The physiology of taste, by Brillat-Savarin

Meditation XIX.


Dreams are material impressions on the soul, without the intervention of external objects.

These phenomena, so common in ordinary times, are yet little known.

The fault resides with the savants who did not allow us a sufficiently great number of instances. Time will however remedy this, and the double nature of man will be better known.

In the present state of science, it must be taken for granted that there exists a fluid, subtle as it is powerful, which transmits to the brain the impressions received by the senses. This excitement is the cause of ideas.

Absolute sleep is the deperdition or inertia of this fluid.

We must believe that the labors of digestion and assimulation do not cease during sleep, but repair losses so that there is a time when the individual having already all the necessities of action is not excited by external objects.

Thus the nervous fluid — movable from its nature, passes to the brain, through the nervous conduits. It insinuates itself into the same places, and follows the old road. It produces the same, but less intense effects.

I could easily ascertain the reason of this. When man is impressed by an external object, sensation is sudden, precise, and involuntary. The whole organ is in motion. When on the contrary, the same impression is received in sleep, the posterior portion of the nerves only is in motion, and the sensation is in consequence, less distinct and positive. To make ourselves more easily understood, we will say that when the man is awake, the whole system is impressed, while in sleep, only that portion near the brain is affected.

We know, however, that in voluptuous dreams, nature is almost as much gratified as by our waking sensations; there is, however, this difference in the organs, for each sex has all the elements of gratification.

When the nervous fluid is taken to our brain, it is always collected in vats, so to say, intended for the use of one of our senses, and for that reason, a certain series of ideas, preferable to others, are aroused. Thus we see when the optic nerve is excited, and hear when those of the ear are moved. Let us here remark that taste and smell are rarely experienced in dreams. We dream of flowers, but not of their perfume; we see a magnificently arranged table, but have no perception of the flavor of the dishes.

This is a subject of enquiry worthy of the most distinguished science. We mean, to ascertain why certain senses are lost in sleep, while others preserve almost their full activity. No physiologist has ever taken care of this matter.

Let us remark that the influences we are subject to when we sleep, are internal. Thus, sensual ideas are nothing after the anguish we suffer at a dream of the death of a loved child. At such moments we awake to find ourselves weeping bitterly.

Nature of Dreams.

Whimsical as some of the ideas which visit us in dreams may be, we will on examination find they are either recollections, or combinations of memory. I am inclined to say that dreams are the memory of sensations.

Their strangeness exists only in the oddity of association which rejects all idea of law and of chronology, of propriety and time. No one, however, ever dreamed of any thing absolutely unknown to him.

No one will be amazed at the strangeness of our dreams, when we remember, that, when awake, our senses are on the alert, and respectively rectify each other. When a man sleeps, however, every sensation is left to his own resources.

I am inclined to compare these two conditions of the brain, to a piano at which some great musician sits, and who as he throws his fingers over the keys recalls some melody which he might harmonize if he use all his power. This comparison may be extended yet further, when we remember that reflection is to ideas, what harmony is to sounds; that certain ideas contain others, as a principle sound contains the others which follow it, etc. etc.

System of Dr. Gall.

Having followed thus far a subject which is not without interest, I have come to the confines of the system of Dr. Gall who sustains the multiformity of the organs of the brain.

I cannot go farther, nor pass the limits I have imposed on myself: yet from the love of science, to which it may be seen I am no stranger, I cannot refrain from making known two observations I made with care, and which are the more important, as many persons will be able to verify them.

First Observation.

About 1790 there was in a little village called Gevrin, in the arrondissement of Belley a very shrewd tradesman named Landot, who had amassed a very pretty fortune.

All at once he was stricken with paralysis. The Doctors came to his assistance, and preserved his life, not however without loss, for all of his faculties especially memory was gone. He however got on well enough, resumed his appetite and was able to attend to his business.

When seen to be in this state, all those with whom he ever had dealings, thought the time for his revenge was come, and under the pretext of amusing him, offered all kinds of bargains, exchanges, etc. They found themselves mistaken, and had to relinquish their hopes.

The old man had lost none of his commercial faculties. Though he forgot his own name and those of his servants, he was always familiar with the price-current, and knew the exact value of every acre and vineyard in the vicinity.

In this respect his judgment had be en uninjured, and the consequence was, that many of the assailants were taken in their own snares.

Second Observation.

At Belley, there was a M. Chirol, who had served for a long time in the gardes du corps of Louis XV. and XVI.

He had just sense enough for his profession, but he was passionately fond of all kinds of games, playing l’hombre, piquet, whist, and any new game that from time to time might be introduced.

M. Chirol also became apoplectic and fell into a state of almost absolute insensibility. Two things however were spared, his faculty for digestion, and his passion for play.

He used to go every day to a house he had been used to frequent, sat in a corner and seemed to pay no attention to any thing that passed around him.

When the time came to arrange the card parties, they used to invite him to take a hand. Then it became evident that the malady which had prostrated the majority of his faculties, had not affected his play. Not long before he died, M. Chirol gave a striking proof that this faculty was uninjured.

There came to Belley, a banker from Paris, the name of whom I think was Delins. He had letters of introduction, he was a Parisian, and that was enough in a small city to induce all to seek to make his time pass agreeably as possible.

Delins was a gourmand, and was fond of play. In one point of view he was easily satisfied, for they used to keep him, every day, five or six hours at the table. It was difficult, however, to amuse his second faculty. He was fond of piquet and used to talk of six francs a fiche, far heavier play than we indulged in.

