Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Dreaming of Smell

Do we dream in odor? Artists and poets think so—for example, the decadent 19th century writer J.-K. Huysmans described a vivid dream sequence involving scent and color—but the question has rarely been investigated scientifically. Back at the dawn of scientific psychology an instructor at Wellesley College named Mary Whiton Calkins analyzed dream diaries kept by two volunteers over a six to eight week period. Her results, published as “Statistics of Dreams” in the American Journal of Psychology in 1893, showed that smells appear in dreams only occasionally: visual and auditory perceptions are far more common. A follow-up study at Wellesley by Sarah Weed and Florence Hallam in 1896 estimated that odors show up in 15% or less of all dreams.

It was a hundred years before the question was tackled again. In 1998, researchers at McGill University in Montreal asked 164 people whether they had ever experienced sensations of smell or taste in their dreams; 41% of women said yes, as did 35% of men. The McGill team also gave the participants a bedside log in which to write their dreams each morning. They ended up collecting 3,372 dream reports. About half of these mentioned auditory impressions but only 1% mentioned smell. The diaries also revealed a huge sex difference. As in so many other measures of odor perception, women are more tuned in than men: odorous dreams were recorded in the diaries of 20.9% of women but only 2.0% of men. It appears that dream smelling is a widespread but low frequency phenomenon: in other words, it’s something many people have experienced but not all that often.

Can odors from the real world make their way into our dreams? Since the early sleep studies of the 1950s, we have known that external stimuli such as light and sound are occasionally incorporated into dream content. Play music next to someone in the REM stage of sleep, for example, and he may dream that he is conducting an orchestra. In 1988, sleep researchers at Cal State Sacramento exposed people to a smell for five minutes during a REM episode. They woke them a minute later and asked them what they were dreaming. An odor was mentioned about 19% of the time, a rate of dream incorporation similar to other types of external stimuli.

Here’s a typical result from the study:
The subject was presented with a freshly cut lemon while
in REM sleep. The resulting dream was: “I dreamed I was
in Golden Gate Park. I was walking by some gardenias.
They were just opening. All of a sudden, I could smell the
gardenias, but they smelled like lemons instead of gardenias.
The researchers used both pleasant smells (lemon, peanut butter, roses, etc.) and unpleasant smells (match smoke, dog feces, onion, etc.). The pleasant smells were more likely to show up in dreams (on 27% of attempts) than were unpleasant ones (11% of tries). Oddly, the pleasantness of the smell had little effect on the emotional tone of the dream itself: roughly a third of all odor-stimulated dreams were unpleasant in tone.

A similar experiment was reported a few weeks ago at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Otolaryngology in Chicago. A German team found that unpleasant smells produced dreams with predominantly negative emotional content, while nice smells made for pleasant dreams. This yet-to-be-published result is slightly at odds with the Sacramento State finding, but one thing seems clears: The boundary between dreamscape and smellscape is porous. Scents from the real world stimulate our sleeping nose and sneak into the nighttime unreality of our dreams.

The Australian psychologists Richard Stevenson and Trevor Case examined dream smells in a questionnaire study in 2004. Of the 284 participants, 26.4% had had olfactory dreams. When descriptions of these smell dreams were analyzed about half turned out to be food related—with bacon leading the way. Smoke or burning odors appeared in 21% and body or animal odors turned up in another 21%. As in the waking world, smell sensations in dreams were briefer and more emotional than the visual experiences.

Stevenson and Case also had their volunteers fill our questionnaires on visual and olfactory mental imagery ability. (Full disclosure: the olfactory questionnaire was one I co-wrote with Melissa Crouch and Sarah Kemp and published in the Journal of Mental Imagery.) They discovered multiple links between dream smelling and smell ability in the waking world. First, olfactory dreamers experience both visual and olfactory imagery more vividly than non-olfactory dreamers. Second, people with more vivid mental imagery for smells have more vivid smell dreams. A follow-up experiment found a third link: olfactory dreamers are better at identifying odors in a smell test.

All of this suggests to me that some people are simply more tuned into odors than others. Smell-oriented people—those who identify odors accurately and imagine them vividly—tend to dream in smell as well. Olfactory talent shows itself all around the clock.

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello -- I am glad to find your blog having awakened to a burnt toast dream odor! Unusual for me to have an olfactory dream! -- C

Leslie said...

10-29-09 Last night I had my first olfactory dream. It is not unusual for me to sleep walk & talk during stressful times but I actually woke up due to the smell of brewing coffee. I also heard the sound of the coffee brewing. I thought my husband had set the timer incorrectly but this morning there was no coffee. There were no dreams about coffee or anything related to coffee. The smell actually woke me up. Thank you for posting the research; my husband started talking about brain tumors :-).

