The Odor of Your Dreams

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I woke up last week convinced that I could smell coffee. My husband, the coffee drinker in our household, was away for business and my 20-month-old son hasn’t yet discovered the substance so it seemed odd that there would be the familiar comforting aroma in the air. Within seconds of my waking up, however, it was gone. I’m not a coffee drinker, but I can easily be categorized as a coffee sniffer. I’d been craving a whiff last night before I went to bed. Was it possible that I’d dreamed up the aroma while asleep?

It’s possible, but it would make me part of a tiny minority. I often fall in love with things because of the way they smell — old books, roadside chai in India, a sandalwood box in which I keep my wedding ring, my son’s first onesie. While human beings can and do dream of odor, it’s proven that only very few of us — usually people attune to odors in everyday life — actually do.

In fact, it’s so infrequent that research on odors in dreams is choppy and incomplete at best. The first study was done in 1893 when Mary Whiton, an instructor at Wellesley College analyzed dream diaries kept by two volunteers over a six- to eight-week period. Her conclusions, then followed up in 1896, showed that odors show up in an estimated 15 percent of dreams. A hundred years would pass before anyone thought to study the subject again. In 1998 researchers at McGill found that while as many as 20.9 percent of women had odorous dreams, the number was only 2 percent for men.

More interesting, however, is the latest research, which shows that not only are odorous dreams possible, but what you smell before your head hits the pillow may be behind whether you wake up feeling happy or sad.

In a  German study at the University Hospital, Mannheim, researchers conducted an experiment on fifteen women. When the women were in REM sleep (the phase where dreams are most likely to occur), they were exposed to three different odors three different times — once with hydrogen sulfide (which smells of rotten eggs), once with a neutral scent, and once with phenyl ethyl alcohol (which smells of a rose). A minute after being exposed to the odor, they were woken up and asked about their dreams.

Surprisingly, the women did not wake up recollecting smells of roses or rotten eggs. The sense of smell is closely associated with the brain’s limbic system, which is responsible for emotion and behavior. The brain handles scent differently than it does sound or touch and so several of the women in the study reported dreams about activities involving smells — cleaning toilets or walking through a garden — but not the smells themselves.


It could be why I woke up feeling happy and loved (and sniffing coffee) that morning last week and why baking oatmeal cookies before bed may just be a very good idea.

(Editor’s note: If you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription to our magazine!)

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10 Comments

  1. I have experienced this phenomena on more than one occasion. The most incredible experience was during my pregnancy with my second daughter. On three occasions I had a recurring dream of someone giving me a beautiful cake with yellow frosting. The cake and the frosting had a banana flavor and were made with imitation banana flavoring. I woke up retching all three times. I love bananas, but cannot abide the small or taste of imitation banana.

  2. Whenever i kiss someone in my dream i get this very sour taste and when i was a kid Freddy Kruger used to terrorize my dreams (i know very funny) but I’ll still remember to this day at 35 years old the way he smelled. So yes i experience both smell and taste in my dreams…

  3. Rcently I have had 3 distinct smells in 3 different dreams.In one I was hiking with a friend and smelled rotting flesh, so intense I started gagging. My boyfriend woke me up because he thought I was choking. In another it was cigarette smoke, neither me nor my boyfriend have ever smoked cigarettes. Most recently it was the scent of a skunk. Again so intense I started to gag. Does anyone else experience this?

    • I just woke up from being stuck in a hhorrible dream I couldn’t wake up from where I smelled an overwhelming odor of death. I’ve never been a around a dead body much less smelled one. In my dream no matter where I went I smelled it to the point of thinking I was going to vomit and needed to wake up but I was stuck. I just woke up from this and am extremly nauseous. Felt like I couldn’t escape the smell now I’m disturbed.

      • Hi, I had the exact same experience in a dream I had last night.. I remember going to a childhood friend of mines house. I was there, then asked if I could use the bathroom. When I went to the bathroom, the worst smell came to my nose. It was like you said, a smell of death or something rotting. I started gagging. and I held my breath in the dream because and wouldnt take another breath because it was so bad..I still feel strange about it now. I just called my friend and talk to him, I didnt mention the dream but it seemed he was going through a rough time in is life. And he had no sleep last night..
        Anyways, did you ever figure out what your dream was about?

    • The very reason I am looking at this site is because of the horrible dream last night. Incredibly detailed handling of the corpse of a relative (my estranged mother) in a glass casket with a cherry wood frame held together by screws through chrome metal corners. My lady and and the mortician were the only ones present. It also took place in the 1800s.
      The corpse was sealed in one case and to be transferred to the permanent coffin through a wood sled mechanism designed to keep everything sealed.the device jammed at the last few inches and the mortician explained that he needed to unscrew one of the corners and break the seal to finish the transfer. So he unscrewed a few screws and opened the glass side of the casket about an inch and the mechanism worked.
      But then the most horrendous smell of death overwhelmed me. So real and something I cannot describe. I have never smelled it in real life, but am certain that I will recognize it evermore.
      The smell was so overwhelming that it woke me from my sleep and I couldn’t sleep again. Amazing, it is the only time I have ever smelled anything in a dream. I pray that nothing is truly wrong and that I can sleep well tonight. Today has been a total waste for me.

    • I just woke up smelling skunk, gone within seconds, but it was such a strong odor it shocked me awake and it is hard to get back to sleep.

  4. Two nights ago I experienced odor in a dream for the first time in my life. I dreamt I was in an old house, one I haven’t seen before in waking life. The house was overflowing with trash, rotting food, mildew, etc. it was just a giant pig stye. In my dream I smelled a most unpleasant odor, of decaying food and dirty laundry. I mean this smell was awful! I woke up in my clean apartment where everything is out away neatly, the laundry is done, and the trash is taken out daily. So The smell in my dream was not inspired by my physical surroundings. It was so strange, but I guess I’m dream land anything is possible.

  5. It’s strange but I, on several occasions, have dreams involving the different senses. Just this morning, I remember dreaming about actually smelling a white rose, which in my dream, smelled sweeter than the pink one (in my dream I was comparing the differences in the scents of the two flowers). I remembered dreaming years ago and smelling the scent of sandalwood incense. I remember dreaming about textures (in this case, touching the fabric of a rough sack), and dreaming of actual tasting the food! Sounds too. I’m not sure if it’s rare or common but I did — and still do — dream where my senses are involved. It’s very fascinating but I still am looking for scientific answers to these.

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