In A Nutshell
It’s a condition called phantosmia, the experiencing of phantom smells. While most people who suffer from these olfactory hallucinations don’t associate it with any related trigger, Max Livesey says that he can predict the weather with his hallucinations. According to the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, it’s not unlikely. A drop in barometric pressure can impact our sense of smell, and for those with smell hallucinations, it can make them even stronger.
The Whole Bushel
The BBC calls him Max Livesey. That’s not his real name, they note, but he claims to have such an odd ability that it’s no wonder that he wants to keep his real identity under wraps.
Livesey can predict the weather with his rather unconventional sense of smell. Specifically, he says that he can tell when a storm is coming, up to 10 hours before it actually hits. The first time he noticed it happening, he says he was convinced that there was a family of skunks that had taken up residence nearby. When the smells didn’t go away, he went to the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago.
At a glance, what was happening with his sense of smell wasn’t out of the ordinary. Suffering from Parkinson’s, an impaired sense of smell is to be expected. But Livesey was experiencing something a little less common: phantosmia.
Phantosmia is defined simply as smelling something that isn’t there. Anyone can experience these olfactory hallucinations at any time, and while most aren’t serious and go away quickly, chronic cases can be caused by anything from migraines or nasal infections to strokes, head injuries, or diseases that impact the nervous system, like Parkinson’s.
Just how accurate a human barometer Livesey is hasn’t been confirmed, but it’s not out of the question. Researchers at the Chicago institute say that it’s not unlikely, as they have found that a change in barometric pressure can impact our sense of smell. As pressure drops—like it does before a storm moves through—our sense of smell lessens. In Livesey’s case, his already-depressed sense of smell is contributing to his phantosmia, and the change in barometric pressure that goes along with a storm can make it worse.
Not everyone who has phantosmia associates it with any particular trigger. (That’s in the definition of the condition, after all.) The closely related parosmia, on the other hand, is an olfactory hallucination that is linked with a particular smell. Those suffering from parosmia have specific links between what they should be smelling and what they think they’re smelling. In these cases, the person usually interprets the smell as something unpleasant. They will, for example, smell rotting flesh every time they get a whiff of coffee or have their nose interpret the smell of bananas as the smell of a backed-up sewer.
Diagnosing phantom smells can be tricky, too, as there are a number of different things that can cause them. When New York writer Jane Andrews started smelling the relentless smell of dirt—what she described as a wet, earthy smell—she was subjected to a series of MRIs, CT scans, EEGs, and round after round of antibiotics in order to determine whether or not there were any infections, tumors, epilepsy, or other possible medical conditions present that might encourage the smells. There weren’t, and she had to learn to either live with the constant, overwhelming scents (dirt was replaced by burnt chili, and finally lavender, which she said wasn’t any better) or try to cure it with nasal rinses or even anti-depressants, sedatives, or anti-epileptic drugs.
Show Me The Proof
National Health Services: Phantosmia
NY Times: A Pungent Life: The Smells in My Head
BBC Future: ‘I can predict the weather with my nose’
National Library of Medicine: Euosmia: a rare form of parosmia