Avery Gilbert said...

Leslie:

I don't usually wake up until I've smelled the coffee either . . .

Martha Williams said...

When I have extremely vivid dreams, they often come true. So, after dreaming twice in one night about my son, I called to warn him to stay away from alcoholic drinks. I told him that in both dreams he had smelled very strongly of alcohol. He asked if I meant that there was something in the room where I was sleeping that smelled like alcohol. Up until that time, I had assumed that everyone has olfactory sensations when they dream. Since then, I have asked a lot of my friends about this. Colors, smells, sounds, actions are always very important components in my dreams. I don't understand why everyone does not have these factors in their dreams.

mary said...

On the subject of smelling in your dreams; I dreamt last night that I received a large plant that had a white gardenia in it and I smelled it.. It was lovely!!!

Heather said...

I am a 34 year old female and have had 3 instances where I have smelled an unexplainable odor. The first time I was on a swing in the front yard at dark. I started to scare myself, I was about 11 or 12, and instantly smelled this odor. I was awake. The second time I smelled the exact smell in a dream. A transparent face with white feathers blew in my face and evoked the same smell. I woke immediately. The last one happened last night. The odor was different but still horrid. I was dreaming my husband and I were in our car parked at night. Something scrapped the side of the car. A few seconds later something banged into the side of the car and I instantly smelled this smell and woke. When I think of these I get so freaked out, watery eyes and chill bumps. I am a fan of horror and don't scare easily but these smells are like no other. I do know what a dead body smells like and these smells are not it. I can only describe it as the smell of fear and it is an awful, awful smell.

Kym said...

I am a 45 year old woman and last night I had an extremely vivid dream of walking down a street and every tree, bush or flower that I walked past I could smell exactly what they smelt like and feel the texture of them as well. I must say I awoke feeling that I had actually been there and it has left me with a lovely feeling.

Anonymous said...

Late to the comments, but this happened to me last night and it freaked me out.

I had a dream that my house was on fire and I was woken up by the smell of burning wood (not a smoke smell but a burning wood smell). After I jumped out of bed looking for the fire I realized everything was fine.

I spent the next couple of hours looking in the house, outside, in the basement and even crawled into the attic for signs of fire that never occurred.

I am a 39 year old male and that has never happened to me before. I did not even know it was possible.

I hope it never happens again because I was scared that the house was really on fire and if I went back to bed I would be overcome by the fire and killed. (Why I searched the attic)

Anonymous said...

I had my first one (as far as I can recall: I'm male in late 60's) last night, and was surprised to read here that it is not all that rare. Interestingly, mine was of cooking smells of Indian cuisine - frying garlic, and the typical curry spices. I'm not Indian but do a lot of this kind of cooking myself. After the second round I was sure that one of our grown kids was cooking something but that was not the case, and being winter all the windows were closed so even if the neighbors were into 2AM curry snacks (they are most definitely not), it couldn't have wafted in from outside. I was amazed to find I had dreamed it, but actually enjoyed the whole experience.

Anonymous said...

I had my first olfactory dream the other night. I dreamt I smelled dirt (I live in a vet clean house, BTW). It reinforced an image of a puff of dirt that I saw in my dream.

Avery Gilbert said...

Anonymous 2/1/2012:

I'm not surprised you became hyper-alert after dreaming of wood smoke. I remember coming out of a deep sleep and sitting bolt upright once at 2 a.m. because I smelled the distinctive odor of a house fire. There was a small blaze a couple of doors down and the fire dept. hadn't even arrived.

I bet there are special brain circuits for fire-related smells. Maybe that's what your dream tapped into.

Avery Gilbert said...

Anonymous 2/10/2012:

Curry-scented dreams . . . nice! What a contrast to the previous commenter with the anxiety-making burning smells.

I've had a couple of scented dreams myself over the years. One involved the delicious aroma of bread baking in the oven. I was disappointed when I woke up and found it was just a dream.

Avery Gilbert said...

Anonymous 2/10/2012:

Wow. This thread continue to grow, now with a visual-olfactory puff of dirt dream.

This "Dreaming of Smell" post continues to be one of the most viewed on FirstNerve. Clearly a topic that grabs a lot of people--even though several commenters mention just having their first olfactory dream.

This reinforces my view that "dream smelling is a widespread but low frequency phenomenon: in other words, it’s something many people have experienced but not all that often."

Interesting that more of the dream reports are coming from men than one would expect from the 1998 McGill study.

Anonymous said...

I woke up up last night to go to the restroom,and I had the VERY strong odor of dog feces. I don't ever remember my dreams, so I don't know what was going on, but I must have been half asleep. My dog is at my parents' house an hour away!

Anonymous said...

