A prediction: Do blind people dream?

December 24, 2018 • 6:30 pm


CLARIFICATION; By “dreaming” here, I was asking whether blind people have visual dreams.

The NBC News tonight broadcast a segment about a little girl who was born blind but has a really positive attitude: she has her own upbeat show on local radio, reading from a Braille script, and says that the only thing she can’t do is “see.”

That instantly got me wondering: Do blind people dream?  And here’s a prediction—actually three predictions—before I’ve checked on the Internet. (I don’t think I’ll check until tomorrow, or I’ll wait until a reader tells me.)

The first prediction, which is mine, is based on the supposition that if someone is born blind, they’ve never been able to process visual input and therefore couldn’t experience it in their brain. Therefore, I predict that they would not be able to dream.

But people who go blind after they’re born would have developed the brain ability and experience of seeing and would have the neural ability to dream. BUT—the third prediction—the longer they’ve been blind, the less reinforcement of their brain-eye connection they’d have, and I predict that they’d gradually lose the ability to dream, or at least the frequency of dreaming would wane.

It’s strange that I’ve never thought about this before.

67 thoughts on “A prediction: Do blind people dream?

  1. Why would you suppose that dreaming (REM phase of sleep) must be visual?

    And to that point, while blind people wouldn’t have visual input, they would still be building a spatial knowledge of their environment, among other things.

  2. The answer can probably be found in “Touching the Rock” by John Hull. It is a powerful book about the experience of blindness, but I read it so long ago I don’t remember what it reported about dreaming.

  3. Without searching for the answer, I predict that even someone born blind can do some kind of dreaming. They have conversations and interactions with others, experience touch and smell and taste and can plot and scheme.

  4. I’d think they dream in other senses – sound, speech, touch.
    I recollect after learning to drive I had several dreams where I had the superpower of being able to see 360 degrees around me – I think it was related to being surrounded by mirrors when driving. It quickly went away.
    So if I can incorporate new senses into my dreams, then I’d think for blind people the creative mind would just incorporate other senses.
    Nicholas’s comment above on REM sleep and possible connection to vision is interesting though.

  5. I saw the piece on the blind girl as well. Doing well on the radio.

    I would guess the same. That born blind there would not be the visual region but possibly dreams are more experiences seen or not. Ideas the mind has that sometimes make no sense. Personally, I rarely have dreams or when I do, they are not remembered.

  6. I think you are right that it depends on whether or not blindness is congenital. I don’t think the congenitally blind could have visual dreams, but I expect they have aural dreams. Perhaps touch, taste and olfactory dreams too. I expect that people who became blind after the age at which their visual cortex was developed have visual dreams.

    Now to Google.

  7. I think the question is specifically about whether the visual parts of the dream are continuations of the visual experience during waking?

    i think blindness like deafness is graded, so in partial blindness cases, the dream could have those experiences.

    But I think it’s reasonable to expect fully blind individuals not to know what a face looks like and therefore never see it in their dream….

    I think blind individuals can get probably a real good idea of what a face looks like through tactile modeling- feeling – peoples’ faces. Then I’d expect that to show up in a dream…

    PCC(E) – did Coynezaa Claus give you a new TV?

        1. For the record :

          I read the post – rapidly – and assumed it was about the visual component of dreaming. I wrote a quick comment.

          Before posting I quickly checked the post again and saw :

          “ Do blind people dream? ”

          So I thought it wouldn’t hurt if I preface with :

          “I think the question is specifically about whether the visual parts of the dream are continuations of the visual experience during waking?”

          There’s a vast number of other ways or things I could have said. But I didn’t. I led into my original comment with just a preface. It wasn’t anything else. I thought that would be clear. I also thought it would be obvious that I was only leading into a comment.

          Thank you for reading this explanation for my writing.

  8. I know that ‘dreaming’ is essential for mental health – people who are forced awake when REM begins [eg interrogations that sort of thing] do not do well!

    My dreams are visual & movement based with a kind of audio [people speak, I speak, I understand the speech, but I don’t recall any sounds. Dream telepathy?] – I have no memory of taste nor smell & not much colour. I would expect the born blind to dream in taste, smell, sound & movement.

