Saturday, November 4, 2023

Sweet, spicy, umami? What is the taste of your dreams?


Do your taste buds come alive in your dreams? Leif P. Haley, a psychology professor from Binghamton NY, put that question to a database that collects many thousands of dream reports from people of all ages and all walks of life. Using a search tool known as regex word strings, he plucked sixty-four dream series from a total of 28,003 reports and scanned them for evidence of gustatory experience.[1]

He started out with several hypotheses including the notion that there would be more "bad" tastes in dreams than good, perhaps in the service of a "vigilance" function that alerts us to possible unpleasantness ahead.  He also posited that the incidence of taste sensations would be small, occurring in no more than 1 perc cent of dreams. That second assumption proved correct. In fact, only 0.7 percent of the dream reports surveyed mentioned taste, although nearly 6 percent described eating.

However, the dreams examined turned out to be tastier - and notably sweeter - than expected. Good tastes beat out bad by more than 7 percent.. "Sweet" beat out all other categories by an overwhelming margin. Haley assigns dream tastes to the four classic varieties - sweet, sour, bitter, salty – and then adds metallic, umami and undefined. One of his ratings systems marks 32.21 percent of dream taste reports as "sweet", more than all other categories combined except for "undefined". Likely this reflects waking preferences. 

Haley concedes that it's hard to assign many reports that evoke complex flavors and combinations to a few fixed categories. Also, how do you tag a description of a certain flavor as "weird" or funny"? Good or bad? Sweet or salty?

As so often with content analysis, we miss the juicy sensory quality of the dream experiences themselves, and the context from individual lives and personalities. There's a hint of what we are missing in one respondent's description of  a sandwich of bread, pickles, peanut butter, and grapes. "I could taste each thing separately, although they were all together." 

My taste buds often come vividly alive in my dreams, and generally the experience is pleasurable, sometimes wildly so. I sometimes wake with the taste of food or drink in my mouth - of wine or coffee or pilsner, of a perfect baguette, of scaloppine al limone, of wild raspberries, of Colman's English mustard. I am quite social in my dreams, and eat at many restaurants and private dinner tables, and usually taste each dish. My dreams are not as sweet as Haley's sampling, because my tastes run to salty and savory. I don't eat cake or candy anywhere. My tastes in dreams are similar to ordinary reality. You won't find me eating mussels or crème brûlée in a dream restaurant.

I do eat "weird" and "funny" things in my dreams. I have eaten scrolls and even a whole book in big dreams that have left me bursting with ideas for new writing projects of my own. The taste of the scrolls reminds me of popadoms in Indian restaurants. Then there are the dreams in which I seem to shapeshift into animal form and eat what the beast eats. 

In a dream this morning, just before I discovered Haley's article, I was roaming around a kitchen in half-light, sipping a red wine I found thin and disappointing. I decided it would taste better with food and opened a small can I found on a shelf. I thought it was tuna. As I spooned a little of the conents into my mouth, I found the flavor and texture were not what I expected. Not a bad taste, but not something I wanted to eat. I realized that in the dark, I must have opened a can of Fancy Feast, our kitties' preferred breakfast, by mistake.

I got out of bed, with the taste still in my mouth, to find Lucy, our magical tabby cat, eyeing me expectantly. Is it possible she projected her breakfast intentions into my dream? I would not put it past her. Good dream? Bad dream? Good for Lucy, since Fancy Feast was soon in her dish. Good for me, because it gave me an amusing story and nudged me to read Haley's article when the title popped up, in the way of synchronicity, during an unrelated search.

The larger subject of how the full sensorium comes alive in dreams leads us to think about what we are, and how we get around, in our several vehicles of consciousness. In our dream experiences, we are not usually disembodied thought forms. Typically, we are getting around in a subtle body that is often called the astral body. It is also, in the spiritual anatomy popularized by the Theosophists, the kama-rupa or body of desire. Some say that it is the source of our experience of pleasure and pain. Certainly, in this vehicle we know the full gamut of feelings, perhaps more intensely than in the physical body, and this is highly relevant to how we will experience our transitions when we leave the physical body behind. 

Monitor the play of the senses in dreams and you may put yourself on the path to understanding the spiritual anatomy that counts - especially the nature and operations of the astral body. Oh yes, and you'll want to check whether you are eating the cat's breakfast.

1. Leif P. Haley, “Analysis of taste in dreams: A defined and large-scale investigation of dreamt gustatory experiences” in International Journal of Dream Research Volume 16, No. 2 (2023) 125-134.

Journal drawing by Robert Moss: "Unlikely appetizer". Spicy cocktail frankfurters as a starter in a grand hotel restaurant? Well the knowing waiter from Budapest recommended them and they were good with the pilsner.[February 26, 2021]

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