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Smell, Sound, Taste, and Touch In Dreams

As I have given more attention over the years to recalling my dreams, I’ve noticed changes in a few areas: Most notably, I remember more dreams, more details of dreams, and I can retain the memory of the dream longer. I’ve also experienced more lucidity in dreams, as well as more episodes of precognition.

Another increased capacity has been my sensory experience. Or, at least, my ability to recall sensory experiences from the dream.

In a 2009 study by Kelly Bulkeley, it was reported that while sighted individuals mainly experience the visual sense in dreams, congenital blind individuals report senses of sound, smell, touch, and taste. The implication is that humans are capable of remembering sensory experiences beyond the visual in dreams, but for some reason, we don’t generally recall those sensory experiences upon waking and reporting our dreams. We mostly report what we “see.”

For most who remember their dreams, narrative or interpretation takes precedence in their reporting, even if the details are strange and the events non-linear. When we focus on the story, unless the sense experience is particularly compelling (ie. we danced to my favorite song playing overhead), we don’t tend to mention it when sharing a dream. 

Instead our reports typically go like this:

“I was in the basement of a house.”

“I was walking down B-wing and I knew I was late for class.”

“It was night and we were in a car driving when suddenly…”

Further, when we do have sense experiences in dreams, let’s say “hearing a sound,” the memory of the sound is often indistinct. You might remember a dream character saying “something like” this or that to you, but you likely don’t remember the precise wording or dialogue. 

Or if we have touch experiences in dreams — let’s say rain is coming in through a window — we may typically be more concerned with the mess the water is making than feeling the raindrops on our arms.

All of that is narrative-focused, not sense-focused. We are giving attention to our reaction to the sense experience, not the feeling or the sensing itself.

*  *  *  *

For me, the first sense to appear more often and stronger as I worked my dreams was sound.

I would hear music in dreams and be able to report the next day which song I heard inside of a dream. Next came taste; though I seemed to recall unpleasant tastes moreso than pleasant ones.

Lately, I find myself with a heightened sense of both smell and touch in dreams. Smell is the one that has me the most curious. How is it that I cannot conjure up the sense experience of cookies baking while sitting on a crowded, stuffy train? But in a dream, I can lift a pot cover and smell the onion simmering?

Isn’t it curious that some of our strongest remembering capacity is linked to sense (most notably the sound of music and the smells or tastes of food) and yet when it comes to dreams (at least for sighted individuals), we don’t seem to recall smell and touch as much as we recall images?

Try recalling a memory from childhood.

Compared to a mundane event from the past, do you find it easier to remember holidays that took place with other people, around a table filled with food, ritual, or song? Compared to the final exam you took in 12th grade Spanish, are you able to remember at least one slow dance from your Senior prom?

The more sensory experiences, the more we tend to remember events from the past. Sound (especially music), taste, and smell are known to trigger long forgotten memories, too.

I wonder about sensory experience inside of dreams. Why is it so different from waking life?

One obvious answer could be that our sense organs aren’t anywhere near as engaged when we are asleep as they are when we are awake. That would be a reasonable response, except for the fact that individuals do report sensory experience in dreams, and we do have a lot of visual memories even though our eyes are presumably closed while asleep, and we aren’t using our visual sense to see the objects in the dreams. 

Perhaps, the answer is that we pay a different kind of attention in dreams than we do in waking life. Maybe this is why we are so focused on the visual or why we more often only recall the visual upon waking.

Perhaps blind individuals are used to giving greater attention to other sensory experiences in their environment and are already therefore prepped for such experiences in dreams. 

It’s a topic I am very curious about. I can talk about it for hours.

In fact, while I am interested in the developing neurocognitive theories about sleep and dreaming, as well as the physiology of dreaming, I am much more interested in the experience of the dreamer in dreams, the content of dreams, and our recall of and feelings about the experience following a compelling dream. I find it remarkable how dreamers dream differently and how shifting our focus about our dreams in waking life can start to alter our experience in dreams themselves.

Would you like to start having dreams with more sensory experiences? What would that be like for you?

Imagine holding your now grown son as a baby again or hugging your long-since-passed grandmother at the holiday table before sitting down to eat. I would like that. I haven’t yet gotten to the point of touch in dreams being so strong a sense for me that I can have a long, drawn out hug with my Bubbi, who died more than ten years ago. On multiple occasions, however, I have had the experience of meeting an old friend I am estranged from and hugging in a dream. The reunion brought me to sweet tears of relief, and upon waking, offered me a vision of hope for the future. 

Of course, the more we work to increase our sensory experiences, the more we may be exposed to unpleasant ones, too.

For instance, I have a lot of bathroom dreams, and recently they started to get a lot stinkier! 

We have to be prepared for that.

But I think that’s ok. I think that’s part of the work: opening up to more of all of it. More feelings (joy and pain). More images (beautiful and terrifying). And more senses (pleasant and not-so-pleasant.)

*  *  *  *

Complementary to dreamwork if you’re seeking to increase your sensory experiences in dreams is a hobby that engages the senses: try painting, cooking, hiking in nature, taking care of animals, or gardening. (Making art, listening to music, and dancing also have proven to increase neuroplasticity and improve mental health.)

We naturally end up more sensitive to the sensory experience of those hobbies simply by participating in them. However, try to give more attention to the sensory experience you would like heightened in the dream. If in nature, as one example, spend more time petting the bark of the trees. Dip your hand in the cold creek in winter. Sit on a rock and listen to the wind.

We can also work dreams in which there is evidence of a “light” sensory experience and try to return to the dream image with a focus on the “sense.” We can try to imagine sensing it more strongly. 

This may be easier for you with one sense than another. If you can recall taste better than touch, start there.

So if you had a dream where you were having coffee with a friend, try returning to the dream and giving more attention to the coffee. Experiment with pausing the action or the dialogue and looking at the cup of coffee in your hands. Imagine taking a sip. Slowly slurp the coffee from the glass mug. Is it hot or cold? Bitter or sweet?

You may argue that this didn’t actually happen in the dream. You might be right!

Or, perhaps you simply don’t remember drinking the coffee because you were too focused in the dream on the action or people around you — basically, the visuals.  

Even if it didn’t happen, studies and anecdotal evidence both show returning to our dream imagery has an impact on future dreaming. Experimenting with this practice may lead you to more coffee tasting in future dreams.

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