Monday, June 20, 2016

Midsummer Night's Dreamer Brain

Summer Solstice at Stonehenge
The summer solstice was a sacred time in traditional cultures. In Medieval England it was considered mid-summer since May 1 marked the start of the season and agricultural year. Celebrating the summer solstice involved reveling all night, leaving little time for sleep, perchance to dream. Shakespeare’s famous play Midsummer Night’s Dream suggested the shortest night of the year was an opportunity to dream in a different way, to daydream, and lead oneself to revelations instead.
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake, c. 1786

In our culture, however, daydreaming has negative connotations. Derogatory terms such as “spaced out”, “clueless”, “living in La-La land”, “absentminded” come to mind. Doing nothing is considered unproductive and unnecessary and we’ve invented many ways to occupy every waking minute texting, checking emails, messaging and "staying in touch" through social media and other platforms. The pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, leaving us no down time at all.
Contestants at this year's Space Out Competition. Photo by Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Yet, there’s evidence to support the benefits of doing nothing. For years scientists debated the need for sleep. Many contested the standard 8 hour period. We now know our bodies go through stages of sleep, all of which are necessary to ensure proper metabolic function. If we don’t get quality sleep, our bodies become stressed which affects all aspects of our life. Since there is a biological imperative for sleep, could there be a similar need for daydreaming?
Buddhist monk meditating in a waterfall setting, Wikipedia

The dreamer brain, like the creative urge is a trait we all share. Some are more in tune with their abilities than others. But sooner or later, we all succumb to the need to be alone with our thoughts, our meditations and our daydreams. While traditional meditation practices can help us enter altered states of consciousness, daydreaming gives our minds the freedom to wander and dawdle.  There are no rules or discipline, just the space to drift while awake. This is where perfumes come in handy to help us relax and access our dreamer brain.

About 80% of our sensory input comes from vision while the other 20% is made up of hearing, smell, taste and touch combined. In addition, the other senses become more prominent when vision is impaired, especially smell. So is it possible to increase or enhance the olfactory experience by simply closing one’s eyes? We often close our eyes when we smell deeply. Could this be an instinctive way for us to shut down the visual so we can better discern and enhance the olfactory? It certainly helps one become more mindful of scent. 

Scent can focus the mind, especially when taking exams. It can also help still the mind, like a mantra. In fact, it is so immediate and effective that it’s not even a conscious act. Which makes it an ideal way to encourage the dreamer brain through mindful olfaction.

One technique is to simply sit with eyes closed, focusing on the presence or absence of scent. This can be especially effective outdoors where breezes waft odors which are detected when inhaling. But exhaling is just as important as it helps flush out excess molecules. By smelling quickly one can “scan” the olfactory landscapes and pick up different odors. This is very different from taking long deep breaths. It’s best to alternate between these two ways of breathing, allowing the mind to recognize when odors are absent versus the challenge of picking up a new scent. 

Olfactory walks are another way for the dreamer brain to meditate on scent. Instead of closing the eyes completely, which can lead to tripping or falling, they can be closed halfway. This helps screen out extraneous visual cues, allowing the dreamer brain to focus.  

Another exercise is to select a leaf or plant and inhale it repeatedly, gently pressing under the nose to release odor molecules. How does the scent change? Does it disappear? Do we smell new things?

We also smell with our eyes. Certain images can trigger scent memories; a juicy lemon, cherry blossoms, the ocean. Try smelling these things with the eyes closed and the experience will change dramatically. Odors that seem familiar suddenly become strange. Closing the eyes removes the frame of reference so that one has to “see” odors with the nose or "taste" them with the mouth. Our senses are interconnected, so we all have the capacity to experience the world synesthetically. It just takes a little work and awareness to experience this overlap of the senses. 

The burning of incense is another way to stimulate the dreamer brain. This primal means of scenting space has been used for millennia by different traditions to enlighten the spiritual self. In fact, frankincense contains a psychoactive chemical constituent that actually alters one’s perception of reality and memory. Incense was the first perfume and the origin of the word meaning through smoke, per fumum in Latin. 

The midsummer night solstice is the perfect time to open up the channels of the dreamer brain with scent. But it’s perfectly fine if you fall asleep...