To overcome this obstacle, a company was formed in which each one risked something. Some said that the people of Paris knew more than we; and others that all Parisians were inclined to boasting. The company was however formed, and the game was assigned to M. Chirol.

When the Parisian banker saw the long pale face, and limping form opposed to him, he fancied at first, that he was the butt of joke: when, however, he saw the artistic manner with which the spectre handled the cards, he began to think he had an adversary worthy of him, for once.

He was not slow in being convinced that the faculty yet existed, for not only in that, but in many other games was Delins so beaten that he had to pay more than six hundred francs to the company, which was carefully divided.


The consequences of these two observations are easily deduced. It seems clear that in each case, the blow which deranged the brain, had spared for a long time, that portion of the organ employed in commerce and in gaming. It had resisted it beyond doubt, because exercise had given it great power, and because deeply worked impressions hatf exerted great influence on it.


Age has great influence on the nature of dreams.

In infancy we dream of games, gardens, flowers, and other smiling objects; at a later date, we dream of pleasure, love, battles, and marriages; later still we dream of princely favors, of business, trouble and long departed pleasures.

Phenomena of Dreams.

Certain strange phenomena accompany sleep and dreams. Their study may perhaps account for anthropomania, and for this reason I record here, three observations, selected from a great many made by myself during the silence of night.

First Observation.

I dreamed one night, that I had discovered a means to get rid of the laws of gravitation, so that it became as easy to ascend as descend, and that I could do either as I pleased.

This estate seemed delicious to me; perhaps many persons may have had similar dreams. One curious thing however, occurs to me, which I remember, I explained very distinctly to myself the means which led me to such a result, and they seemed so simple, that I was surprised I had not discovered it sooner.

As I awoke, the whole explanation escaped my mind, but the conclusion remained; since then, I will ever be persuaded of the truth of this observation.

Second Observation.

A few months ago while asleep I experienced a sensation of great gratification. It consisted in a kind of delicious tremor of all the organs of which my body was composed, a violet flame played over my brow.

Lambere flamma comas, et circum temporo pasci.

I think this physical state did not last more than twenty seconds, and I awoke with a sensation of something of terror mingled with surprise.

This sensation I can yet remember very distinctly, and from various observations have deduced the conclusion that the limits of pleasure are not, as yet, either known or defined, and that we do not know how far the body may be beatified. I trust that in the course of a few centuries, physiology will explain these sensations and recall them at will, as sleep is produced by opium, and that posterity will be rewarded by them for the atrocious agony they often suffer from when sleeping.

The proposition I have announced, to a degree is sustained by analogy, for I have already remarked that the power of harmony which procures us such acute enjoyments, was totally unknown to the Romans. This discovery is only about five hundred years old.

Third Observation.

In the year VIII (1800,) I went to bed as usual and woke up about one, as I was in the habit of doing. I found myself in a strange state of cerebral excitement, my preception was keen, my thoughts profound; the sphere of my intelligence seemed increased, I sat up and my eyes were affected with a pale, vaporous, uncertain light, which, however, did, not enable me to distinguish objects accurately.

Did I only consult the crowd of ideas which succeeded so rapidly, I might have fancied that this state lasted many hours; I am satisfied, however, that it did not last more than half an hour, an external accident, unconnected with volition, however, aroused me from it, and I was recalled to the things of earth.

When the luminous apparition disappeared, I became aware of a sense of dryness, and, in fact, regained my waking faculties. As I was now wide awake, my memory retained a portion of the ideas (indistinctly) which crossed my mind.

The first ideas had time as their subject. It seemed to me that the past, present and future, became identical, were narrowed down to a point, so that it was as easy to look forward into the future, as back into the past. This is all I remember of this first intuition, which was almost effaced by subsequent ones.

Attention was then directed to the senses, which I followed in the order of their perfection, and fancying that those should be examined which were internal as well as external, I began to follow them out.

I found three, and almost four, when I fell again to earth.

1. Compassion is a sensation we feel about the heart when we see another suffer.

2. Predilection is a feeling which attracts us not only to an object, but to all connected with it.

3. Sympathy is the feeling which attracts two beings together.

From the first aspect, one might believe that these two sentiments are one, and the same. They cannot, however, be confounded; for predilection is not always reciprocal, while sympathy, must be.

While thinking of compassion, I was led to a deduction I think very just, and which at another time I would have overlooked. It is the theory on which all legislation is founded.

Do as You Will Be Done by.

Alteri ne facias, quod tibi fieri non vis.

Such is an idea of the state in which I was, and to enjoy it again, I would willingly relinquish a month of my life.

In bed we sleep comfortably, in a horizontal position and with the head warm: Thoughts and ideas come quickly and abundantly; expressions follow, and as to write one has to get up, we take off the night cap and go to the desk.

Things all at once seem to change. The examination becomes cold, the thread of our ideas is broken; we are forced to look with trouble, for what was found so easily, and we are often forced to postpone study to another day.

All this is easily explained by the effect produced on the brain by a change of position. The influence of the physic and moral is here experienced.

Following out this observation, I have perhaps gone rather far, but I have been induced to think that the excitability of oriental nations, was, in a manner, due to the fact, that, in obedience to the religion of Mahomet, they used to keep the head warm, for a reason exactly contrary to that which induced all monastic legislators to enjoin shaven crowns.

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