The human brain is often cited as one of the last great frontiers of scientific discovery, and never does this resonate more with me than right after I wake up from a particularly intense, and peculiar, dream. We spend almost half our lives asleep, but it seems like most of what happens in our heads during that time is a mystery; you can't record dreams, just as you can't photograph thoughts, and memory for such things -- mine especially, even just after waking -- is such a fickle thing.
We discussed here a few months ago the great importance that the olfactory sense has to emotion, and certain kinds of memory:
Smell is the sense most closely associated with emotional memory — just think about how evocative certain scents can be — and the one most closely tied to mental health and happiness. Positive and negative associations with certain smells are locked into our brains from an early age and stick with us the rest of our lives, and to lose that sense of smell is to, in effect, lose a part of our memory. It's the subtlest of the senses, but perhaps the most crucial in terms of our emotional connection to the world.
This seems like such a basic, caveman kind of question to be asking about the nature of ourselves -- but then, that's exactly why the brain still looms as an important frontier -- and it's this: if smells are so important to our emotional connection to the world, and dreams can be so very emotional, why aren't smells more prominent in dreams?
Think about it -- when the last time you remember having smelled something in a dream? (For me, the answer is ... never.) There are some accounts of "olfactory dreams," like this one from Freud's Interpretation of Dreams:
Eau de Cologne was held to his nostrils. He found himself in Cairo, in the shop of Johann Maria Farina. This was followed by fantastic adventures which he was not able to recall.
... or this one from a study conducted at Wellesley College in 1901:
I dreamed of looking off toward Milton and saying that beyond lay the ocean. I immediately got the keenest and most natural smell of wind from the flats and the delicious ocean odor. This gave me such intense pleasure, as it always does, that I awoke.
But strangely enough, sleep researchers contend that the other senses have a much greater impact on dreams -- the sound of a buzzer could easily induce a sleeper to dream of a buzzer -- and olfactory dreams are rare. (It makes me think of watching movies -- the closest thing to dreaming while awake -- and how dependent they are on the aural and visual, and how strange it would be if "smell-o-vision" were the norm.)
But our faithful readers always seem to have such interesting and diverse experiences when it comes to dreams, I'll bet there are some of you out there who've had smell dreams. Or who've had dreams influenced by smells that wafted over them while sleeping. If so, do tell!