A Fragrant Dream Diary (Part I)

In this series, discover the dream diary of a character whose dreams are regularly crossed by scents, and through her entries, wander in the mysterious unconscious of an olfactory dreamer.

August 9, 2023

Last night, for the first time in ages, I had that weird impression of smelling a familiar scent in the middle of my dream.

I believe the last time it happened was about ten years ago. Shortly after Mochi disappeared. I remember waking up startled, thinking that I had just inhaled the comforting scent of her warm fur. Oh how I cried during these few days! All the while this little devil was just living her adventurous cat’s life! When, unaware of all the worry she had caused us, she finally showed up again, I had never been happier to dive my nose into her sweet red fur!

Last night however, there was no sweet-smelling cat fur in my dream, but a slightly sweet rose scent. Tenuous at first, it soon became so intense that it woke me up. Was I in a garden? Or a florist shop? I do not remember. The images did not stay with me. Only the smell, and a feeling of unusual bliss.

August 10, 2023

Just like yesterday, I found myself overwhelmed by the scent of roses. I believe I was standing in a tea room and roses seemed oddly out of place. I can’t really remember the faces of the people that accompanied me like shadows. Why does this smell follow me? I’m still confused by this feeling of smelling something so clearly in the midst of a dream. It gave me the impression of being really there, and yet “there” was blurred when I woke up! The place, the people, the situation altogether have disappeared, but the certainty of having smelled the sweet soul of a rose remains.

August 11, 2023

I finally understand why the smell of roses has pervaded my dreams lately. Last night, I found myself in a tea room again. Not quite the same as last time, nor quite different. A waiter brought me a rose and raspberry macaroon that I hadn’t ordered. I could see the cake very clearly, yet I could not, this time, smell it. I think I protested, explaining that I hadn’t ordered anything. “It’s from the gentleman over there,” the waiter said. I turned around and saw Grandpa, sitting alone at a table. He was smiling at me. That’s when the smell hit me, stronger than all the other times: an enticing aroma of rose and raspberry and love.

I looked up the calendar this morning. This week, Grandpa would have celebrated his 90th birthday. And I’m fairly certain that I’ve never enjoyed a rose and raspberry macaroon with anyone other than him… Oh what powers a smell holds!

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Fragrant dreams: when poetry smells

The metaphorical scents dreamed up by poets remind us that dreams are not only distant images born from the depths of our sleeping mind, but living worlds where all of our senses are awake.

Since words are all-powerful, poetry seems to be a privileged form to restore the experience of dreams, in which everything is possible. Whether they are an inspiration or its very subject, dreams and daydreaming have a unique link with literary creation. The images that arise from the limbo of our mind, the sensations that live in our dreams – asleep as well as awake – are singularly embodied under the pen of poets.

In the 19th century, at a time when it was still believed that scents could stimulate fantasy to the point of eliciting daydreams or even real visions, French poet Charles Baudelaire stood out as the true Prince of Perfumes. For him, smell is a conducting sense. On several occasions scents take the poet on a journey to a chimerical place, in which travel, dream and memory merge. In the prose poem “A hemisphere in your hair” (Paris Spleen, 1869), his imagination thus drifts on the scent of the woman he loves: 

“My soul voyages on its perfume as other men’s souls on music. […] Your hair holds a whole dream of masts and sails; it holds seas whose monsoons waft me toward lovely climes where space is bluer and more profound, where fruits and leaves and human skin perfume the air.”

Other poets have used the image of flowers, often fragrant, as a metaphor for dreams or what they contain. “The dream of a virgin is in the fresh jasmine” writes French poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore in “Les songes et les fleurs” (“Dreams and Flowers”) (Romances, 1830), while American writer Amos Russel Wells, in “Transformation” (The Collected Poems, 1921), sees all his sorrows changed into flowers “in the certainty of dreams”: 

“There’s a garden far in Fancy

Where the sweetest flowers grow […] 

Daisies, violet and clover,

Royal roses, lilies white.” 

The beautiful fragrant lily is also mentioned in a poem by Charles Cros, simply titled “Rêve” (“Dream”) (Le Collier de griffes, 1908), in which its immaculate blooms, with their “suave scent / Sweeter than honey”, are likened to the woman he loves, turned into a flower in the dream.

Finally, other writers have more simply transcribed into words the smells perceived in the meanders of their dreams. For instance, in “L’Agitation du rêve” (“The Agitation of the Dream”) (Rue Traversière et autres récits en rêve, 1977-1980), contemporary poet Yves Bonnefoy describes a great fire of branches whose aromas flatter his nostrils, even in the depths of his sleep: “I am happy / Of this crackling sky, I like the smell / Of the sap burning in the mist.” Further on, transported to another place by one of these magic tricks of dreams, the poet mentions the nostalgic “smell of wheat of yesteryear, dissipating.”

