Do people experience smell in their dreams?

Woman asleep in meadow

Many of us would say that we dream in images, occasionally waking up after a crazy, scary, cinematic adventure in our unconscious heads. There may be a soundtrack too, with voices or music. But what about smells?

Few people would say they smell in their dreams, but Francesca Faruolo talks vividly about her own experiences.

Her dreams are often fragrant, she says.

"I have very positive olfactory dreams, especially featuring orange flower, a flower linked to the heart," says Faruolo, director of the Smell Festival which takes place every May in the north Italian city of Bologna.

"Olfactory dreamers do exist," she insists. "They are people who, in their everyday lives are either very sensitive to smells or have a highly trained sense of smell."

Academics have done little research on the subject, tending to focus instead on the effect of external smells on our dreams.

Start Quote

You don't smell the coffee and wake up - rather you wake up and then smell the coffee”

End Quote Prof Rachel Herz Brown University

Some of the earliest documented scientific experiments date back 150 years, long before the advent of sleep research labs and electroencephalograms. In his 1865 work, Le sommeil et les reves (Sleep and Dreams), French scholar and physician, Alfred Maury - whose studies were cited by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams - describes his self-induced sensory dream experiences.

To ascertain whether olfactory stimulation could affect our dreams, he instructed an assistant to put eau de Cologne under his nose while he was asleep. On awakening, he reported that he had dreamt he was in Cairo, in the workshop of Giovanni Maria Farina, the perfumer who invented cologne, before embarking on an exciting series of adventures.

Nonsense, says Rachel Herz, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University and author of The Scent of Desire. Her research and experiments indicate people do not respond to odours while they are in the dreaming phase of sleep (REM) or deep sleep.

Smelling fire

Flames from a plug

A small study by the Irondale Fire and Rescue Service in Irondale, Alabama, to ascertain whether the smell of smoke awakens a sleeping person, found that only two out of 10 adults in a test group awoke.

The Irondale fire department's conclusion was that smoke alarms are essential since 80% of people will not be awoken by the odour of smoke.

"You cannot smell while you are asleep," she says. "You don't smell the coffee and wake up; rather you wake up and then smell the coffee."

But, she says, if we very briefly wake up and perceive the scent of coffee, it will wake us further if we are interested in it.

Any odours that are experienced in dreams, like Faruolo's, are "created by the brain not from outside".

That is one theory. Prof Thomas Hummel of the University of Dresden's Smell and Taste Clinic has another. His research corroborates Herz's conclusion that smells do not rouse us from sleep, but olfactory stimuli do influence our dreams, he suggests.

In one experiment, in which volunteers were stimulated with hydrogen sulphide (the rotten-egg stink-bomb smell) and phenyl ethyl alcohol (which resembles the smell of roses), participants reported having more positive dreams with the sweet-smelling stimulus and more negative dreams with the foul-smelling one.

However, none of them reported Maury-style direct incorporation of the smell stimulus into their dreams.

Both Herz and Hummel, though, do accept that olfactory dreams exist, as does Rosalia Cavalieri, author of Il naso intelligente (The Intelligent Nose), though she says they are very rare.

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Just like dreams, smells have an evocative nature which is difficult to express in words”

End Quote Rosalia Cavalieri Author

One reason for this, she speculates, is that the sense of smell is "disregarded, doomed to marginality", especially in Western culture, which gives priority to sight and hearing. Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, called smell the "least rewarding and most easily dispensable" of our senses.

"Just like dreams, smells mostly act outside our conscious sphere and nevertheless condition our behaviour," Cavalieri says. "And, just like dreams, smells have an evocative nature which is difficult to express in words."

Olfactory perception studies have shown that if a smell is familiar or can be named, people perceive it better, even when conscious. This would explain why so many olfactory dreamers are, in Faruolo's experience, involved in the perfume sector. They pay more attention to the sense of smell, and are better at describing smells in words.

Faruolo dedicated this year's Smell Festival to "the scent of dreams" partly because she is fascinated by the idea that in dreams it may be possible to experience smells we have never experienced, or that do not exist in reality.

Helen Keller at St Dunstan's hospital, UK Helen Keller: In my dreams I have sensations... which I do not remember to have had in reality

The most convincing evidence of this on record, according to Cavalieri, comes from the memoirs of the deaf and blind author, Helen Keller, "'compelled' to exert" her sense of smell more than most people. In her book, The World I Live In, Keller writes:

"I smell and taste much as in my waking hours... In my dreams I have sensations, odours, tastes, and ideas which I do not remember to have had in reality."

So perhaps, if we develop our odour awareness, we are all capable of having fantastic scent-rich dreams.

A word of caution though from Professor Hummel, who confesses that, in spite of years of research in the field, he still does not experience olfactory dreams.

"I do not have any. But my wife does."

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A selection of your comments.

I do occasionally perceive aromas while dreaming. Mostly, it is the smell of rain, or, just after a rain... even though it did not rain in reality, during the night. I had only dreamt of being somewhere where it was raining, or had just rained. These are always outdoor scenes, mostly country or forest, very rarely a city. Also, have smelled the water of a stream, or of being in woods where there is water nearby... like a pond or a small lake. I am in my 50s now, but I have always dreamt in colour, with sounds of music sometimes with lyrics (some known, some not) and always dialogue... some pleasant some not.