Oh boy! For the last few months, I am having dreams of all colors! As I'm taking antidepressant, every night I dream n dream, but tonight I had the weirdest dream " laughs"!
I was invited to dance with someone with long hair apparently a hippie artist male (I didn't feel any boobs:) , it was a slow dance) who smells like real shit!! I almost was throwing up and I woke up and still that shity smell in my nose!! Hey I'm straight male and never had a dance in the last few yrs with a female!! It would feel good to smell a neat woman dancing cheek to cheek ehh!!
Happy dreams folks!!

ADD MOMMY said...

I have just been doing some research on smell and other senses during and after dreaming. I always remember my dreams and they have always been in color. However, I do sense smell in my dreams about once a week. The smell lingers on about an hour after I wake. Never told anyone....thought it was kinda odd. I don't take drugs of any kind nor do I suffer from a mental condition. Wish I could get an explanation. The smells vary from Old Spice ( dreaming of time with my grandfather) to flowers (dreaming of running through a field of flowers). When I am not dreaming my senses are like on steroids. I have a strong sense of hearing and smell. Very odd but lived with it sense I was a child. .

Anonymous said...

Although my typical dreams don't feature taste and smell (as far as I can remember, at least), a fair number have included strong smells-- but taste has always been the strongest factor. Often, the tastes in my dreams are remarkably horrible, more powerful and nauseating than anything my tongue has ever encountered in real life. I've never been able to find any external stimuli that could trigger the tastes; it seems to come out of the blue in my mind. And though, believe me, I'd rather forget about the tastes, they always stick with me. I still gag at the thought of one fateful taste dream I had at four years old...

BodyCare RN said...

I awoke to the smell of a lit match. Instantly I took a deep sniff when I smelled it, but I didn't smell it any longer. It was as if someone lit a match right at my nose. This has happened before where I awoke to the smell of smoke. I instantly checked on my kids, but nothing thankfully. I wonder if sleep apnea has anything to do with this. I do snore and my husband as well. Which he has wakened to a smoke smell before, and I was awake in bed beside him on my iPad.

Hymnsinger said...

Just had my first olfactory dream, and immediately went online to find out about it!

I was in a house overlooking the ocean, and began opening windows to let the breeze in. It was night and I was going to bed. I smelled rain and as I opened a window noticed it was raining (Not raining in reality!). Then I realized (didn't "see" them) that someone had a campfire on the beach. I could smell the wood smoke! This woke me up immediately. I was disappointed. it was a wonderful dream!

Anonymous said...

I had an olfactory dream last night. In it, I arrived in Armenia and could vividly smell the "campfire" smell in the air as I did when there a couple years ago.

Ginny Paul said...

So glad I found this information.... I was feeling a little bit crazy! As far as I remember, I don't think that I have ever had an olfactory dream. I do, however, have extremely vivid, colorful dreams that I sometimes describe as "epic" or "movie-like" , and can usually remember every detail when I wake up. Especially since I have become pregnant. (I am a 28 year old Female)

To make a very long story of last nights dream short, I was dreaming I was piled in bed (very innocently, mind you) with 4 people, two of which I didn't know, and every time I would turn over or move the covers I got an incredibly strong waft of menthol.... Like Vicks vapor rub. I could still smell it when I woke up.... And still can right now if I think about it. I asked my husband if at any point in the night he might have used anything like that, and he said no.
I will say that this smell reminds me of my father who died almost 16 years ago. Not sure if that means anything.... But I do remember now that he was in my dream..... Not piled in bed. But he was there at one point.

MirandaSol said...

I'm so glad I'm not going crazy! Last night the smell of a burning tortilla and food cooking woke me up. It was so strong! I even got up to check the stove and make sure it was off. I'm not sure what's going on. As I'm dozing off I've also heard knocks on the front door and have made my husband check to see if someone is there. I've read that's also common too. Will these things ever go away?

Sticker said...

After my second olfactory dream in a month, I decided to see if there was any information on it. I have never experienced this before in my 46 years.. Both dreams have awaken me because the smell is so incredibly real. The first was a distinct burning smell that had me running around the house smelling in fear. The second was a bakery smell, which was so pleasant I wanted to lay still savoring the moment after I realized my husband was not baking in the kitchen. Thanks for letting me share and knowing it is not totally atypical by the number of posts.

toni said...

last night i dreamt i was clearing a large house as a job and there was a cat under a duvet on a bed. when i lifted the duvet to see the cat i could smell cat wee! i don't have a cat. have had one in other houses though so i know the smell! as far as i can remember this is the first time i have smelt something in a dream. i dream a lot as i don't sleep very well, and often remember my dreams.

Anonymous said...

