Sunday, August 17, 2014

Stop—And Smell the Gardenia

“Ohhhh, smell this gardenia,” I said to my husband, lifting a freshly picked specimen to his face. Sniff. Sniff. Sniff. SniffSniffSniff. His quick succession of inhalations over the ivory-petaled flower produced no reaction. Continuing at that pace, however, he'd soon be hyperventilating.

What a shame, that he couldn’t partake in the pleasure of the rich fragrance, a fond remembrance of my growing up in the South. In the summers, the scent of gardenias—along with their larger cousins, the magnolia tree flowers—would hang in the warmly humid air. It was practically the only good thing to come from that oppressive heat; our house had only spotty air-conditioning back then.

That little gardenia bush had produced nothing but leafy growth for the past eight years. They are notoriously finicky bloomers in the Bay Area, I've been told. And, this summer marked the first success: a constant profusion of velvety blossoms against shiny, deep-green foliage. The bush is pictured here, along with a metal goat stuck in the rose pot behind it. It is fitting for this post, because my husband’s nickname is Dr. Goat. Here, the goat looks like he might eat the gardenias, fine-smelling or not.

This wasn’t the first time when my husband could not share my appreciation of scented flowers. “I must have blown out my olfactory receptors in the lab,” he always says, speaking of his time spent studying to become a biologist and dealing with various chemicals during experiments in the lab.

For years, I left it at that, though sometimes wondering if a zinc deficiency also might explain his poor sense of smell.  Yet, he doesn’t seem to have any of the other signs of a zinc deficiency, and we eat a fairly zinc-rich diet. Plus, he is always quick to pick up any annoying scent, including scented laundry detergent and fabric softener, chemical deodorizers, colognes, and the like.

Finally, as I continued to extend that gardenia blossom before him, I noticed the manner in which he attempted to take in its scent: SniffSniffSniff. That’s when I realized: He’s not focusing on smelling!  I shared this stroke of insight with him: “Okay, now close your eyes, take a deep breath…”  My husband always erupts into chortles when I make that particular suggestion, so I change tactics.  “Okay, just try to relax and leisurely take in the scent of the gardenia.”  He did.

“Oh, that’s lovely.” he said. Eureka!

After 16 years of studying ADHD, I still learn something new every day. Reading a book, listening to a lecture or a member of our CHADD Silicon Valley Adult ADHD group, or reading posts from the online discussion group that I moderate for the partners of adults with ADHD, I hit upon some small understanding that adds to the larger picture of comprehension. Who knew that we had to “focus” on smelling a flower? Even if a micro-focus, it’s still focus. For me, it gives entirely new meaning to the phrase “Stop—and smell the roses.”

Speaking of roses, I hope you are having a lovely summer.  My summer (and, in fact, most of the last two years) has been spent finishing a professional guide for couple therapists treating ADHD-challenged couples (Routledge, 2015) and writing the chapter on couple therapy for Dr. Russell Barkley’s “gold standard” clinical guide, ADHD: A Diagnosis and Treatment Handbook (Guildford, 2014). So, I hope you will forgive my absence over the past few months, as I’ve been digging even deeper to understand and synthesize for professionals and the reading public the vast range of issues presented by ADHD for adults and their loved ones. I look forward to more regular posting in the coming months.

—Gina Pera


  1. Hi Gina, this topic is interesting to me too. Since being on medication I can smell odors I've never smelled before but should have. Being a nurse, it also makes me wonder about studies done on correlations between lack of the sense of smell and declining mental capabilities in older adults.
    I'm attaching a link on where in the brain the sense of smell is processed. I think you'll find it very interesting, as I did.

    1. Hi Kelly,

      I'm so glad you found the post useful. I find the entire topic fascinating.

      (My husband gave me a book for my birthday, How Dogs Love Us, about a team of researchers' efforts to understand dogs better by scanning their brains...the olfactory centers are HUGE, of course.)

      I've thought about that, too, with older people and declining sense of smell along with mental capabilities.

      Definitely, dopamine has an effect on all the senses.

      I look forward to reading that link.


  2. Interesting. Both my ADHD teens are hyper-sensitive to smells- smells are constantly distracting them. That makes me wonder if some ADHDers adapt by not paying attendtion to scents to reduce distraction...Same observation about sound and hearing....

    1. Excellent theory! Learning to "tune out" to distractions could be an adaptive thing.

      As I wrote in another reply, my husband IS super-sensitive to some smells, especially the synthetic ones.


  3. I'm ADD and I've always had a very strong olfactory sense. Not sure the two are connected in any way, at least speaking for myself.

    1. Yes, with an estimated 10-30 million people affected by some degree of ADHD in the U.S. alone, we can't make blanket statements about ANYTHING having to do with ADHD.

      The interesting thing is, my husband is super-sensitive to scents in other ways. I wear no perfume or scented hair products or hand lotions. We use householder cleaners with no scent and low toxicity.

      If he has to be around someone wearing clothes washed in scented detergent or run through the dryer with those fragrance fabric-softener sheets, he's quite overcome by those synthetic fragrances and will get a headache.

      Of course, most of those ARE neuro-toxic, which is why I've never used them, even before I met my husband.

      So, it's hard to say. In his case, I think he actually doesn't "stop and smell the roses." If something overcomes him, he notices it.


  4. Fun to read. For my massage clients, at a time when I worked with those grieving partners or others lost to AIDS, Cancer, etc., I had my clients smell fragrant plants purposely planted in a "fragrance garden" off my massage area. I found scent to be a powerful way to connect people with the moment they're in. Though I tended to use citrus plants and roses, since the responses from many other plants (including my own from lavender) being varied, and at times, less than ideal! ;-)

    1. Hi Robert, what a beautiful way to start a massage.

      I would personally agree with citrus and roses being good choices.

      Lavender triggers allergies for many people, I think. Lots of pollen, perhaps.


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