What Blind People Dream About

Even if they dream without seeing, people with congenital blindness have dreams as intense as those of sighted people. Their dreams however, are overflowing with smells, tastes, sounds and tactile and proprioceptive sensations!

Dreams are made up of what we sense and feel, and of the way in which all of our perceptions, knowledge and experiences inform our mental representations of the world. The sense of sight is therefore not necessary to dream. And the dreams of blind people are indeed filled with sensations – olfactory, gustatory, tactile… – since sleep carries echoes of the way in which these people experience the world while awake.

According to neurologist Isabelle Arnulf, such non-visual sensations only appear in about 1% of dream reports among sighted people. This is not too surprising when we know that sight is a dominant sense in human beings: almost half of our brain is devoted to processing visual information and the exercise of vision even slightly inhibits the brain activity linked to other senses! We also tend, for cultural reasons, to give more salience to visual sensations. Sighted people thus associate most of their experiences with images rather than sounds, tastes or smells.

Conversely, some studies have shown that people lacking this dominant sense dream much more widely of scents, sounds, music, touch sensations, etc. The brain activity of blind and sighted people for inst ance has been observed during sleep in dream phases: in those born blind, the areas linked to odors, sounds and touch are particularly irrigated, significantly more than in the sighted people.

Thus, while a person with normal vision will dream of a loved one by mobilizing visual memories (shape of the face, color of the skin, hair and eyes, height, build, clothes, etc.), a blind person will rather associate a loved one with a combination of non-visual experiences such as voice timbre, enunciation, body odor, perfume, etc. It is these sensations that will manifest in the dream to represent and identify the person present.

In one of her autobiographies, The World I Live in (1908), famous American author Helen Keller, who lost her sight and her hearing before she turned two, explains : “In my dreams I have sensations, odors, tastes, and ideas which I do not remember to have had in reality. […] I smell and taste as much as in my waking hours”. And she goes on to recall a particularly lifelike olfactory dream: “Once I smelt bananas, and the odor in my nostrils was so vivid that in the morning, before I was dressed, I went to the sideboard to look for the bananas. There were no bananas, and no odor of bananas anywhere !

Of course, the dream experience of people who lost their sight after the age of 5 or 6 is very different from that of someone who never possessed the visual sense. Often, images, shapes and colors persist in their dreams, to which are added, certainly more frequently than for the sighted, impressions coming from the sense of touch and the chemical senses. The entire sensorium is thus mentally engaged in their dream state, providing them with rich and much varied sleeping adventures!

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What is Olfactory Dreaming?

While some people have long reported smelling things while asleep without any external stimuli, the mechanisms at stake in olfactory dreaming still remain largely mysterious. How do we dream of smells? And why don’t we all?

Although he was not a great advocate for the sense of smell, psychiatrist Sigmund Freud was among the first to mention olfactory dreams. He discussed this mysterious phenomenon in his 1899 book, The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he gave the example of a thirteen-year-old boy who regularly had vivid nightmares in which “there was a smell of pitch and brimstone”. Before him, those who were interested in the subject of dreams often dismissed the existence and possibility of olfactory or gustatory dreaming. Psychologist Paul W. Radestock, for instance, considered that “in the case of dreams, the senses of smell and taste provide the fewest elements” and didn’t give it much more thought.

Although it is now well-admitted that olfactory dreams do exist – whether the olfactory content is central to the dream’s meaning or not -, scientists are still investigating what prompts them and why most people never or rarely experience them. Interviewed by the BBC in 2014, Francesca Faruolo, who was director of the Bologna Festival dell’Olfatto, suggest that olfactory dreams are more prevalent in people who, in their everyday lives, are “either very sensitive to smells or have a highly trained sense of smell.” A 2021 study published in Brain Sciences actually corroborated this theory by showing that reports of chemosensory dream content were “more frequent in individuals with greater odor awareness”. Such individuals are logically more likely to experience mental odors created by the regions of their brains usually involved in olfaction, while no odorants are actually present!

