'p' or 'b') sound— but like needs more cowbell, I wouldn't have thought of this as turning off my sense of smell. I think of it as akin to holding my breath (although of course I'm still breathing through my mouth).
posted by hattifattener at 12:05 AM on October 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

If I breathe through my mouth it's in some ways worse - if I'm breathing through my nose then I'm just 'smelling' it. But the sense of taste is linked to smell, so if I breathe through my mouth then the scent still gets to my olfactory sensors through the connection between them, and worse yet the feeling I have is that I'm 'tasting' it. So if I'm somewhere with a really bad smell I end up sort of holding my breath (or breathing really shallowly through my nose).

I think I know what folks mean as far as closing off your olfactory passages - I have a cold right now and can sort of do a thing that makes breathing through my nose not work - but the feeling I get there is that it's like I'm suffocating.
posted by Lady Li at 12:14 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I never considered that some people could not (or had not learned how to) close off their nasal passage while leaving their throat open to breathe through their mouth. It's something I do every time I'm faced with a bad smell that I'd rather avoid while remaining in the area (recently: cleaning up cat puke).

When I do it, what happens is that I'm closing my soft palate while leaving my epiglottis open. (Better visualized in labeled images here and here.)

You're not a medical anomaly. You just better embraced the "breathe through your mouth" or "don't breathe through your nose" advice as a kid, and learned to separately utilize more muscles than some people, apparently.

Now, I wonder if this is more or less common than intentionally tasting/"smelling" the flavor of food in your mouth by exhaling in a certain way while chewing... another weird thing I do.
posted by WasabiFlux at 12:45 AM on October 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Everyone (except for a few people with anatomical problems) can close off their nasal passages and continue to breathe. We have to be able to do this to produce differences between oral and nasal speech sounds (i.e. n, m, etc are made with the soft palate lowered, allowing air to escape through the nose; non-nasal sounds are made with it raised). It also happens automatically when swallowing (and, I think sneezing).

But I guess people differ as to how well they can continue to detect odors (whether through taste or smell) with the nose blocked off. It might be a matter of how complete the closure is - you could test this by pinching your nose shut, breathing through your mouth, and seeing whether the smell is still as strong as it is when you close your nasal passages by raising your velum. I think it's more likely to do with how sensitive your taste buds are.

Personally I can smell nothing, or almost nothing, if I stop breathing through my nose. But I'm certainly not a supertaster.
posted by lollusc at 12:57 AM on October 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I can do this and I am probably a super taster (never heard of that before but I spend my life saying "can't you smell that?? really?? it's so strong!").

I bet the people who know what you're talking about swim or surf or kayak or dive, it's how you prevent water in the sinuses I suppose.
posted by fshgrl at 1:07 AM on October 7, 2012

Best answer: I'm in the "I have no idea what you're talking about" camp when it comes to shutting off your nose. If I breathe through my mouth only, I can still smell things, just less intensely, and I can slightly taste them too. It doesn't feel like my nose is "closed off" when I breathe through my mouth, and smells still drift up there.
posted by penguin pie at 1:07 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I thought it was normal to be able to do this.

Last night I was doing this while I changed the litterboxes but noticed my boyfriend (who was helping) had his shirt pulled over his nose and had to leave the area after 45 seconds. I said "don't breathe through your nose" and he replied, "how??"
I thought HE was the abnormal one.
posted by KogeLiz at 2:11 AM on October 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

I cannot do this. I also can't go under water without plugging my nose with my fingers.
posted by whalebreath at 4:16 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can pretty much do this, I believe, but I believe that there's also a psychological element. If you accept that what you are smelling is unpleasant but not harmful or anything the acclimation process seems to proceed all the faster.

Just as I once intellectualized the process of eating a pickled pig's foot -- I mean, I eat all kinds of bacon and ham and I'm not averse to pork rinds or anything -- and was able to get though it, if in the shitter I reason "Well, this is better than that WWI trench-grade air freshener they use around the office," then not particularly caring seems to speed the plow.
posted by mr. digits at 6:27 AM on October 7, 2012

I can cut off breathing through my nose and then I don't smell anything (very useful ability, I've won the praise and gratitude of my wife by volunteering for the emergency canine ordure handler position). The rest of the family can't do that trick. Or so they say.
posted by hat_eater at 6:42 AM on October 7, 2012

Best answer: I can do this, and like you I've noticed that a lot of people have no idea what I'm talking about. Like lollusc says, I'm pretty sure everyone is capable of closing off that passage, but I wonder if some folks never learned to do it consciously?
posted by goodbyewaffles at 6:58 AM on October 7, 2012

