It’s a question many of us have pondered – can you actually cook a meal while you’re sleeping? On the surface, it seems highly unlikely. Cooking requires focus, coordination, and careful attention to make sure you don’t burn the food or hurt yourself. However, recent research has shown that some basic cooking tasks may be possible during sleepwalking episodes. In this article, we’ll explore the evidence around sleep cooking and whether it’s really feasible to cook in your sleep.
What is sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism, is a sleep disorder where someone engages in complex behaviors while not fully awake. It occurs during deep non-REM sleep, usually in the first third of the night. Sleepwalking episodes typically last between 1-10 minutes, but can be longer. The person has no memory of the event the next day. Sleepwalking is more common in children, affecting up to 17%, but still occurs in 4% of adults. It runs in families and episodes can be triggered by sleep deprivation, alcohol, medications, or fever.
During a sleepwalking episode, the person may talk, sit up, get out of bed, walk around, or engage in more complex behaviors. Although their eyes are open, they have a blank stare and do not respond to communication. They may later report a sense of confusion upon waking up in a different place. Most sleepwalking is harmless, but injury can occur from tripping, walking outside, or using dangerous objects while in an unconscious state.
What happens in the brain during sleepwalking?
Brainwave readings show an unusual dissociation between deep slow-wave sleep and waking consciousness in the brains of sleepwalkers. During normal slow-wave sleep, the thalamus blocks sensory inputs to the cortex, keeping you disconnected from your environment. At the same time, voluntary muscles are paralyzed through a shutdown of motor neurons.
In sleepwalking, however, the cortex partially awakens out of slow-wave sleep. Sensory information reaches the cortex and conscious parts of the brain activate, allowing sensory perception and movement. But areas controlling intentional thought, reasoning, and memory remain in slow-wave sleep. Some coordination and automatic behaviors remain intact, allowing complex actions to occur while consciousness hovers between states. Emotions like fear and anger can also trigger the amygdala, further promoting mobilization and activity.
Examples of sleepwalking behaviors
Some common examples of sleepwalking behaviors include:
– Getting out of bed and walking around the room or house
– Opening doors, closets, cabinets
– Eating or preparing food
– Having a conversation or speaking gibberish
– Rearranging objects or household items
– Engaging in sexual activity
– Driving a car
– Leaving the house and walking outside
More coordinated behaviors like unlocking doors, getting dressed, or vacuuming are rarer but can still occur. Usually the tasks are interrupted halfway and the person wakes up confused soon after. But in more extreme cases, sleepwalkers have been known to cook meals, wash dishes, garden, or even drive cars during prolonged episodes.
Sleepwalking tends to run in families, indicating a genetic tendency. But complex behaviors are more likely in adults due to their lifetime experience with daily habits. The more you regularly cook, clean, and talk while awake, the more likely those integrated behaviors can partially emerge during sleepwalking events.
Is it possible to cook while asleep?
Cooking during sleepwalking is rare, but has been documented in a number of case reports. A 2005 study reviewed medical records of adult sleepwalkers and found that out of 167 patients, 4 had reported cooking or preparing food while asleep. The patients had cooked full meals including meat, eggs, pancakes, and even stir fry on the stove. None had burned themselves, although some had noticed the stove was still warm in the morning.
Other cases describe:
– A woman who would go downstairs in the middle of the night and prepare sandwiches or full meals without any recollection.
– A 17-year old who boiled water, brewed coffee, and brought it back to her room still asleep.
– A man who sliced vegetables and fried meat half-naked in the kitchen at 3am as his terrified wife watched.
In adults, automatic behaviors like chopping, stirring, and assembling ingredients can emerge during sleepwalking episodes even when cognitive awareness is still suppressed. Cooking is an overlearned skill for many, allowing some partial manifestation when unconscious. However, focus, reasoning, and decision-making are still impaired. This helps explain why sleep cooking is typically interrupted halfway or results in sloppy final products. Danger and injury are still possible from hot surfaces and utensils.
Factors that influence sleep cooking
Several factors make complex behavior like sleep cooking more likely:
Navigating around the kitchen and locating ingredients seems easier when the environment is familiar. This allows engrained memories to guide sleep behavior.
Simple repetitive tasks
Behaviors like chopping, boiling water, or flipping pancakes are automatic skills that can partially emerge during sleepwalking episodes.