    Would the eyes move in the blind version of REM? I would say yes, because I note that the born blind DO move their eyeballs. A lot!

    1. I even knew somebody that contended he always dreamt in black and white (no, he had normal colour vision).
      I would be very surprised if the ‘born blind’ would not roll their eyes during REM sleep.

  9. It would depend on why she was blind. There could be something wrong with her eyes, tge optic nerve or parts of her brain that receive signals from the nerve and change them into visual images.
    Also she would not be able to see images in her dream of objects she had never seen. She could dream of seeing a lake, a flower or a car if she had never seen any of those.
    Interesting question.

    1. Yes, interesting, people with acquired cortical blindness probably do not have visual images during dreams (or awake, for that matter), I’d say all others with acquired blindness would.
      The ones ‘born blind’, or gone blind in early youth, would also not dream in visual images, I guess.
      These are armchair guesses, based on theoretical considerations, of course.
      The question remains, for those ‘born blind’: do the other senses not kind of indirectly stimulate the visual cortex? Would that cortex not make some image vaguely visual?
      We can ask them, but how to know if their perception -in dreams or awake- is not something that could be described as vaguely visual? They won’t be able to tell us, I guess (again guessing).

    1. Your brain is doing what screenwriters in particular and fiction writers in general are fond of declaiming – usually in the midst of threats of libel suits – that all characters and situations are fictional, but some characters or situations may be confabulations of events reported of multiple people, condensed into one (fictional) character.
      Which is why, for example, your dream puts the face and voice of your (despised) brother in law onto the body of a pig walking on it’s rear trots and answering to Snowball while tweeting.

    2. Same here, in y dreams there often are players that in the dream itself are not questioned (as to their identity) but can’t remember who they were after waking up, even if the memory of the dream is still clear.
      Persons also often change into other persons in my dreams.

  10. You really convinced with the second and third predictions,but about the first. I’m not so sure of it. Dreaming,one doesn’t have to deal with visual input. We’ do dream when are sleeping and when sleeping. We are totally cut off from every visual input,but we still dream.

    1. I think that PCC(E)’s point is more about people who have never had visual input, so whose brains have never trimmed down the neurones to leave an effective visual processing system.
      Which leaves very interesting questions about the plasticity of the human (well, mammalian) brain and it’s capacity to adapt to different circumstances. For an example, after a series of minor strokes some years ago, my mother has been gradually regaining speech, movement control and … well, she’s coming back. So, during the period of patent brain damage, where was “she”?
      The neurologists have a lot to learn (and generally, they know it).

      1. You mention mammalian brains, what about bird’s brains? Birds are generally much more ‘visual’ than mammals. And what about octopuses, or a dragonfly? Do they dream at all?
        Id guess birds and octopuses, with ‘learning’ brains would, less sure about dragonflies.

        1. Most readers here will have had the experience of watching a cat twitching away in it’s sleep, and seen the interpretation of that as the cat “dreaming” in a way that we can grok. Some people here will have seen the same in d*gs, though they might not admit it here. I think it’s fairly safe to extend “dreaming” as a property of mammalian brains. I’m rather less sure about extending it to “reptiles” (not a monophyletic group, and really a term that should be dropped from polite discourse), birds (derived theropod dinosaurs), and dragonflies.
          On the other paw, I remember looking a cuttlefish in the eye one day during a dive, and getting a very distinct impression that something else was looking back at me. Just how wide the “phylogenetic bracket” that implies for “consciousness” of some sort … yeah, I think neurology is a long way from even phrasing that question in an answerable form.
          Cuttlefish and other cephalopods are an interesting point – most only have quite short lives, and a brain considerably smaller than ours. but still pack a lot of smarts in there.
          The discrepancy in performance/size between bird brains and mammal brains is instructive – in that we still only have the beginnings of a grasp on how wet fat (first approximation of a brain) turns into “culture”.