Best answer: Seems like there are two different questions being answered here: (1) how common it is for people to be able to stop smelling what's around them, and (2) whether it should be described as "turning off your sense of smell." The answer to question 2 is clearly "no," just like you still have your sense of vision even when you close your eyes to stop seeing what's around you. I think it's pretty clear that the OP is interested in question 1, not question 2.
posted by John Cohen at 7:05 AM on October 7, 2012

I can easily "shut off" the flow of air through my nose while breathing through my mouth, and I sometimes use that as a way to avoid the full intensity of bad smells. But I wouldn't describe it as "turning my sense of smell off." The sense of smell is still there, I'm just not subjecting it to the fresh flow of air. Sometimes I still smell things faintly, though I'm not sure of the mechanism (e.g. am I really tasting rather than smelling? did I trap smellecules in my nose when I closed it off?). Experience suggests that nauseatingly, throat-searingly intense skunk odor is impossible to stop smelling by this method.

A data point for fshgrl's hypothesis: I learned to swim at an earlier-than-average age and have been an enthusiastic swimmer and boater for my entire life.
posted by Orinda at 7:15 AM on October 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Okay, I'm slightly disappointed that I don't have a unique physical super power but the answers here are fascinating. It seems some people can do it and some people can't. What makes it so interesting is it's something I've never heard anyone talk about! Is it a learned skill? Maybe it's genetic, like being able to roll your tongue or not? Fwiw, for me the sensation is exactly like what qberting subscribes and when I do it I smell nothing but interestingly when I stop doing it, sometimes the original smell is still there and I get a little whiff even if the actual source of the smell has been eliminated.

Also, I was an early swimmer too, so maybe fshgirl is on to something?

I feel like some medical journal should really do a study on this, hehe.
posted by Jess the Mess at 7:50 AM on October 7, 2012

Best answer: Is it a learned skill?

Probably. When I was getting my scuba certification, one of the tests was to be underwater, facemask removed, no plugging your nose or shutting your eyes, and keep breathing through the regulator. It was surprisingly tricky, because the water was pushing in (albeit with only a few feet of pressure) which was enough to make breathing in without inhaling water through my nose difficult.

I had to be incredibly conscious of keeping my nose shut off, much more so than just avoiding some smells in the bathroom, so it wouldn't surprise me that many people hadn't developed it even that far.
posted by Forktine at 8:31 AM on October 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Also, I was an early swimmer too, so maybe fshgirl is on to something?

More evidence of that: I could never learn to swim properly because I always found it intolerable to put my head underwater. I've never been able to fathom how people are able to do this. And as I said in my first comment, I had never even thought of doing the nose thing. (We need a sequel to the "doing it wrong" thread!)
posted by John Cohen at 8:43 AM on October 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am extremely (migraineily) sensitive to odors and I can do this easily. Very strong smells can sometimes still sneak in ever so slightly, although it is also possible that I am just olfactorily "remembering" the strong smell that I smelled before I stopped breathing through my nose. Like, I wonder if it somehow lingers in my sinuses/nostrils and continues triggering my sense of smell.

now i am thinking deep stoner thoughts about nose memory
posted by elizardbits at 10:11 AM on October 7, 2012

I can't really "shut it off," but between mouth breathing and the fact that my nose will stop registering a smell pretty quickly after I've inhaled several giant snoots of it, it does tend to stop working after awhile.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:43 AM on October 7, 2012

Agreed with the theory it could be related to swimming in some way. I learned to swim quite early and also do handstands underwater, which (at least for me) requires this skill not to be extremely uncomfortable.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:50 AM on October 7, 2012

I do this, too. I never breathe through my nose or smell anything when I'm in a bathroom that has been used recently or is being used. I actually hold my breath but I could breathe through my mouth without smelling anything.

We are great!
posted by ramenopres at 11:50 AM on October 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

For what it's worth, I can definitely do this, am probably a "super taster" and generally very sensitive to smells, but I wasn't an early swimmer and hated being underwater as a kid. I'd always figured it was genetic, kind of like wiggling your ears or rolling your tongue, since one of my parents is also able to do this but most people I've known don't seem to know how.
posted by Jelly at 12:26 PM on October 7, 2012

More anecdata: I was an early swimmer who quickly discovered that not plugging my nose led to sinus infections. I cannot close off my nose or not smell by breathing through my mouth.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 10:07 PM on October 7, 2012

I skimmed the replies, but wanted to add - I can do this as well, I have no problem with "gross" smells as I just close off my nose and I'm fine. It doesn't involve holding my breath or contorting my face at all, it's similar to a closed-mouth yawn, where you feel your ears pop, except I just close off the inside of my nose.
posted by bender b rodriguez at 11:49 AM on October 8, 2012

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