The idea that what we eat determines how we dream can be traced back to the likes of Charles Dickens and Sigmund Freud. But is there any science to back it up?
Dickens accused “a bit of beef” among other things for a ghost’s appearance in A Christmas Carol. Freud found it important that his daughter had suffered a nightmare about strawberries after binging on them. But before we get to all that, there are other questions worth asking.
Firstly, is there anything palpable to be gained by investigating the pseudo science behind the food-dream phenomenon? And if there is, will it really help me to know that the sex dream I had with Margaret Thatcher was a banana’s fault?
The short answer is probably not. But this isn’t the place for a short answer.
In recent years a handful of academics have weighed in on the food-dream debate with varying results, but everyone seems to agree about the major culprits. Cheese, bananas, eggs, fish; indeed most things that are high in tryptophan, an amino acid that produces serotonin, a key element in R.E.M. sleep. Essentially, the deeper you sleep, the more stable your sleep patterns and the more vivid – arguably “better” – your dreams are.
Nobody really seems to know for sure, but that hasn’t stopped people from ardently blogging about it on sites like luciddreamleaf.com. Others, like the excellently named British Cheese Board, have conducted studies because the rumour was hurting sales.
The BCB set out in 2005 to debunk the allegation that eating cheese before bed gave people nightmares and, all too predictably, managed to convince all their participants to report that it didn’t, possibly in exchange for the large cheese hamper they were given on the way out.
Still, their findings made the papers – headlines like ‘Sweet Dreams are Made of Cheese’ did the rounds – but were more or less ignored by serious food dream theorists, whose numbers are admittedly few.
Here are those findings for the hell of it: Of 200 participants who were fed 20 grams of cheese before bed, two thirds recalled their dreams clearly and of that figure a majority reported that specific cheeses had brought about specific dreams.
Cheddar cheese invoked celebrities, Red Leicester sent people back to their school days and Blue Stilton caused one respondent to dream about a vegetarian crocodile, which is even more terrifying for being only once removed from reality.
There are other bits and pieces (wedges?) of research online, including the reliable testimony of a stand up comedian who believed that gorgonzola brought forth the undead. This varies to my experience, which is that gorgonzola generally brings forth gorgonzola, but I see what she’s saying.
Some Canadian PhD candidates attempted a more exhaustive thesis a few years after the Cheese Board study, but were a bit too Canadian about it. They included so many participants that the data disappeared into an indeterminate soup in which each possibility was cancelled out by another. By being so tediously scientific, the pair ended further away from anything conclusive than they had begun. Instead of being good sports and tossing another log on the fire, they emptied their beers on it and went to bed.
All of which is why I conducted a few of my own experiments. The idea was to design a pre-sleep menu that would ensure dreams beyond your wildest…yeah.
I chose a four-month matured mild cheddar and ate it with some plain gluten free crackers in order to eliminate as many variables as possible. I don’t eat a lot of cheese, so it was easy to ingest a relatively exceptional quantity, brush my teeth and fall asleep hoping to meet Nick Cave. Instead, I had a single, brief dream in which I shot a Labrador with a crossbow. I wondered for a moment whether I’d got the breed of dog wrong; if it was Lassie I’d shot, the celebrity theory might still apply, albeit tenuously. I’m quite sure it was a Labrador though. So, these are my findings: While cheddar might get you backstage at the Oscars, it can also make you rashly shoot dogs. Make of that what you will.
How does one eat eggs before bedtime? I don’t trust any of this research. Only drunk people eat eggs half an hour before bed and usually by mistake. Blaming eggs for the weird dreams you have after many tequilas is wrong and I won’t do it. The closest I got was a nap after a particularly eggy dim sum Sunday brunch. I had several dreams but couldn’t remember any of them.
Here’s one that really works. It works so well I did it twice, the second time in the same way one might take a hallucinogenic drug. As it happened, the second night was more subdued than the first; a drawn out Western-style film in which I watched my uncle navigate a perilous mountain pass on a bicycle while my aunt took pictures. The first night, however, was like watching an anime version of Clockwork Orange in fast-forward. Everything that has happened in the world since the Big Bang happened in that dream. I awoke with Vampiric wisdom, my third eye Windowleened and gleaming. And that was one banana. Blinking myself awake the next morning I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if I took three.
On honeymoon recently, I ordered a seafood platter that included prawns, octopus, lobster, white fish, calamari and crab. My wife was feeling ill, so I ate the whole thing and went to bed shortly afterwards. I dreamt of nothing at all, possibly because the sheer quantity and variety of sea creatures in my system prevented me from properly falling asleep. But I do recall a vast blackness, a deep nothingness; it was like staring out of a tent in the middle of a moonless night in the mountains. It’s not impossible that I died briefly.
Chinese egg congee with ‘1000 year’ black eggs.
One salmon nigiri: un-chewed.
Banana three ways.
One full wheel of blue stilton.
Matthew Freemantle is a freelance writer on the wrong side of 35.
Styling and photography by Alix-Rose Cowie.