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Scent of Desire, The
the sense of desire
Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heartstrings crack.
On November 22, 1997, Michael Hutchence, lead singer for the internationally renowned Australian band INXS, was found hanging naked in his hotel bedroom, the noose tied with his own leather belt. The last person to see him alive, onetime fling and longtime friend Kym Wilson, was at first suspected to be complicit. She insisted that she and her boyfriend had left Michael fully clothed the night before after a visit in his hotel room. Kym was soon relieved of suspicion and suicide confirmed as the mode of death. But why would the excessively successful and apparently want-free Michael Hutchence take his own life? What could have drawn him into such a deep depression that he would ultimately kill himself? Various accounts by friends and associates, including interviews with Michael Hutchence himself, point to a pivotal and life-altering event that could very well be the precipitating link to his suicide.
In September 1992, Michael Hutchence was in a freak traffic accident. Riding his bicycle home from a nightclub in Copenhagen, he was struck by a car and suffered a fractured skull. In an interview a few months after Michael's death, the journalist Robert Milliken reported in a feature in The Independent (March 1998), that: "His friends are convinced that the accident was a turning point that led to increasing bouts of depression and reliance on Prozac." Richard Lowenstein, the avant-garde Australian filmmaker, told Milliken that ever sincethe accident Michael was on a slow decline. He had never seen any evidence of depression, erratic behavior, or violent temper before, but saw all those things afterward, and he confessed that one night in Melbourne, Michael had broken down in his arms and sobbed: "I can't even taste my girlfriend anymore."
What was it about this accident that so scarred Michael Hutchence? Did he suffer undiscovered brain damage with pathological effects, or was it something more basic and obvious? Michael was a devout hedonist and completely sensual being.1 A self-confessed decadent, Michael's gourmand tastes and lust for life were centered around consumption, and now these lascivious pleasures were irrevocably altered, because the accident had stolen his sense of smell. Without the sense of smell, the temptations of food, the sweaty funk of sex, the essence of a walk on the beach, the feeling of nostalgia—the texture of life itself—were robbed from him. From all accounts, after this accident Michael fell into an increasingly debilitating depression from which he never emerged. As his melancholy progressed, he resorted more and more to both prescription and illicit drugs and alcohol, but these mind-numbing devices were in vain. Could it be that losing his sense of smell, which killed his most basic life pleasures, had such a cataclysmic effect on his well-being that he felt life no longer worth living? From all I know about the sense of smell and the consequences of its loss, this could very well be so.
My suspicion that loss of smell, medically referred to as anosmia (smell blindness), was a crucial factor in the suicide of Michael Hutchence is based on my insights into neurological, psychological, and clinical evidence. First, the neurological interconnection between the sense of smell (olfaction) and emotion is uniquely intimate. The areas of the brain that process smell and emotion are as intertwined and codependent as any two regions in the brain could possibly be. Smell and emotion are located in the same network of neural structures, called the limbic system. The limbic system is the ancient core of the brain, sometimes called the reptilian brain because we share it with reptiles, and sometimes called the rhinencephalon—literally, the "nose-brain." The key limbic structure to interact with our olfactory center is the amygdala. The amygdala is the brain's locus of emotion. Without an amygdala we cannot experience or process emotional experiences, we cannot express our own emotions, and we cannot learn and remember emotional events. Brain imaging studies have shown that when we perceive a scent the amygdala becomes activated, and the more emotional our reaction to the scent, the more intense the activation is. No other sensory system has this kind of privileged and direct access to the part of brain that controls our emotions.
Clinical research on patients who have lost their sense of smell also suggests that Michael Hutchence's anosmia could have led him to suicide. After an acute trauma such as a head injury, which causes anosmia, patients often report a loss of interest in normally pleasurable pursuits, feelings of sadness, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, loss of motivation, inability to concentrate, and thoughts of suicide that can turn into action if not treated.2 These symptoms are all key diagnostics for major depression as described by the DSM-IV,3 the clinician's bible for classifying psychological disorders. The link between smell loss and depressive symptoms is correlational in humans, but cause and effect has been experimentally verified in laboratory animals. Rats who have had their olfactory bulbs surgically removed, and thereby can no longer perceive smells, display physiological and behavioral changes that are strikingly similar to those that occur in depressed people. They stop eating, lie around their cages, and are oblivious to the toys and activities that they normally vigorously enjoy.
Studies of people afflicted with anosmia also indicate that the development of depression is progressive. In one study that contrasted the trauma of being blinded or becoming anosmic after an accident, it was found that those who were blinded initially felt much more traumatized by their loss than those who had lost their sense of smell. But follow-up analyses on the emotional health of these patients one year later showed that the anosmics were faring much more poorly than the blind. The emotional health of anosmic patients typically continues to deteriorate with passing time, in some cases requiring hospitalization and in more tragic cases, such as Michael Hutchence's, ending in suicide.Scent of Desire, The. Copyright © by Rachel Herz. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.