How the Blind Dream

Today I found out how the completely blind dream.

It turns out that if they went completely blind before around the age of 5-7 years old, they will typically dream without any visual experiences.  In the very few cases where some report having visual experiences in their dreams, these experiences are more in the abstract sense where they feel like they were seeing something, even though they couldn’t actually recollect or describe when they woke up what the thing looked liked that they saw.  This is similar to how occasionally in dreams you can just “know” something, even though there is nothing specifically that you are experiencing in the dream which should indicate what you know. For instance, in a dream where when you wake up, you remember feeling like you were in danger in the dream, even though nothing you can recall in the dream indicated any danger.  There was just some abstract sense of it.

Outside of the interesting “around the age of 5-7” cutoff for visual dream experiences, the dreams of those who are completely blind before this age tend to be principally auditory in nature.  However, what is also fascinating is that, compared to those who can see and hear, the blind report drastically increased taste/smell/touch sensations in their dreams, not just auditory sensations taking over for the lack of visual sensations.

Now if they go completely blind after around the age of 5-7, the vast majority of completely blind people will at first dream very similar dreams to those who are not blind, albeit, once again, with more non-visual sensory experiences than is reported by those who can see and hear.  But nevertheless, their visual experiences in their dreams tend to be quite similar to those who can see.  If they had diminished vision early on in life though, perhaps only seeing colors, then their visual experiences in their dreams tend to be similarly diminished based on those visual experiences.   As time passes, they typically will report more and more prevalence of experiences from the other senses and less and less visual experiences in dreams.  Often the visual experiences will become more vague and “blurry” as time passes, but they do seem to remain to some extent throughout the blind person’s entire life.

Bonus Facts:

  • Rapid eye movements (REMs) during sleep occur very mildly and often not at all in people blinded before around the age of five to seven.
  • Before her teacher first came to her, Helen Keller, in her autobiography, stated that her dreams were devoid of any kind of sound/sight/thought/etc. and only contained fear and strong abstract sensations.  She states, “My dreams have strangely changed during the past twelve years. Before and after my teacher first came to me, they were devoid of sound, of thought or emotion of any kind, except fear, and only came in the form of sensations. I would often dream that I ran into a still, dark room, and that, while I stood there, I felt something fall heavily without any noise, causing the floor to shake up and down violently; and each time I woke up with a jump. As I learned more and more about the objects around me, this strange dream ceased to haunt me; but I was in a high state of excitement and received impressions very easily. It is not strange then that I dreamed at the time of a wolf, which seemed to rush towards me and put his cruel teeth deep into my body! I could not speak (the fact was, I could only spell with my fingers), and I tried to scream; but no sound escaped from my lips. It is very likely that I had heard the story of Red Riding Hood, and was deeply impressed by it. This dream, however, passed away in time, and I began to dream of objects outside myself.”
  • Deaf people experience a parallel effect in their dreams as blind people.  Those who’ve been deaf from early childhood don’t hear sounds in their dreams and people talking in their dreams do so in sign language.  Their dreams have also been shown to be much more vivid in terms of imagery and colors than people who can hear and see.
  • People who lucidly dream are called “oneironauts”.  This is from the Greek “Oneirology” meaning “the study of dreams”.
  • During sleep, with your eyes being closed, all sensory signals except the sense of smell end up passing through your thalamus.  During your sleep cycle, the brain suppresses thalamic activity and thus principally only processes signals from itself.  Long story short,  some researchers believe that this suppressed input and output creates neural oscillations, which may be the source of dreams.
  • Another theory, suggested by Eugen Tarnow, is that dreams are simply excitations of long-term memories, but without the normal executive brain function that interprets long term memory through a “reality check” sort of filter.  This is somewhat based on researchers Penfield and Rasmussen’s study showing that stimulating the cortex with electrical pulses will produce a waking dream-like experience.
  • Many researchers believe that dreaming is part of some sort of mechanism for setting the day’s activities more firmly in long term memory, although the mechanism for how this is actually taking place is somewhat of a mystery.  However, a 2001 study seems to have shed some light on what might be happening here.  According to this study, during REM sleep, higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol cause decreased activity between the hippocampus and neocortex.    These researchers theorize that, similar to what happens when some memory is created when one is experiencing something in the waking world under stress, once memories are linked with similar memories during sleep, the stress hormone that shows up during REM sleep works to firmly set the links and memory in place.
  • Blind people obviously have a very different sense of how they find something “pretty” or “ugly”.  In doing research for this article, it was interesting to note that several blind people I read about found things “pretty” or not based on how smooth the object was, with the more smooth something is the more pretty it is.  I’m curious from any blind readers of this article if you also find things pretty or ugly based on smoothness and if this is as common as it seemed from my readings?
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  • |I’m curious from any blind readers of this article|

    I know you didn’t mean it the way it comes off but… really? lol. blind readers of an internet article?

    • Daven Hiskey

      How else would you describe it, “blind listeners of this article”? I could see that working, but “blind readers” seemed appropriate as using a screen reader or some sort of text to braille device would be how the blind read this article. I guess a secondary question to any blind readers is if that is how that is generally said among the blind. When “reading” something using a screen reader or the like, is it generally referred to as “reading” or “listening”?

      • Of course blind people read you nong, how else would I be replying to your ridiculous post. and the writer does have a point in suggesting smoother and softer things to me are perceived to me as prettier, or more pleasing. I thought the article explained the blind dream experience beautifully.