          1. I did not mention ‘reptiles’.
            Yeah would snakes dream? I really wouldn’t like to guess.
            I’m quite sure birds do though. At least parrots and corvids, they are staggeringly intelligent and learn. I have this hunch that learning and dreaming are somehow related.
            There is certainly a world still to discover as far as brains, cognition and intelligence go.

            1. That birds can pack considerable smarts into a very compact (and light!) brain makes me really unconfident about extending phylogenetic brackets to them. It is possible that they do do something like “dream”, but do it in a very different way.

  11. My prediction: Yes, they do, but not as we know it.

    That is, blind people still share just as many experiences as sighted people, just they experience them in a different way. So I’m sure that, when resting, their brains rehash those experiences in the same way as our brains do. However, the way in which their dream narrative unfolds will be rather different from the semi-visual way that our dreams do.

    That’s my guess.


    1. I agree. Different, yes, but the same in every important essence: my dreams are in part visual (and I am not really confident about that), but mostly something else: thoughts, emotions, I *feel* the visual, but I am not sure I actually visualize it. For example, I visualize math: it is all images. My dreams are nothing like that.

  12. I’d guess blind people do see, but what they “see” isn’t based on incoming light, but images created out of other sense information. I suspect that they dream also in these “pictures”.

  13. I spoke to a blind person years ago (I was a teenager at the time) and somehow the subject of dreams came up.

    “I dreamed last night.” the person said. “I dreamed that I was riding a horse”.

    I don’t remember if they were blind from birth (or if I had asked them this), but I do remember being surprised to hear it.

    Sorry that I can’t be more definitive, but their description of ‘riding a horse’ made an impression on me.

  14. Somewhat related: I had a student once in a creative writing class who was born blind and deaf; she attended class with an assistant who signed my words into her hand. She wrote a poem in which she compared the silence after a snow to the quiet inside a church. Through her assistant I asked her if the silence after a snow or inside of a church was really more quiet than normal for her or was this just something that she had heard someone else say. She replied that there really was a difference in the quality of silence after a snow or inside a church. I’m not sure I entirely believed her, but I’ve always remembered it.

  15. A while back I came across an article about research that has been done into whether blind people dream or have near death experiences in the way that sighted people do. This statement is from a physician who has studied NDEs for many years, G.M. Woerlee.

    “Regardless of whether people are blind from birth or became blind at a later age, all blind people do build mental images of the world about them based upon information derived from the senses they do possess, so that they can move with some precision through open spaces, or through rooms and corridors (Afonso 2005, Arditi 1988, Baldwin 2005). Those who become blind after having been able to see do have visual dreams (Bertolo 2005, Hurovitz 1999), while those blind from birth generally have dreams without actual visual content, but which do contain mental maps and imagery from the senses they use in their daily lives (Bertolo 2003, Bertolo 2005, Hurovitz 1999). People blind from birth can even draw accurate pictures of things they dream about (Bertolo 2003), as well as being able to draw pictures of things they learn about through the medium of their other senses (Kennedy 1997). These drawings are correct in all proportions, which means that even those blind from birth have a very good idea of spatial relations in the world about them. As for colours, those who become blind at a later date know all about colours, and use their memories of colour to construct mental imagery of the world around them, while those blind from birth use the descriptions of colours to provide some sort of colouring in their mental imagery of the world about them. All these things mean that those who are blind from birth, as well as all other blind people, are capable of generating quite accurate mental images of the world around them using information derived from the senses they do possess (see page 117 in The Unholy Legacy of Abraham for the references to the scientific articles referred to).”

    1. Thanks for that

      I think Dawkins in The Selfish Gene – it was it The Blind Watchmaker? (No pun intended) discusses briefly how blind humans can navigate using “face sense”? It’s in a part about bats.

      That’s all off the top of my head, so, sorry it’s rough…

  16. I would expect the blind to dream in the same way they perceive their environment, which is through synthesized systems. They maintain their ability to hear, sense touch, and experience an emotional world, and other brain regions are enhanced and share the load of the missing sense, inducing something akin to synesthesia. I would imagine those processes would carry over to dreaming, and however their daily experiences are registered are then represented similarly in dreams.