Experience with cooking
Individuals who cook frequently seem more prone to also manifest these behaviors during sleep compared to people with little cooking practice.
Preceding sleep deprivation
Fatigue and lack of sleep is a common trigger for sleepwalking and linked to more vivid or elaborate behaviors.
Sleep schedule disruptions
Shifts in sleep routine, like jet lag or different work schedules, can also set the stage for sleepwalking.
Medications and substances
Some prescription drugs like zolpidem or occasional use of alcohol before bed can elicit sleepwalking events.
Is sleep cooking safe?
Despite some sensational stories, most experts agree that complex behavior during sleepwalking is very rare. Cooking full meals while remaining truly asleep is highly unlikely. However, partial, interrupted sleep behavior can still pose risks:
– Handling hot food, pots, or utensils could result in burns.
– Using sharp knives while motor coordination is impaired could cause cuts.
– The stove could be accidentally left on, posing a fire hazard.
– Falls are possible while navigating the kitchen in an unconscious state.
– If outdoors, the person’s safety could be at risk.
– Returning to bed with hot food or drink could lead to spilled scalding liquid and burns.
For these reasons, most physicians recommend taking precautions if a household member is prone to sleepwalking:
– Lock or alarm exterior doors to prevent outdoor wandering.
– Install alarms or motion sensors to alert others if they leave the bedroom.
– Lock up or hide hazardous items like car keys, knives, lighters.
– Keep the kitchen tidy and stovetop clear to prevent burns.
– Use outlet covers to disable electric appliances if sleep cooking is a recurrent problem.
– Eliminate triggers like irregular sleep schedules, sleep deprivation, alcohol.
– Seek medical advice as sleepwalking could indicate other underlying disorders.
While occasional simple sleepwalking is normal in children, recurrent or hazardous episodes should be evaluated by a doctor. Treatments like hypnosis, medication, and improved sleep habits can help prevent injurious behavior during sleep.
Famous stories of sleep cooking
There are a few colorful stories of prolific chefs or TV personalities who apparently managed to cook successfully while sleepwalking:
Celebrity chef Robert Irvine claims in his book that he once cooked a full English breakfast during a sleepwalking episode. His wife found him frying bacon and eggs when she woke up at 2am.
British TV personality Keith Floyd allegedly woke up to a cheese omelette on the stove that he had no memory of preparing. He admitted to sleepwalking and heavy drinking.
The famous Food Network star says she has awoken to find breakfast sandwiches assembled and ready to eat with no recollection of making them.
However, critics point out these stories seem exaggerated or embellished to boost the chefs’ eccentric reputations. It’s unlikely they cooked these full intricate meals entirely while genuinely asleep. More plausible is that they prepared items in an automatic, confused state of semi-consciousness.
Can you learn while sleepwalking?
It seems highly doubtful. While parts of the brain activate during sleepwalking, areas like the hippocampus that handle conscious learning, memory formation, and information retention remain suppressed during slow-wave sleep. Without ability to consciously process experiences, any skills or behaviors manifesting subconsciously shouldn’t become engrained.
Most sleepwalkers have no memory of their activities the following day. Even if they inadvertently cooked or engaged in complex behaviors while asleep, they wouldn’t be able to retain any new knowledge or learn from the experience. At most, repeating a simple motor task like chopping might reinforce procedural memory on a subconscious level. But higher cognition and active skill acquisition require conscious awareness and attention.
Should you wake a sleepwalker?
Waking a sleepwalker has long been thought to be dangerous, but recent research suggests the old wives’ tale may not be true. Short of restraining them, it’s extremely difficult to awaken someone from true deep sleep. Gentle guiding back to bed while avoiding shock or stress is the best approach. However, many “sleepwalkers” jolt awake when prodded or touched because they are only partly asleep. The best prevention is properly securing the environment and removing triggers to lessen episodes altogether.
While we may have visions of becoming gourmet chefs during nightly strolls through the kitchen, truly cooking elaborate meals while remaining completely unconscious is farfetched. However, partial manifestations of overlearned cooking behaviors could occur during dissociated states like sleepwalking, especially under the perfect storm of triggers. While rare and unnerving, episodes tend to be harmless if safety precautions are taken. With treatment of underlying conditions, the midnight munchies are less likely to have you believing you’ve prepared a Michelin star dinner in your sleep.