  • This statement was made in the Article:

    For instance, in a dream where when you wake up, you remember feeling like you were in danger in the dream, even though nothing you can recall in the dream indicated any danger. There was just some abstract sense of it.

    I don’t think I agree with this statement if I understand correctly what the Authors point is. When I have a Nightmare, or I’m running from someone that wants to shoot me for instance, I recall who I’m running from. If I don’t know the persons name I can describe what the person looked like. I’ve had dreams where I”m doing regular *life* things and all of a sudden I realize something bad comes my way. I definitely recall the danger and why.

    • That’s cool. Everyone’s different though. Like some get more nightmares than others etc.

      I for one have had dreams where I “feel” someone’s presence. They’re not in the dream yet “they’re there”. Get it? That’s what the author’s referring to.

      So essentially, you don’t have to see, just know. 🙂 Like a 6th sense.

    • I often have feelings of “evil” in my dreams. I may be in a room, doing things of a banal nature when suddenly I look at the door and I just know that there is evil on the other side.
      Yet, I have no idea of the nature of this evil and being a lifelong Atheist I really don’t have much of a culture of evil in my personal philosophy.

      • Just because truth is denied does not make it untrue, and dreams are pathways for beings you would deny. It is interesting you can sense their presence, denying them.

      • Evil is of the devil GOOD IS OF JESUS, we ARE spiritually made IF YOU SAY NO TO JESUS evil will reign

    • I’ve had dreams where I’m graphically murdered (highly disturbing) to dreams where I KNOW something awful IS going to happen for no apparent reason (even more disturbing.) They run the gamut.

  • Trace,

    The author didn’t mean that in any case that you feel danger that you won’t remember the cause of it when you wake up. The author was saying that sometimes in a dream, you just know something that there is no logical explanation for you to know. Like sometimes, in my dreams, I’ll see someone I’ve never seen or heard of before and I’ll know what their name is and where they’re from. Or I’ll see something lying on the floor and know who dropped it there and why. You kind of have these moments of omnipotence sometimes in dreams, which makes sense, since your brain is creating this dream world.

  • Wouldn’t the person dream in white and black?

    • Isn’t black and white also a colour?
      And if you can actually see and distinguish black from white, doesn’t that mean that you are actually seeing cos the eyes are noticing the difference between the black and white ?

  • Kris,
    Blind people don’t know what white or black is. Try to describe a color, it’s impossible without using another word that’s reliant on knowledge of another color or visual aspect, which blind people don’t have.

  • Blind people read the internet every day. It’s very common. There are tools that help the blind adapt. I went to school with a blind young lady who had a text-to-brail machine which she used quite often, especially in computer class.

  • I am blind too and I agree, smooth things are prettier than rough ones. I think this is because as blind people, we are a bit more cautious of what lies ahead, whether you consider a stony path or a smooth road. The stony road is more difficult to get through, whereas the smooth road offers quick travel. Same with a big smooth stone. As I cautiously slide my fingers through it, I am at once cautious that it will cut me, but as I slide it further on, I realize it is easy and thus find it beautiful.

    And yes, we ‘read’ and ‘watch’ and ‘see’ things. One doesn’t need to alter grammar and words to fit us, or else they’ll be thinking of us as simply ‘blind’ people and nothing else.

  • I’m congenitally blind. All of my dreams run one hell of a gambit from being a gameshow contestant to being a news anchor to delivering a local weather report and having a random person call me after I’m done, saying I’m just what the doctor ordered, to meeting a celebrity or complete stranger for the very first time, sometimes on their official turf (I wake up from these dreams totally speechless – “I know that really didn’t just happen, right?”. My faves are the dreams where I’m giving a presentation on how to use an audio editor called GoldWave in front of a totally sighted audience and having a random person or two thank me at the very end for a hell of a job perfectly cooked!
    Yes, blind people do dream, and we dream with pride and dignity; as far as I know, as if it’s like really being awake (sometimes I really have to pinch myself to remind me it wasn’t real when I swear it was).
    Who knows, maybe they’ll make a reality show based on the concept of the best dream, lol?
    If you want more of me, follow @BlindHedgehog on Twitter or try a very loud SKype account named imcoocoo. I actually do look forward to meeting sighted and congenitally blind folks alike.

  • Daven, glad you asked (as per if altering grammar is appropriate).
    No, don’t do it. To me, “blind readers” almost has a condescending ring to it.
    Just call us readers; I’ll indicate in the post proper that I’m blind or WTCMB.
    Not like I’ll be getting my vision back anytime soon, so let the world of real-life surround sound in dreams continue!

  • Sight is one sense that would be terrible to lose, worse that tne sense of hearing, or smell..Im glad my eyesight is pretty good

  • I’m legally blind, although it really doesn’t compare to actual blindness
    My glasses separate colors quite a bit
    I also focus at roughly *takes of glasses* 6-7 inches
    20/600+ (last year)

    • I teach a young person who is “visually impaired.” This student wears glasses, but always asks what the color is, e.g. She will pick up a marker and say, “Is this purple? I want purple.” I’ve observed she seems able to accurately choose black 85% of the time. Her ability to retrieve pink, blue and purple seems to be chance (less than 50% of the time she chooses the correct color.) She is going to second grade. Question: how may being impaired affect learning in a world focused on visual and auditory cues? Are there better ways to teach such as pointing out tactile stimulus, using sound and/or smell? Any insight you are willing to share is appreciated. I will help improve my instruction.

  • There are cases of people who were born blind having sight during a near death experience.

  • What an interesting article!