This would also explain why most people don’t dream in scents. Our sense of smell is indeed largely disregarded in Western cultures. It was long deemed dispensable, unrefined, unworthy of being cultivated. The parts of our brain devoted to the treatment of olfactory information thus lack a conscious, consistent training, and our odor naming capabilities are generally relatively poor. With a strong socio-cultural bias in favor of visual perceptions, most of our olfactory experience goes unnoticed. How then could it resurge in the dream state?

A Canadian study about “Prevalence of Auditory, Olfactory, and Gustatory Experiences in Home Dreams”, published in 1998 in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills, showed that olfactory and gustatory sensations only occurred in approximately 1% of the 3372 dream reports collected by the team, although approximately 35% of men and 41% of women reported having had a dream with olfactory content at some point in time. “A significantly greater percentage of women than men reported one or more dreams containing references to olfactory sensations” underline the authors. One possible explanation advanced by researchers is that women are maybe more interested in odor than men which would explain that olfactory experiences are more frequently reported in women’s dreams… 

Another study published in Imagination Cognition and Personality in 2005, aimed to determine whether people who claim to dream about smells are being truthful in their report, and to differentiate olfactory dreams from olfactory hallucinations which are sometimes experienced by individuals suffering from mental health issues, epilepsy and other conditions. The resulting data did provide more compelling accounts of olfactory dreams suggesting that not only are these dreams genuine, they are also not limited to those with diagnosed unusual conditions.

This study also revealed that olfactory dreams have “features similar to actual olfaction (emotive and brief)” and are “representative of odors encountered in everyday life” such as bacon, curry, pastries, oranges, pizza, tomatoes, wine, cigars, cigarettes, smoke, blood, soap, sunscreen, grass, etc.  In other words, olfactory dreams tend to be shorter and more emotionally-charged than vision dreams and olfactory dreamers most often perceive smells familiar to them. One of the most recent studies on the subject, published in 2022 in Physiology & Behavior, confirms this and explains that “odors perceived in dreams are mainly related to food, burning and smoke, body odor, nature, and certain environments and objects.” Olfactory dreams thus might not get as strange and unhinged and circonvoluted as some vision dreams can, but they are, when they occur, a powerful experience and a testimony to the remarkable and yet still perplexing potency of our olfactory brain! 

And although they might constitute an agreeable experience when they pertain to food, natural landscapes or cosmetics, it is notable that such dreams aren’t always pleasant! A 39-year-old woman quoted in the 1998 study described her dream in this way: “These two guys that I had hired to clean my house are in my home. […] I go upstairs to check what they have done and see their big dog, a pitbull, that they have tied with a long rope. The dog is walking everywhere in the house. There’s a disgusting smell and everything is a mess”. In this case, better to dream it than actually live it!

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Olfactory Cues in Dream-inspired Paintings (Part II)

Painters have always been fond of dreamlike representations. Dreams and nightmares indeed make wonderful subjects for artists, who sometimes slip in olfactory cues.

Nowadays, a few art historians are seeking to understand artworks of the past by focusing on the visual evocations of scents and odorous objects. This nose-directed gaze sometimes makes it possible to detect hidden symbolisms and to bring out new interpretations. At times, simply imagining the scents that could emanate from the scenes depicted changes our perception of the artwork. Our engagement with the paintings becomes total, more visceral. This is particularly the case with many dream-inspired works from the 19th century in which fragrant blooms and herbs abound, opening the way to interesting olfactory readings.

In The Dream (1883) by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, a traveler falls asleep at the foot of a pine tree along the coast. Three young women of unreal beauty appear to him in a dream, floating in the night sky: the first one, with roses in her hand, represents Love; the second one, holding a laurel wreath, embodies Glory, while the last one spreads the coins of Fortune. Multiple scents play a role in this ethereal scene: the real ones emanating from the landscape itself – like the resinous smell of the tree sheltering the young man – as well as the dreamt ones wafting from the flowers and the aromatic laurel leaves carried by the allegorical figures. For this modest traveler, Love, Glory and Fortune are dreams as seductive as they are elusive, just like perfumes, delicious and yet impossible to grasp and keep for oneself.

