I'm interested in whether people can smell in their dreams. Do people really experience smell in their dreams? For example, if I dream of smelling a flower, will I feel the smell, too?
Is there any research on whether people can smell in dreams?
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Antonio, Nielsen and Doneri (1998) provide one assessment of self-reported prevalence of smell in dreams. To quote the abstract (my bolding):
Although numerous studies have investigated the content of laboratory and home dream reports, surprisingly little is known about the prevalence of various sensory modes in dreams. 49 men and 115 women completed a battery of questionnaires and kept a home dream diary for two to three consecutive weeks. Retrospective responses to the questionnaire indicate that approximately 33 % of men and 40% of women recalled having experienced sensations of smell or taste in their dreams. A total of 3372 dream reports were collected and scored for unambiguous references to auditory, olfactory, and gustatory experiences. Auditory experiences were reported in approximately 53% of all dream reports. Olfactory and gustatory sensations occurred in approximatdy 1 % of all dream reports. A significantly greater percentage of women than men reported one or more dreams containing references to olfactory sensations. The results lend support to previous studies which have shown that a variety of sensory experiences, although relatively rare, can occur in dreams.
There is still the question about whether self-reports are trustworthy, and how you define a smell experience in a dream that is most likely not generated by external stimuli. Antonio and colleagues go on to discuss some of these issues:
That the more infrequent modalities of smell and taste occur at all in dream reports is an important indication of the representational capacities of dreaming-and probably of imagery more generally. The finding is consistent with recent research showing the existence of imagery in both olfactory (Carrasco & Ridout, 1997; Lyman & McDaniel, 1986) and gustatory (Drummond, 1995) modalities. Although some researchers take the position that olfactory imagery is not possible (Herz & Engen, 1996), the spontaneous occurrence of olfactory imagery in dreams may differ from "willful" olfactory imagery that may occur upon instruction during the waking state. For instance, limbic structures which might yield such spontaneous occurrences during dreams may not be operational during the waking state. Nevertheless, it is likely that the relatively rare occurrence of these modalities during dreaming is not because their representation is beyond imaginal capacity. Rather, either such sensations are not usually spontaneously generated during dreaming, i.e., are not a necessary component of dreaming's supposed memory/adaptational functions, or they depend upon external sensory stimuli to trigger them. However, sensory triggers may be selectively blocked at the thalamic level by the raised afferent thresholds of REM sleep (e.g., Steriade, 1994). Of course, both of these inhibiting conditions may be true, thereby seriously disfavoring appearance of gustatory or olfactory sensations during dreaming
Also, in Oliver Sack's The Man Who Mistook His For His Wife, the author and famous neurologist reports a case about a man who dreamed he had the olfactory powers of a dog; however, when he awoke, he still retained his heightened sense of smell and furthermore could prove it to the nurses.
Any experience that one has in waking life can be recapitulated during a dream. In addition, Anthony Wagner has a line of research investigating how rehearsal and learning mechanisms operate during sleep. It is unclear at this point how much novel learning can occur during sleep, as no paradigm has demonstrated this very successfully.
I had a novel dreaming experience last night that led me to this website. I was having a dream revolving around plastic waste! I think this was recapitulating a discussion my wife and I had recently had about the problems of coping with the changing rules and options for dealing with domestic recycling of plastic. The content of the dream seems trivial and disorganized now, but one component was vivid and unusual.
In the dream, I set fire to some plastic waste and smelled an acrid, unpleasant odor of burning plastic. The odor sensation was VERY vivid, almost overpowering. Immediately upon registering this odor sensation, I began to be aware of the rousing of my "conscious", rational mind, which was immediately gripped by the thought of "FIRE!".
I awoke with a start and with the thought that something was burning in the house. However, after a breath two of air passed through my nose, I calmed down, as the air in my bedroom was clear and odor free. The sensation had been so vivid, however, that I could not get back to sleep until I had roused myself and walked around a bit to assure myself that nothing was burning, and that there was no lingering scent of burning plastic in my house.
I can't say that I can recall ever experiencing such a vivid odor, indeed ANY vivid odor, in a dream before this.