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Do Blind People Dream?

Dream Content Reflects Sensory Experiences, Depends on Age of Blindness Onset

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Updated June 19, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

You may find yourself wondering: do blind people dream? If blind people do dream, what do they dream about? Can they see in their dreams? How else do their dreams differ from sighted people? A great deal of information is known about the dreams of blind people, and you may be surprised to learn about the nature of blind people’s dreams.

The Dreams of Blind People

First, blind people do dream. Dream sleep is often associated with the sleep stage called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. It is generated deep within the brain. As it is a function of the brain, and not the eyes, blind people dream as much as a sighted person would. No matter the cause of the blindness, this remains true. It is interesting that the timing of the blindness in life may in fact impact the content of the dreams, however.

What Do Blind People Dream About?

When most people think about dreams they recognize the intense visual imagery that creates the dreamscape. For many, it is like watching and participating in a movie that plays in your head. There are other elements to the experience, including sounds, touch, taste, smells, movements, and even fear. Nevertheless, the visual experience has a central role. As a result, it is natural to wonder if blind people are able to see in their dreams.

Research has evaluated the sensory experiences of blind people while dreaming for decades. These findings have been interpreted within the context of sighted people’s experience of dreams. It is useful to consider the content of all dreams to better understand where it differs among the blind.

Most dreams contain features that are both visual and kinesthetic (related to movement). More than half of dreams contain an auditory element (related to sound). It is rare for people to describe other sensory experiences, such as those related to smell (olfactory), taste (gustatory), and pain. It is estimated that these latter three elements occur in less than 1 percent of dream reports. Interestingly, women more often experience smell and taste in their dreams while men more often report sound and pain.

Blind people are more likely to report feelings of touch, taste, and smell in their dreams compared to sighted people. This likely corresponds to their waking experience which relies more on these senses. They do not have dramatic differences in dream content, except that they seem to have less aggression in their dreams.

Can Blind People See in Their Dreams?

Despite these subtle differences in dream content, can blind people see when they dream? Some blind people actually can see in dreams, but it depends on when they lost their vision.

Individuals who are born blind or those who become blind at a young age, typically by the age of 4 or 5 years, do not have visual imagery in their dreams. This is supported by careful laboratory studies that documented dreaming without associated reports of visual experiences.

On the other hand, those who become blind after 5 or 6 years of age are able to see in their dreams. Therefore, there seems to be a window in the development of the brain in which the capacity to have visual dreams is established. If visual input is present, the person is able to generate sight within dreams, even after vision is lost. For those who cannot see from a young age, dreaming still occurs but other sensory input may be more prominent in their experience of these dreams.

Aside from unique dream content, some blind people cannot perceive light and they may be subject to a unique sleep disorder called a nonentrained circadian rhythm.

Sources:

Berger, R et al. "The EEG, eye movements, and dreams of the blind." Q J Exp Psychol 1962;14:183-186.

Kerr, N et al. "The structure of laboratory dream reports in blind and sighted subjects." J Nerv Ment Dis 1982;170:286-294.

Kryger, MH et al. "Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine." ExpertConsult, 5th edition, 2011, p. 591.

Zadra, AL et al. "Prevalence of auditory, olfactory and gustatory experiences in home dreams." Percept Mot Skills 1998;87:819-826.

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