In a slightly earlier work by Gustave Courbet, entitled The Dream ou The Hammock (1844), roses also overlook the sleeping figure. However, this time, the work depicts a young woman languorously swooning in a hammock suspended above a stream, and the flowers which intoxicate her are very real. A crimson petal even fell on the hammock next to the young sleeping woman who is represented in a highly suggestive posture, as if overwhelmed in her sleep by carnal pleasure. Her cheeks are flushed with an intense tone of pink and her calves and chests are revealed by her unclasped dress, leaving no doubt as to the erotic nature of her dream. In this vegetal, aquatic atmosphere, rather fresh in appearance, it is most certainly the smell of these roses leaning over her face that seems to excite her senses and induce such sensual dreams.

Another form of dreams is induced by floral scent in The Day Dream (1880) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A woman sitting among the branches of a sycamore tree, dressed in a deep green dress, holds in the open palm of her hand a large flower of wild honeysuckle. This particularly fragrant bloom was a symbol of love in the Victorian era. Here, the flower not only symbolizes the amorous thoughts of the female figure, but its scent is also probably the vector of her reverie. A few years earlier, this famous sentence was written by poet Charles Baudelaire: “My soul travels on perfume like the souls of other men on music.” It is this same phenomenon which, in this scene, allows the young woman to leave reality on the wings of perfume. Although she is not asleep, the imaginative power of scents acts on her just as on the young woman in Courbet’s painting.

The flowers and odoriferous plants represented by the artists alongside the dreamers, whether they unfold around the sleeping figure or in the dream itself, always excite the dream and increase its intensity. And anyone who has ever had an olfactory dream will understand the powerful experience lived by the men or women represented in these works!

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Olfactory Cues in Dream-inspired Paintings (Part I)

Painters have always been fond of dreamlike representations. Dreams and nightmares indeed make wonderful subjects for artists, who sometimes slip in olfactory cues.

Nowadays, a few art historians are seeking to understand artworks of the past by focusing on the visual evocations of scents and odorous objects. This nose-directed gaze sometimes makes it possible to detect hidden symbolisms and to bring out new interpretations. At times, simply imagining the scents that could emanate from the scenes changes our perception of the artwork. Our engagement with the paintings becomes total, more visceral. This is particularly true with many dream-inspired works which lend themselves to interesting olfactory readings.

For instance, Nightmare (1781), a famous work by Johann Heinrich Füssli, turns out to be an eminently sensory work. The painting, which offers both the image of a woman contorted under the effect of her bad dream and the representation of the creatures which haunts her, has given rise to multiple interpretations. For an artwork dealing with the disembodied universe of dreams, bodies and sensations are paradoxically very present in this painting. We can, in particular, imagine the smells going through the young woman’s nostrils. From the beast-like demon sitting on top of her could emanate crude effluvia of fur or perhaps sulfur. Many beliefs indeed attribute pestilential odors to demonic creatures. Could this also be the reason why the young woman seems to be fainting? Looking over this canvas with an acute olfactory gaze, we can also notice a small toiletry kit made up of a mirror, a round powder box and a fragrance bottle sitting on the pedestal table placed in the foreground. Could the young woman have sprayed herself with perfume before going to bed? Between seductive and unpleasant smells, ambiguity definitely hangs in the air.

Closer to us, The Dream by Henri Rousseau (1910) is just as tinged with this strange mixt of sensuality and danger bathing the atmosphere of the dream represented. A white woman, completely naked, lies languid on a couch, in the heart of a lush jungle populated with immense lotus flowers, colorful fruits and Sub-Saharan animals. Is it her dream that we see unfolding, or the dream of the man who’s painting her? The answer remains uncertain. Just like the mysterious dark-skinned figure, playing a kind of flute, who stands in this imaginary tropical forest and seems to charm its inhabitants with inaudible music. From this rich dreamy landscape probably also emanate ambivalent smells: harsh exhalations of the wild beasts, humid plant effluvia, sweet scents of fruits and heady breath of lotuses… 

This heightened and manifold sensoriality could intrigue in the representations of what is akin to a pure construction of the mind. But that would be without taking into account the capacity of our brain to smell within dreams, a fact these painters have not forgotten! And thanks to a little effort of the imagination, these smells take us straight into the dreams so skillfully represented by the artists.