    1. I think an implication of this is that the dreams of a blind person who was recently sighted would have a visual component, but her dreams would converge to the representation she experiences during her blind waking hours over time.

  17. I bet that even those blind from birth do dream, and that those dreams would include visual content. Isn’t it likely that the brain would ‘construct’ a visual world internally based on other kinds of sensory input?

  18. I’ve had dreams where I’ve heard (and sometimes been awoken by) voices, so I’m guessing blind folk have aural dreams.

  19. I have congenitally blind people in my family, and of course they dream. Why wouldn’t they? Dreaming isn’t just the processing of visual stimuli.

    In any case the visual cortex isn’t empty because nothing is entering it via the eyes. They still map their surroundings there even if they don’t ‘see’ it. And the neurons spike there when they read Braille with their fingertips their fingers just as we do when we read through our eyes.

    Now, whether they dream in colour is a different matter.

  20. Quick Google brought up this quote from Helen Keller:

    “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.”

    1. When I dream, it doesn’t feel like I’m seeing the things I’m dreaming about. And I’m not blind. So if I became blind I don’t think it would change my way of dreaming at all.

    1. What an interesting and nice video! Thanks.
      (First heard porn films, but the ‘subtitles’ gave it away: foreign films).

  21. On youtube is a channel called The Tommy Edison Experience, and unfortunately he hasn’t uploaded in a while for unknown reasons. Tommy is a guy who’s been blind since birth, and in his videos he relates his experiences as a blind person and answers questions that people ask. In one of his videos he answers how blind people dream, and as commenters above have indicated he does dream, just not visually. The video can be found here: https://youtu.be/XpUW9pm9wxs

    Some very interesting stuff to be learned, and another video that’ll get one thinking is one in which he poses questions he has to sighted people.

  22. I think blind people would dream – but not necessarily a visual dream. I don’t have any reason to believe that the only form that dreams can take is visual. Why can’t a dream be auditory or some other form that I can’t even imagine.

  23. In “Seeing” With The Ears. Can Bats Hear In Colour? Richard Dawkins discusses how bats, who rely on echolocation, “view” the world.

    I even stuck my neck out (for example in Unweaving the Rainbow) and wondered whether bats use colours (I meant the subjective sensations or qualia that we call red, blue, green etc.) as labels for different echoic textures of objects: perhaps “red” for shiny, hard surfaces like locust abdomens, “blue” for soft furry moths. “Red” and “blue”, after all, are only arbitrary labels for light of different wavelengths. There is nothing inherently “red” about 700 nanometres. Given that colour qualia were lying about in the brain and no longer needed as labels for wavelengths of light, why not press them into service again as labels, but labels of something else, namely echoic texture?

    If one were to follow this chain of thought then the implication is that to the extent that bats dream, their dreams would not be that different from animals whose primary sense was the eye.

    Since blind human beings can not build as detailed a model of the world using sound as animals like bats and dolphins, their dreams would not be as detailed as sighted human beings but they would not be all that different.

    By the way, the linked to article appears to have been translated to Polish by your friend Małgorzata Koraszewska.

    1. Rather than textures, it could be different sound frequencies that bats ‘see’ as ‘colours’ (I think I read that bat ‘chirps’ run up through the frequency range). Then it’s simply a matter of transposing the ‘colours’ to match a different set of frequencies.

      Or it could be a combination of the two, texture and frequency response.


  24. I think this might be a question without an answer, as it would be so difficult to verbally talk to someone who was born completely blind about what ‘seeing’ means to them, without common referents. Even if the underlying visual wiring in the brain remains intact and lights up during dreaming, how would you ask people about it and know that they were describing ‘sight’ in the same way that most people do? If they said “I saw a small orange kitten” for example, would they be describing *your visual of a small orange kitten, or a different one?

    An aside related to this topic – I had a friend in high school with a degenerative eye disease. I remember her saying that her doctors told her she would lose her memories of sight as the disease progressed, because the brain integrates current sensory input that way. Not sure if that’s true or not but I found it interesting, if, of course, very sad for her.