Norman Plaine, Oxford, North Carolina

I rarely do but two times stand out. The first was abruptly awakening, smelling smoke and thinking the house was on fire but it was smoke from the neighbours' fireplace drifting in. The second was just recently when I dreamed that I was in a foreign bazaar and smelled a spice which was totally new to me. It was absolutely fantastic! The memory of that smell didn't exactly survive my wakening but I'll look for it in the future.

Ken Brunn, Vaulx Milieu, France

I experience smells in my dreams, unrelated to what's happening in waking life. I also experience tastes, which are often linked to smells. I can taste and smell food in dreams. I have been able to do this for as long as I can remember. This increases the strange feeling of a virtual reality world. Although, as with most dreams, these "memories" fade away shortly after waking up.

Andrew Simmons, Maidenhead, UK

I first had a dream with "scents" when I was very small and I still remember the smell. It was a nightmarish dream and the smell wasn't nice at all. Since then I have discovered the smell exists - mostly near chemical plants and still not at all pleasant. I'm pretty sure it was only in my brain at the time and I have had other - more pleasant - odours in dreams since.

Divan Boland, Bremen, Germany

I had a dream where someone was massaging my shoulders and I remember the crisp peppermint smell of the massage lotion. No, there wasn't any such smell in my bedroom, nor had I recently encountered it in my waking life.

Peter Lakanen, Tallahassee, Florida

I often dream that I am smelling smoke and wake up in a panic. I can still smell the smoke for the next 6-10 inhales before it dissipates. Luckily for me, this also happens with the scent of cake or cookies baking, leading me to think I left something in the oven. I get up, still smelling the strong scent, and head off to the kitchen. Halfway there the scent disappears and there are no cookies or cake to be found.

Sheri, Wisconsin

I often smell floral fragrances and I once smelt freshly turned soil.

Irene Walker, Edmonton, Canada

I certainly encounter my sense of smell while dreaming - chiefly to do with seasonal shifts but also food and wine. To that end: not only do tried-and-true pairings surface in dreams but wine and food matching that one would never think of trying during the waking day - many which have inspired wondrous, altogether new matches after waking up; why else would I ever in a million years venture to try matching a garrigue-driven Ch√Ęteauneuf-du-Pape with an arugula salad highlighting citrus and rosemary -a red wine (!) with spicy greens and bittersweet citrus?!

Nicholas Livingston, Minneapolis, USA

I often smell in my dreams. Heavy scents, most of the time, either flowers (roses, peonies, geranium) or earthy smells, (rotten leaves, damp earth, burnt wood). I noticed that, when particularly stressed, a smell wakes me up; always the same, something burning. I get up and go around the house three times, thinking the house is on fire! It never is, and there is no lingering smell of smoke either (I don't smoke, don't have a fire place...)

P M, Montreal, Canada

I smell and taste things in my dreams and have always wondered if others do too. I work in the food and wine industry and collect colognes, so I use my sense of smell and taste all day and have to remember them for my profession. All of the odors and tastes from my dreams have been powerful and pleasant. Usually things like blossoms or chocolate. When I was on a strict diet, I would dream of eating all the foods I couldn't eat in real life.

Amber Solnick, Florida, USA

I occasionally smell smoke when l am asleep - its a powerful enough image that l wake up to check the house is not on fire. When l do wake up & look round though, there is no actual smell of smoke anywhere.

Deborah Willis, Echenevex, France

This is weird, only last night I woke up and could have sworn I could smell horses. I've never really been a "horsy" person but living in the countryside I do know the smell. It has to have been a completely imagined smell as there's nothing in the house that I could remotely associate with it. I've had occasions in the past where I've woken up with a very distinct smell with no obvious source, although as with most dreams I'd be hard pressed to remember them more than a few minutes after waking up.

Jon Nicholson, Cambridge

I have had one dream in which I recall the strong smell of cedar. It was very recent and accompanied by interaction with people in a wooded area...like a campground. I have been searching to learn what it might mean.

R W , USA

I have had strong smell dreams. of course the smells accompany other visual sensory aspects of the dream. Unfortunately most of these dreams have been negative smells in mild nightmares. In one I tried to get the foul smell of excrement off me as I went thorough an unpleasant place.The strongest memory of that dream is the foul smell. If anything in my dreams is weak it is the soundtrack.That is rare for me . I think the sensory quality of dream experience is quite variable in individuals and between people.

James O'Brien, Belfast

I can clearly remember 2 dreams with vivid smells that were not in the air where I was sleeping (I have several times incorporated smells from the environment, but these two times the smells were entirely dream-fabricated). One was a nightmare wherein I smelled the fetid breath of a vampire; in the other I was in a field and very vividly smelled floral scents.

Patrick Wooldridge, Chicago

I used to live with my ex husband in an old farmhouse ( 1800) in the South of France. Our bedroom used to be upstairs in the oldest part of the house. This is where the servants used to sleep. Several times, i have woken up to the smell of someone lighting a match and once a cigarette, a very strong and vivid smell, very near to my face.

Manuela de los Santos, Toulouse

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