An Interview with artist Bernardo Fleming

Artist, scent designer and creative manager for one of the biggest perfume companies in the world, Bernardo Fleming often dreams in scents. In 2021, he presented his installation Dreaming in Smell at The Institute for Art and Olfaction in Los Angeles, in which four scented linen sprays interpreted four of Fleming’s dreams…

You belong to a minority of people who can dream in scents. Is this a regular experience for you?  

The experience of dreaming with scents is as unpredictable as it is fascinating. Sometimes, scents can sneak into my dreams, like unexpected whiffs during a quick nap; other times, they flood my sleep with aromas over several consecutive nights. They always leave me captivated and enchanted by the vividness of each dream’s smells, which usually carry their own emotional weight linked to personal memories, associations, and sensations that I capture upon waking.

When did you start noticing that you were smelling things in your dreams?

I cannot recall the precise moment when I began to perceive scents in my dreams, though it was likely during my childhood. I had always presumed that everyone experienced fragrances in their dreams, just as we do sounds, until a conversation with a scent researcher who corrected this erroneous belief. I distinctly remember discussing an exceptionally odorous dream from the previous night, only to be met with astonishment when this researcher revealed that this was an exceedingly rare phenomenon and shared scientific papers surrounding this intriguing condition! It was an epiphany, realizing that awakening with lucid memories and sensations from my dreams was not a universal experience. It was both astonishing and illuminating to learn of the distinctiveness of my scented dreams.

What kind of scents do you dream of? And how do they fit the overall “story” of your dreams?

In my scented dreams, I experience a range of smells that vary in presence and meaning. Like most people, many of my dreams have no discernible aroma at all. However, in some dreams, scents play a significant role. These smells can be highly recognizable, evoking very personal memories and sensations. At times, the aromas are more abstract or subtle, blending into the background like a ‘scentscape,’ contributing to the overall atmosphere of the dream. Then there are dreams where the smells take on a surreal and fantastical quality, reminiscent of a Dalí painting, where reality and imagination intertwine in unexpected ways, acting as a gateway to the subconscious mind.

For Dreaming in Smell (2021), you decided to document your dream memories in order to have the scents recreated by perfumers at IFF. How did that go?

Collaborating with perfumers to create scents from my dreams is an incredibly fascinating and creative endeavor. The scents I encounter in my dreams are deeply personal and subjective, necessitating a high level of communication, common references and sensorial inspiration to accurately convey these olfactory impressions. Perfumers have an extraordinary talent for transforming abstract ideas and sensory prompts into tangible scents. Working together enables us to push the limits of fragrance, drawing inspiration from these olfactory dreams. We immerse ourselves in the subtleties of my dreams, experimenting with various notes and blends to encapsulate the essence of these fleeting and intangible scents. It is a profoundly enriching and inspiring journey that connects the subconscious with the concrete world of perfumery.

Can you recall one of these olfactory dreams?

In one dream, I vividly recall the scent of burning palo santo. It was a sensory snapshot of my transition into manhood: my first trip abroad, marked by independence, discovery, and awakening. The backdrop of Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” playing on a cassette tape added to the nostalgic atmosphere. I see wooden bookshelves in a corner of a bedroom, piled with books, magazines, and colored pencils. I open a window and burn palo santo to mask the scent of youth, feeling optimistic and auspicious as I prepare for the adventures ahead, ready to face the wind. 

The fragrance captures the essence of masculinity in the 80s, with palo santo and sage as its main notes. Juniper berry, armoise, black pepper, tobacco, cedar, and amber add depth and character to this scented dream, reflecting the emotional journey of self-discovery.

In the end, how did people discover and interact with the scents in the exhibition?

During Dreaming in Smell (2021), visitors of the exhibition had the opportunity to experience my olfactory dreams through scents infused into bed linen and pillows. Fragrances were applied into fabric conditioners and linen sprays, providing an immersive and intimate encounter with the scents present in my dreams. I selected this medium to convey the olfactory dreams, considering the body as the catalyst for the smell in my dreams. This method allowed visitors to not only smell the scents but also to feel them closely, thus enhancing the overall experience and deepening their olfactory connection.

In a way, it’s like people were wandering in the effluvia of your brain! 

Indeed it is!

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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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Once upon a dream: the fairy tale comparison

It is said that the dream and the fairy tale have much in common. They share a powerful mythical and symbolic base. They speak an illogical yet rich and insightful language.

The dream as well as the fairy tale should not be taken at face value. Their analysis is at a higher level of consciousness. At first sight, the scenario of the tale as well as that of the dream seem improbable, fantastic or meaningless. What happens in them escapes reason. 

Their interpretation is in fact based on the identification of motifs or symbols that find their meaning through association. In the dream, the interpretation is done at the individual level, in a personal perspective, in the tale, at the cultural level, in a universal point of view.