Last night I dreamed that I was holding a beautiful woman close. I could smell her distinct womanly scent, that perfect, subtle scent of a woman. It was intoxicating, I woke up wishing I were still there.

Jessica H said...

I found this article because I googled "dreaming of smells". I often have very vivid and detailed dreams. Many times I've experienced taste in them, such as being at a wonderful buffet and eating but not getting full. I also commonly have dreams of drinking water that has this horrid indescribable taste. Last night I dreamt I was cleaning a classroom under a teacher's instruction (I've been out of school many years) and I began to smell this horrible chemical smell that burned my nose. I am currently pregnant and in my dream it was as if I suddenly remembered that fact and was scared the fumes would negatively hurt the baby. I was curious if there was something external that made me smell that in my dream, but now I'm confident and a little comforted that it was "all in my head".

Anonymous said...

I woke this morning to the smell of onions starting to burn in a frying pan. So strong was it, that my eyes were watering and my throat was burning. Fearing that my daughter had put something on the stove in one of her late night insomnia bouts, and then fallen asleep, I jumped out of bed and checked the kitchen. Only to find everything turned off. This happened only once before, but since the smell was of dog poo, and we have a dog in the room who emits gas from time to time, I chalked it up to that, and went back to bedd.

Anonymous said...

A few years ago, i woke up with the smell of my lover. He was miles away. It was so vivid that I was sure he was in my bed. I woke up, looked for him to realize he could not be there. There, it was only his smell.

Anonymous said...

Last night I dreamed of butterscotch - the smell of butter and brown sugar cooking slowly together to make that beautiful rich butterscotch scent. The smell woke me up but even after I woke up I could smell and taste that butterscotch for some time. It was fascinating and a bit weird. I am glad to find this blog and know that I am not crazy.

Karlee Burke said...

I am a 20 year old female and just recently I had an olfactory dream that I had never had before. The smell was so strong and so real it woke me up. It smelled as if someone was smoking a cigarette in my room! It alarmed me because no one is a smoker in my house (except me) and I am currently trying to quit. I don't recall what my dream was about but it was unlike any other olfactory dream I have ever had (and I've had a few).

Forubyu.Com said...

I'm glad I found this site I thought I was along.. I woke up from my dream of an smell in a hospital.. I was standing in my grandmother room looking at some picture of me when I was about 4 yrs old when I smell a strong stank smell from a hospital room then I remember my grandmother died years ago then I woke up confuse because I never had an smell dream before...

Anonymous said...

Hi, I don't know what made me start searching this topic, but it is interesting to read all the different dreams of taste & smell other people have.
Mine is always the same taste & smell but never in the same dream, it is something quite unpleasant and they smell and taste the same.I do not eat what ever I am talking about but nevertheless I have the taste in my mouth when I am around the smell that can come out of nowhere during my dream. I imagine it though being like the texture of grated ginger if I were to have it in my mouth except I like ginger, so ot is more the type of texture I can't stand. I can't say what it smells like It is an odor I do not know, I only smell it in my dreams, and the funny thing is during my dream I will be aware of the smell and taste and I go thinking...grr...why are you here, I know it's in my dream, so whay do you come and ruin my dream again! When I get up, I do not have that taste or smell it doesn't exist...only when I dream. My dreams can be fun or sad. As far as I recall. it's always a different adventure....anyone else have a similar situation? I probably have been this happening for the last 2 or 3 years only.....

mace85 said...

Recently I was having a somewhat stressful dream, when suddenly I smelled my husband's cologne/deodorant and it comforted me. He had already left for work for the day so the scent must have been recreated solely from my memory. Very interesting.

its a ghost. said...

Stats: on my couch+ I regularly sleep there. I am female. Age 42. (Reproductively I have skipped a cycle and that reason is undiagnosed currently.) The time between hours 245 ans 415 am EST. Dream: sleeping feeling a deep sleep coming and looking forward to it. Alas! Smell of wood burning am litterally slifhtly awakend and look in place around the room the sent has gone. I fall back to sleep.. being to create the slumber that tried to approach. Again! The smell returns .. I remain in sleep and ponder the smell to identify. It is wood not fresh fire wood but that of a house as learned. Without will.. I am awakened again. Realizing it was dreaming and now slightly slubberously agitated I return to sleep. I concentrate to that deep I was robbed and as I lay on my side.. behind grey musclular yet long arms reach around me and pull me into the couch and I awaken myself and decide not! To go back to sleep .. speculate or decifer.

YouRang said...

I've been having olfactory parts to my dreams lately; the thing being the olfactory event is properly linked to the physical event that's happening in the dream.

Anonymous said...

I dreamed. I was smelling roses it was so strong and pleasant. I awakened and the smell was gone. It was lovely!