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Smell in Non-western Cultures

Did you know that in some parts of the world – especially in tropical regions, where odors are stronger and more diverse – smells have significant sociocultural and cosmological roles?

Unlike the Western approach, where olfactory sensations are often considered subjective, arbitrary and unimportant, numerous non-Western societies view aromas as integral components of their cultural, social, and cosmological fabric. Researchers in sensory anthropology have uncovered many examples of people for whom odors play a major structural role, such as the Batek Negritos of the Malaisian peninsula, or the Sereer Ndut in Senegal. In these foreign cosmologies, aromas are not merely pleasant or unpleasant; they are cultural symbols deeply embedded in shared social constructs. Smells can determine religious, natural and political orders, enforce social structures, orient human sociability, participate in human-to-spirit communication, embody concepts such as time, life or death, and carry many other symbolic meanings. These people not only share ‘world-views’ but also ‘world-smells’ which actively participate in organizing both physical and ideological spaces.

For instance, for the Ongees residing in Little Andaman Island, situated between India and Burma, the universe and the essence of existence is defined by smell, which means that they rely on olfactory models of representation to order their world. Their calendar is based on the blossoming aromas of flowers, each season distinguished by a specific scent. Individual identities are also shaped by various symbolic odors. A customary greeting among them is the question “How is your nose?” Local etiquette dictates nuanced responses based on the other person’s emotional state. If one responds feeling “heavy with odor,” the greeter must inhale deeply to alleviate the excess scent. Conversely, if the greeted person expresses a deficiency in odor-energy, it is considered courteous to offer an extra burst of fragrance by blowing on them.

While Western languages lack words devoted to expressing the variety of existing smells, usually people who grant greater importance to the sense of smell in their cosmologies tend to also have a wider vocabulary to designate and describe the variety of smells in their environment. For instance, according to a 2014 Dutch study, speakers of Jahai, an Indigenous Malaysian Language, have a precise lexicon for smells, which means they have to designate them the same range of words that English speakers have for colors. And Jahai is not the only example of a language rich with olfactory vocabulary. Being able to precisely describe olfactory phenomena can indeed be an advantage in certain environments — in the jungle for instance, where the dangers are many and the eye cannot reach far…

The exploration of smell in non-Western cultures thus reveals a rich tapestry of sociocultural and cosmological significance that goes beyond the limited Western understanding of olfaction. From cultural signifiers to structural roles in shaping societies, smells serve as integral components of these communities’ identity and worldviews. Understanding these perspectives not only broadens our appreciation of the diversity of human experiences but also emphasizes the potential importance of smell in our own lives.

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Why Do Mammals Smell? A Sense for Survival

From navigating their environment to seeking sustenance, deciphering social cues, and avoiding potential threats, olfaction plays a multifaceted and indispensable role in the lives of mammals, dictating many of their most important behaviors.

As early mammals were mostly nocturnal, their visual sense was not prominent, and as a result, they had to rely greatly on olfactory and pheromone cues. Most of them still do. For instance, mammals still rely on their acute sense of smell not only to locate food sources but also to discern what is edible from what may pose a threat. This olfactory prowess extends to the regulation of appetite, a process vital for maintaining optimal health. The ability to quickly identify nourishing substances is a testament to the efficiency of the olfactory system in ensuring survival.

Beyond the realm of nutrition, the olfactory sense is a cornerstone of sociability. Mammals utilize their sense of smell to recognize kin, discern emotional states, and locate potential mates. The intricate chemistry of scent allows for the establishment of social bonds and the transmission of emotional information, fostering connections that are essential for the well-being and perpetuation of species. The vomeronasal organ, also known as Jacobson’s organ, positioned in the soft tissue of the nasal septum, also supports this function. In non-human mammals, this paired auxiliary olfactory organ is responsible for the detection of volatile and non-volatile chemical cues, such as pheromones which serve as chemical communication signals.