In the tale, the animals that speak, the buried or hidden treasures, the impossible quests take on universal psychological meanings, whether they are of the order of sexuality or of transformation. The tale generally comes to enlighten troubled periods of the existence by offering a way out, a key of comprehension which makes its underground way and not immediate. In the same way, the meaning of dreams is not instantaneous, it is necessary to work for a long time and sometimes with the help of a specialist around the perceived images to understand the message. This obscure language addresses our Unconscious, the one that rules our emotions and the way we are programmed to be in the world. Ordinary logic is in this case disarmed to address this outlaw.

Beyond the similarities of structures, the correspondences between tales and dreams are found in the scenarios themselves.

Many of the famous tales, for example, have dreams as their underlying motif. In The Princess and the Pea, which features a young girl whose sensitive back reveals her true nature, we can understand this ability to feel the pea, under layers of mattresses and quilts, as the ability of truth to flush under layers of dream.

The Golden Bird is also a fairy tale that involves a dream. In this story, a king is obsessed with a golden bird that appears in his dreams. He offers a reward to anyone who can capture the bird, but all fail. Finally, the king’s youngest son embarks on the quest and succeeds. This shows how children can fulfill the unconscious desires of their parents. 

In Disney, the dream theme is also a compelling motif. In Sleeping Beauty, 1959, Aurora says she has already met her prince in the middle of a dream “I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream”. The connection between them precedes the physical encounter. More recently in the film Tangled, 2010, the musical hit “I’ve got a dream”, gives pride of place to desires in contradiction with our public image, to let a touching vulnerability appear.

With catharsis effects, storytelling and dreaming heal by reformulating what has been buried. Here, the hidden resurfaces, just like in nightmares where you can’t run, and you are caught by the monster, you can’t escape what has been said or done before.

In both cases, tale and dream show an alternative, a singular world that escapes the given laws to reinvent them.

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What Dreams Are Made Of

On this site, we are going to talk to you about dreams, smells and perfumes. But to begin with, it was essential to talk to you about the nature of dreams and the matter that composes them, both impalpable and persistent. Definition.

We all dream, and this several times a night: it is estimated that this mental activity occupies at least 25% of our sleep time (Source : « Pourquoi rêvons-nous » d’Isabelle Arnulf, Pour la Science, n°459, décembre 2015). But why and how do we dream? Recent research, carried out in particular thanks to the study of dream banks and the analysis of the cerebral activity of sleepers, has allowed us to advance our knowledge of the causes and mechanisms of our dreams. Contrary to what was thought until recently, dreams occur as much during slow wave sleep as during REM sleep cycles, where brain activity is as intense as when we are awake. As a result, we dream no less than three to six times a night. This figure is higher on average in women and people with heightened creativity, who are probably more attentive to their environment. 

How does our brain build the more or less strange scenarios of our dreams? It is estimated that nearly 90% of them refer to events that we experienced the day before. The brain stem activates certain images from the previous day, which the rest of our brain then completes, which explains the sometimes cryptic aspect of our dreams. This explains the sometimes cryptic aspect of our dreams. However, they are useful, allowing us to optimize the memorization of the previous day’s events and to consolidate our learning. And why do we have nightmares? Dreams contain on average twice as many negative emotions as positive ones. This is particularly the case during REM sleep because the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain, is very active. Although they can leave an unpleasant impression when we wake up, these nightmares are a sign of good mental health. Researchers now believe that they serve to simulate dangerous situations so that we can better cope with them when we are awake.

Although scientists are devoting more and more research to it, dreams continue to be a vast continent of exploration and above all a fertile source of inspiration.

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The Meaning of Dreams

From ancient times to the latest advances in science, through psychoanalysis, men have always sought to understand and interpret the content of their dreams.

Dreams have fascinated mankind since its origins: our ancestors have always been interested in dreams and their meaning. In ancient societies, Greeks and Egyptians studied dreams, traditionally considered as messages sent by the gods, sometimes with a premonitory character. When their meaning was not clear, their interpretation was entrusted to priests or diviners, in charge of decoding their symbolism. Subsequently, the monotheistic religions have all granted a special status to dreams. In Islam, dream analysis was considered an art. The Hebrew tradition also gives it great importance: we read in the Talmud that “an uninterpreted dream is like a letter that has not been opened”. Christianity, on the other hand, is much more suspicious. In 314, the Council of Ancyra condemned the interpretation of dreams, considering that they could be false or inspired by evil spirits. Then, with the advent of the Enlightenment and Cartesianism, they were despised for centuries, reduced to extravagances of no interest to an enlightened and rational mind. 

It was only in the 20th century that psychoanalysis took a new interest in dreams and gave them back their letters of nobility. Sigmund Freud recognizes its essential function in psychic life. In The Interpretation of Dreams, he describes them as “the royal road to the unconscious”: their content echoes secret, repressed desires, translated into images and symbols that make them acceptable to the conscience. A few years later, Carl Gustav Jung believes that dreams draw from a “collective unconscious”, a universal fund of images and symbols fed by myths, religions or legends…), to reveal our “true self”. According to him, the symbol present in the dream “does not hide, it teaches”. 

Today, numerous clinical and scientific data attest that dreams often reflect our current concerns and the experiences that have marked us emotionally. They allow us to get in touch with our inner world and to explore it.

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