What Do Blind People See When They Dream?

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There’s a dream I had years ago that has always stayed with me, mostly because it was so unlike anything I’d experienced before. I dreamed that I was sleepwalking down a hallway painted in the most vibrant colors I’d ever seen and covered in an unrecognizable, hieroglyphic-like language. Upon waking, I marveled at my brain’s ability to create such fantastic imagery that I’d never seen in real life. And then I wondered what brains come up with when their hosts have never seen anything in real life. 


I’ve heard people ask questions like, “Do blind people dream?” The simple answer is yes, of course they do. Most land mammals—including our pets—can dream, so why should a lack of sight affect someone’s ability to do the same? The way blind people dream is quite unique, but dream they do, just as frequently as anyone else. On the other hand, “Do blind people see in their dreams?” has a much more complex answer. 


When the Sightless See
In 1999, researchers at the University of Hartford set out to determine what, if anything, the blind can see while dreaming. They analyzed 372 dreams of fifteen blind individuals and found that the age of sight loss affected the visual quality of the subjects’ dreams. The study determined that people who go blind at age five or younger tend not to have visual dreams, whereas if blindness occurs at about age seven or older, chances are the blind will see some images. When people go blind between ages five and seven, their potential for dream sight could go either way. 


It all depends on how long a person experiences the world with sight, as opposed to without. Someone who goes blind later in life could experience visually intense dreams for years afterward; however, the more time that person spends without sight, the less frequent such visual dreams become. And people who are congenitally blind (born that way) or lose the ability to see at a very young age have completely nonvisual dreams from the beginning. 


It’s similar to the black-and-white dream phenomenon some older individuals experience. A 2008 study at the University of Dundee in the UK found that people who grew up when television was first invented sometimes have dreams in black-and-white, while those who have experienced only color television usually have colorful dreams. 




Other Senses Take the Stage
Research has shown that blind people demonstrate very little to no rapid eye movement (REM) during the REM phase of sleep—the deep-sleep stage in which we have vivid dreams and the most brain activity during the night. As time progresses, the movements stop altogether. But that doesn’t mean that dreams aren’t happening—the eyes just aren’t involved in them. 


People with sight tend to have highly visual dreams with some auditory qualities. Very rarely are any other senses, such as taste or smell, part of the process. But the opposite is true for blind people. Studies like the aforementioned University of Hartford one suggest that their dreams activate the other senses—touch, taste, smell, and hearing—to an intense degree. Since our brains draw on real-life experiences to shape dreams, it makes sense that blind people dream the way they experience their environment. Because they rely on nonvisual cues to make their way through the world, the same heightened sensations come into play in their nighttime worlds, too. 


Regardless of how we see, almost all of our dreams have a narrative quality. Most of the ones we remember also have some sort of troubling aspect to them, which is why they stick out in our minds. What we’re worried about in our daily lives often becomes the subject of these types of dreams, usually via symbols that require interpretation. So it seems logical that blind people tend to dream more about issues related to traveling and transportation, since getting around safely and efficiently is one of their greatest obstacles. In the University of Hartford study, 60 and 61 percent of the male and female participants, respectively, had dreams revolving around such problems. Among the sighted people surveyed, only 31 percent of men and 28 percent of women had similarly themed dreams. 


We may never fully understand the way blind people dream, since they experience life in a totally different way than those of us with sight do. But we do know that their dreams can be just as vivid and intense as ours, perhaps even more so because they utilize four senses instead of one or two. Still, I wonder how one goes about applying dream-interpretation techniques to these types of dreams, since such analysis usually relies on visual symbols. The analyst would have to use other clues as a way to find the dreams’ hidden meanings, but what would those clues be and what would they imply? Who knows—more research on blind dreaming could bring about a whole new way of looking at dreams.


Updated October 18, 2010
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