Olfactory information is also a crucial tool for avoiding dangers. In the perpetual dance between predator and prey, the herbivores’ sense of smell serves for sensing the proximity of carnivores for instance, and triggering the appropriate flight response. With their nose, mammals can also detect toxic substances or identify the presence of fire. This heightened awareness allows for swift and adaptive responses, enhancing the chances of survival in a world fraught with potential threats.

Finally, the sense of smell extends its influence into the realm of orientation. Mammals use their sense of smell to follow tracks, identify territories, and navigate migratory routes. This remarkable ability showcases the intricate connection between olfaction and spatial awareness, enabling animals to traverse their environments with precision and purpose.

The rapid transmission of olfactory information within the brain is a testament to the evolutionary significance of the sense of smell. Olfactory signals travel particularly swiftly in the brain, triggering quick responses that are crucial for survival. The immediate categorization of a smell as either favorable or repugnant is a primal instinct rooted in the necessity for rapid decision-making in the face of potential threats. In the presence of a repulsive odor, the insular cortex can unleash involuntary defense mechanisms. From the instinctive wrinkling of the nose to coughing, sneezing, or even vomiting, these reactions are protective measures designed to expel or avoid potentially harmful substances. The olfactory system, therefore, not only informs conscious decision-making but also governs reflex responses aimed at preserving health and well-being.

Olfactory judgments permeate our own daily lives, often guiding our behaviors without conscious awareness. Much like our animal ancestors, us humans constantly make olfactory assessments that shape our interactions with the environment. From choosing a meal to selecting a companion, the influence of scent on decision-making is a pervasive force that operates beneath the surface of our conscious thought. Therefore, it’s worth acknowledging the profound impact that the olfactory sense has on our lives and on the ways we inhabit the world.

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What Life is Like Without Smell

While we all know what blindness or deafness is, the loss of our chemical senses seems to inspire less fear. It nevertheless constitutes a profound and underestimated handicap.

Anosmia —also known as smell blindness — and ageusia, the loss of taste functions of the tongue, were relatively obscure terms for many prior to the global spread of Covid-19. Now that a large portion of the world’s population has experienced one or the other, the interest for these conditions has grown exponentially.

When it is not the result of a congenital anomaly, anosmia is often linked to damage to the olfactory nerve leading to a spectrum of experiences ranging from partial or temporary disruptions to complete and/or long-term loss. It generally occurs after a viral infection (such as the flu) or an allergy. It may also be a consequence of some infections of the upper respiratory tract or of a chronic inflammatory disease, can also appear in the context of certain neurological and neurodegenerative disorders, or even following a head trauma.

The consequences of such a loss are not to be treated lightly. They encompass loss of appetite, a diminished sexual drive, heightened anxiety and even depression as people become unable to enjoy the flavors of food and drinks, to recognize and appreciate the smell of loved ones, or even overly self-conscious about their own body odors. The absence of the olfactory dimension leaves individuals grappling with feelings of isolation, confusion, disorientation, and frustration. Human relationships are indeed deeply guided by smell. Its loss thus also results in an impression of losing an important dimension of the world or even of being locked out, severed from a large part of the outside world. Living without the sense of smell can also pose tangible dangers. The inability to detect the smoke of a fire or the telltale odor of gas leaks creates a hazardous environment, emphasizing the critical role that olfaction plays in safeguarding individuals from potential threats. Navigating life without smell isn’t impossible, but it presents some unique and sometimes unexpected challenges.