For poets and writers, smells are not only a writing challenge or a chance to devise metaphors, they also offer them a way of mental escape, an exaltation of their imagination and, in some cases, of the sensations conjured up by dreams put into words.

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The Proustian Effect

The unique phenomenon of olfactory recollection, long empirically observed before being explained, operates as a well-known leitmotif in literature and a commonplace in any conversation about olfaction. But do you know how it works?

Odors are perceived with every breath we take and immediately interpreted by the most ancestral parts of our brain. Our sense of smell thus deeply, yet often unknowingly, shapes the way we live, feel and act. Albeit elusive and ephemeral in nature, scents are particularly known for eliciting vivid, emotionally-infused memories that last a lifetime.

This unique phenomenon, which we have all experienced, has now been explained by neuroscientists: because of its proximity with the limbic system, smell perception has a strong affective component and constitutes the most potent and poignant way of creating and reactivating memories. In the brain, olfactory information indeed travels – faster than any other sensory information – through a zone called the amygdala, which associates the events we experience with emotions, and through the hippocampus, where memories are archived. We thus memorize a smell according to the emotional context in which we smelled it for the first time or in which we smelled it the most. When we encounter it again, it activates the same parts of the brain and revives, unblemished, the emotions and memories. 

In psychology, this phenomenon of powerful yet involuntary recollection is sometimes called “Proustian effect,” in reference to French novelist Marcel Proust’s masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time (1913). In one famous excerpt, the narrator is suddenly brought back to his childhood by the flavor of a madeleine dipped in tea:

“When from a long distant past nothing subsists, […] still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, […] the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest.” 

Although many writers have described such olfactory reminiscences prior to and after Proust, his masterful poetic prose remains the most cited reference in the matter.

Additionally, not only is the Proustian effect a great literary device, it also has great potential in the field of medicine. Because smell memories operate differently from voluntary memories driven by verbal cues, have greater emotional intensity and last longer than do visual or auditory memories, scents can be used to help with many conditions. Several researches have for instance shown positive effects of olfactory stimulation on autobiographical memory in patients with neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

It is also very likely that the scents we can sometimes dream of are those we know most intimately. The ones that have a deep connection to our personal history, the ones we have smelled a thousand times, and the ones that elicit, in these barbarously-named regions of our brain, the greatest emotional responses.

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The Yoga of Sleep and Dreams

Tibetan Tantrism recognizes the usefulness of lucid dreams as a tool for accessing the Awakening. With assiduous practice, the yogi not only becomes aware of the similarity between life and dreams, but can also manipulate his dreams.

“We spend a third of our lives sleeping. No matter what we do, however virtuous or non-virtuous our activities, whether we are murderers or saints, monks or libertines, every day ends the same. We shut our eyes and dissolve into darkness.” So begins the book that Tibetan monk Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche dedicated, in 1998, to the Tibetan yoga of dream and sleep, an ancient tradition of Tibetan Bön Buddhism in which monks practice lucid dreaming. 

In the West we are most familiar with the postural (asana) and respiratory (prana) practices of yoga. There are however many other practices associated with yoga, all considered forms of meditation. Tibetan Tantrism, for instance, recognizes the usefulness of dreaming – known as “milam“, meaning “the path of manifestation” – as a tool for accessing Awakening and Liberation. 

To practice dream yoga, one first needs to become lucid, which requires assiduous practice so that one is always aware of being in a dream while dreaming. This heightened awareness means that the yogi is no longer carried away by their thoughts and emotions, thus no longer subjected to them. The yogi must remain present, free, and at peace. It is then necessary for the dreamer to overcome all of their fears in the dream, by understanding that they are only facing a mirror, a simple projection of their own mind: nothing can harm them since they are at the origin of everything. 

Once aware of the illusion and freed from all fear, the yogi has to become aware of the similarity between life and dreams: during the day we are engaged in the same process of dream production, only we project this mental activity onto the world and thus think that our experiences are “real,” hapenning outside our own mind. But they aren’t. In this respect, life when we are awake is no different from the life we lead when we are asleep. In fact, the brain doesn’t differentiate between the emotions we feel in sleep and those we feel during the day. So the experiences we have in our dreams are no more unreal than those of our waking lives. Only our senses withdraw during sleep, no longer influencing our consciousness.

Finally, the yogi should be able to manipulate their dreams – both objects, colors, light, images, sounds, and smells, as well as his own body – excluding the influence of negative emotions. They can then meditate on the image of deities, perceived as gateways to the Enlightenment. Far from being reserved for monks and confirmed yogis, this practice can be used by anyone to understand the nature of the dream state and, through this understanding, derive spiritual or psychological benefits.

By bringing attention back to a neglected part of our experience, which nevertheless occupies a third of our existence, dream yoga enables us to make the most of our human life by developing a heightened awareness of every moment, whether awake or asleep.

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