    1. Roo, I’d say that if she was in high school, with already ‘primed’ & formed visual cortex, and if the degenerative disease was indeed an eye disease, not a cortical one, she would not lose much of her ability to see visual images.

      1. I’m not certain of the name, it’s a disease where you develop tunnel vision that grows increasingly narrower until you can’t see anything at all. I’ve lost touch with her over the years so I don’t know if what the doctors told her was correct or not.

        1. Two unrelated male friends of mine have hereditary macular degeneration. In effect it’s the opposite of tunnel vision with a growing black field of no vision growing from the centre outwards. The problem begins in childhood & by late teens walking aids are required [dog, stick etc], if you see anyone walking with their head sideways [using their remaining peripheral vision] that’s probably due to this suite of diseases.

          The one with it the longest, Kavaan – can no longer detect light this past decade, but his memory ‘visualisation’ of places, objects, sculpture & 2D fine art is unaffected. The disease is limited to the eye of course.

  25. And then there is blindsight:

    Blindsight is the ability of people who are cortically blind due to lesions in their striate cortex, also known as primary visual cortex or V1, to respond to visual stimuli that they do not consciously see.[1] The majority of studies on blindsight are conducted on patients who have the conscious blindness on only one side of their visual field. Following the destruction of the striate cortex, patients are asked to detect, localize, and discriminate amongst visual stimuli that are presented to their blind side, often in a forced-response or guessing situation, even though they do not consciously recognize the visual stimulus. Research shows that blind patients achieve a higher accuracy than would be expected from chance alone.

  26. With regard to spatial awareness, there were a couple of people staying at a local hotel a friend used to own and I would often go for a drink at the bar there.

    The two staying were visiting for a chess congress and one of them was born blind, his friend accompanied him to tell him what move the opponent made and to make the moves spoken to him. He played a couple of games in the bar at night while staying and was a good player.

  27. Two reports in literature:

    Bertolo et al. (PMID: 12527101) have found that “the congenitally blind have visual content in their dreams and are able to draw it”.

    Meaidi et al. (PMID: 24709309) report that “All blind participants had fewer visual dream impressions compared to sighted control participants. In late blind participants, duration of blindness was negatively correlated with duration, clarity, and color content of visual dream impressions. Congenitally blind participants reported more auditory, tactile, gustatory, and olfactory dream components compared to sighted control participants.” I find this work remarkable in the fact that the authors omit mentioning in the abstract whether their congenitally blind study subjects had visual dreams at all.

    1. In addition, Schöpf, V. et al. reported that fetuses also exhibit evidence of visual dreams, which they say supports the idea that congenitally blind people can have visual dreams.

  28. Taking the work of Jean Piaget on schemas, take a restaurant. To a sighted person this has glasses on tables, chairs, table cloths, the difference in decor (flash salt and pepper shakers) flowers, etc., all this hidden from the conscious mind but readily available from past experience of restaurants built up over time. The blind must have this capacity as well, except it would be food, cooking smell noise, music, chair, table,etc., these would form schemas of their world.
    Since i am not blind, i have no idea…
    But whatever their schemas are for, house,cat, mountain, flower,is how their dreams are experienced. Smell, touch might be an extraordinary sense on tap for them.
    For the totally blind since birth, imagery of colour, some forms, perspective (3D) must to my mind, be absent.

  29. No. My guess is the congenitally blind do not have visual dreams. Nor would they be able to conjure mental images while awake.
    The reason is that any sense must be developed based on inputs from the outside. The retina, optic nerve, and visual parts of the brain would have to be bathed in stimulation in order to develop normally. Thus, and prenatal infant probably has some visual “static” which normally would develop into imagery with time. However, without stimulation, the organs of imagery would simply atrophy. I’m looking forward to the right answer, all in good time.

  30. A really interesting question. For things that a blind person can touch, they can ‘see’. For things that they hear and smell, more information is added. A deaf person can feel the beat, but watching an orchestra play might give little pleasure. As for dreaming, I think they do. The brain is a magically creative organ. It even conjures up magical entities like demons and gods. GROG

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