Interestingly, some people who have turned anosmic are still able to smell in their dreams, as their brain “remembers” scent. Such experiences tend to bring up ambivalent feelings of happiness during the dream, and disappointment upon waking up…

In some cases, the sense of smell may remain forever lost, however, for most people, recovery is possible! The ability to smell usually returns after a few days, sometimes a few months — and in rarer cases, a few years. It indeed takes time for a functional nose-brain circuit to reform since the new olfactory neurons that will insert into the olfactory epithelium must send axons and wire themselves correctly to the olfactory bulb for correct transmission of information to the brain. One of the ways to facilitate these new connections is daily olfactory stimulation which helps to boost neurogenesis. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, smell training protocols have flourished to help people recover their sense of smell. Usually with gradual but positive results. And then what joy it is not only to rediscover the beauty and richness of smells but to regain a sense of safety and belonging! To feel again in connection with the world and the people in it. As people often put it: “It’s like going from black and white to technicolor!”

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Flowery Dreams in Films

Filmmaking has always been conducive to exploring the human psyche and dreams are undoubtedly among the most captivating themes for filmmakers.

Early on silent cinema became interested in revealing what takes place in secret when our eyes are shut. In 1926, Secrets of a soul by Georg Wilhelm Pabst already set out to translate a dream on screen thanks to the magic of the moving image. This fascination for dreams in cinema lies as much in the possibility of inventing singular narrative forms as in their potential for visual and sound experimentation. Dreams offer filmmakers a limitless space, where the imagination can flourish, where perceptions can be distorted and human emotions explored in depths.

Although the presence of smells in cinematographic dreams is difficult to account for, it is nevertheless notable that many onscreen dreams, visions and fantasies take on a floral form. At times, the unreal abundance of flowers in these dreamlike images can almost suggest delicate scents to the imagination. This is the case, for instance, in the iconic scene from American Beauty (1999) by Sam Mendes in which the young Angela, naked and swooning in a sea of red roses, appears to Lester Burnham in vision. The latter is so captivated by his fantasy that he can almost feel – and probably smell – rose petals raining down on his face and his pillow.

In Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003), it is again a floral overflow which serves as the setting for Ed’s proposal to Sandra. The vast field of sunny daffodils in which the characters stand has all the characteristics of a dream, not unlike the many adventure stories told by the main character. A marvelous, multicolored carpet of flowers of quite unreal beauty also makes up the scenery of the last sequence of Sunshine Through the Rain, the first dream which makes up the segmented film Dreams (1990) by Akira Kurosawa. 

Some of you may also remember the final scene of An American in Paris (1951) by Vincente Minelli, representative of the Dream Ballet – a danced interlude that allows a narrative break, with an often phantasmagorical tone. Jerry Mulligan, played by Gene Kelly, is carried away in a romantic, dancing reverie, in which he is joined by Lise Bouvier, Leslie Caron’s character. During one of the scenes, Jerry whirls around with Lise in the middle of a dreamlike Parisian flower market until the young girl suddenly changes into an enormous bouquet of fragrant blooms.

Flowers of all kinds also populate the lengthy dream of Alice in Alice in Wonderland. With their lively presence in the various adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s work – particularly those by the Disney studios in 1951 and by Tim Burton in 2010 -, viewers are led to imagine the multiple fragrances emanating from their large corollas to tickle the nose of a barely-larger-than-a-bee Alice.

Cinema is primarily an audiovisual medium. Yet attempts to enrich its sensory palette date back a long time. In the 1920s, after the addition of the soundtrack, introducing olfactory stimulation appeared as a logical step to strengthen the illusionist power of cinema. However, although prototypes intended to odorize films have multiplied since the 1930s, this dimension is still little exploited today. Maybe one day it will become a common feature in movie theaters, as it is in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Perhaps spectators will then be able to plunge into the fragrant meanders of the dreams presented on screen. Then all the roses, all the daffodils, and all the flowers dreamed up in films will smell once again.

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A Fragrant Dream Diary (Part III)

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.

September 1, 2023

These last weeks, my dreams have been visited by a multitude of perfumes. It’s as if a door has opened in my brain, releasing sensations that had been locked away and invisible colors that I didn’t know were sleeping inside me. More and more I am able to remember both smells and images, as if my mind was learning to articulate these two dimensions within the dream state.

