If nasty dreams assault you, here’s an easy solution: put a vase of fragrant flowers near your bed. According to a recent study at University Hospital Mannheim in Germany, odor affects the emotional content of dreams. The researchers exposed 15 sleeping subjects who had reached the rapid-eye-movement (REM) stage to the smell of either rotten eggs or roses. Those exposed to roses reported happy dreams; those who sniffed the rotten eggs had rotten dreams.
The subjects all were women in their 20s, a demographic known to have the most developed sense of smell. After they reached the REM state, they were exposed to scented air for 10 seconds, and then awakened after another minute of sleep. Each subject was tested three times: once after smelling roses, once after rotten eggs, plus once after a non-scented sleep. Upon awakening, the subjects rated the emotional tone of their dreams on a scale of zero to three — three representing bliss and zero no emotional color at all. After exposure to the eggy smell, the average rating was minus 0.4, but after roses, 1.2.
Study director Dr. Boris Stuck commented, “When stimulating the subject with a positive smell, the emotional coloration was positive in nearly every case, while with negative stimulation, the emotional tone was shifted to negative.”
Interestingly, none of the dream content directly related to the smells being sensed. Rather, the odors seemed to indirectly affect the emotional tone of the dream. According to Tore Nielson, Director of the Dream and Nightmare Laboratory at Sacré-Coeur Hospital in Montreal, “This indirect effect may offer a clue to processes of dream formation, i.e., that emotion is the first step in a dream’s representation of an important external event.” That’s a good reason to avoid going to bed angry — or to meditate before sleep.
But what else do these findings mean? Certainly, they offer a strong endorsement for aromatherapy, an oft-maligned modality. As Pamela Dalton, a sensory psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, says, “We are aware at some level of our odorous ambient environment at all times, and I don’t think we appreciate that. At some level, our brains are always aware. If this study shows that we can alter the emotional content of dreams, think about what an odor can do to your mood without you even being aware.”
Dr. Dalton suggests that altering odors in places like hospitals and nursing homes might have a positive psychological effect on residents (especially considering how bad most of those places smell). Since we tend to associate negative smells with certain places, changing the ambient scent might change that association. “Odors become associated with good and bad very readily,” she said.
While numerous studies, particularly in Europe, have established the beneficial effects of using various aromatic essential oils in treating everything from respiratory disease to insomnia and skin problems, skeptics insist that it’s all bunk. In fact, a Google search using “Aromatherapy doesn’t work” brought up 917,000 references. The most frequent reference is to an Ohio State study earlier this year that exposed subjects to lemon and lavender oils after mild stress. The study found no benefits to blood pressure, stress hormones, or immune function. But — and this is a huge exception — the study did find that that the lemon scent had a positive effect on subjects’ moods. Naturally, in its typical “glass half-empty” approach to natural news, this is not the aspect of the findings that the press celebrated.
And of course, that study had fatal flaws in the design that make it far from reliable as the final word on the usefulness of aromatherapy. For one thing, researchers used only two oils when blends might have worked far better or where other types of oils might have been more effective. Also, using high-grade, natural oils might have made a significant difference. But in spite of those issues, the lemon scent had a psychological impact, and that’s highly significant.
If aromatherapy can help subjects to overcome night terrors, insomnia, depression, and anxiety, those who suffer from these things might be able to get off Lexapro. And that’s a good thing, considering the side effects. Plus, plenty of research shows that antidepressants don’t really work very well. In fact, a Google search using “antidepressants don’t work” yielded 3,110,000 references, making aromatherapy, by comparison, look like a wonder cure. And aromatherapy, unlike the meds, won’t cause side effects ranging from nausea and sexual dysfunction to suicide and seizures. At worst, it’ll make you happy.