The other night I was transported to a dark, ancient forest, where giant sequoias brushed the sky and the air was filled with their wild aroma. This woody vibration gradually transformed, and before I even realized that incense had taken over, the forest had given way to a majestic cathedral. Arches and stone columns had replaced the trees, and the sacred smoke rising from the censers clouded the heavily perfumed atmosphere. I woke up moved by the memory of a distant trip to Seville where all the churches let out this austere scent of burnt resin.

I can’t wait to discover what new olfactory adventures await me in the nights to come!

September 6, 2023

Every night now, my dreams are a kaleidoscope of scents. Yesterday, while I was falling asleep, the fresh and invigorating smell of the rain appeared. Yet I was standing in an unknown crowded indoor space. To the people who were trying to engage me, I answered tirelessly: “Can’t you smell the rain?” and all went away without answering. I knew they thought me strange, disturbed perhaps.

The pervading smell of the rain had captured my attention so much that I didn’t notice the gaping hole in the middle of the great hall I was standing in. A train station perhaps… I stumbled and my fall into the abyss woke me with a start, my heart pounding. It was still dark outside and I ended up going back to sleep.

The shapes of the dream that followed were more blurred, more disturbing. A scent of smoke, lingering and overwhelming, gripped my throat, and with it a sense of despair. This feeling stayed with me for a few minutes when I woke up in the morning, to the point that I checked that I hadn’t left anything to burn on the stove…

September 7, 2023

Last night, as I fell asleep, I expected to be enveloped by the fragrances that now regularly weave the fabric of my dreams. I dreamt of the day that had just passed, one of those dreams so realistic you could mistake it for real life. No scent, however, wafted through the air. I wandered through my day as if in a mute landscape, desperately trying to perceive the slightest trace of an odor, the faintest remnant of a perfume. My own house in the dream seemed foreign, hostile.

As the day passed, as I met familiar people, as I performed daily tasks, I felt a deep sense of helplessness growing, as if an essential part of my inner world had been taken from me. When I woke up, this feeling of loss overwhelmed me, to the point that it took me several minutes to realize that my throat was sore and my nose was stuffy. It was the first cold of autumn.

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Smelling in utero

Did you know that the sense of smell is one of the first senses to be fully functional in the fetus? We can smell well before we are born, and our first olfactory preferences are forged in our mother’s womb !

In the late 1990s, researchers started to document the ability of the human fetus to perceive odors in utero. We know now that the olfactory system starts to form early in the first trimester. The olfactory system starts to be visible after just 9 weeks, when the fetus weighs only 2 grams, and from the 6th month of pregnancy the baby starts perceiving and memorizing smells through the amniotic fluid.

In adults, odorant molecules are carried by the breath into the nasal cavity where the olfactory mucosa is located. There, our olfactory neurons are in direct contact with the environment, only protected by a watery gel called mucus. For us to detect them as smells, molecules have to pass through this gel, which means that, contrary to popular beliefs, smells do travel through liquids and not only through air. That is why the amniotic fluid can easily carry smells to the olfactory mucosa of the fetus.

The mother’s diet influences olfactory and gustatory preferences before the baby is even born – but also after, through breastfeeding. Some aromas – such as garlic, cumin, fennel, curry, carrot, cheese, etc. – are particularly easily transferred from the mother to the fetus. After a few weeks of repeated exposure to certain elements consumed by the mother, the fetus will thus develop its first olfactory preferences. Olfactory responsiveness was for example assessed in neonates born to mothers who had or had not consumed anise flavor during their pregnancy. Both groups of infants were then followed-up for behavioral markers of attraction and aversion when exposed to anise odor and infants born to anise-consuming mothers showed a stable preference for anise odor in the first few days of their lives. 

A newborn baby is also able to recognize their mother by the smell of her skin and breast milk long before they can fully recognize her face, as their vision is not yet well developed. As the child grows however, olfactory sensitivity tends to decrease if not trained, which is why an education to smells isn’t something to overlook as a parent or an educator!

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