Sighted people often experience vivid, colorful dreams, so it is natural for them to wonder, “Do blind people dream?”
The answer is yes — blind people do dream — though their dreams are different from sighted individuals. In the absence of sight, the dreams of blind people tend to be full of touch, sound, smell, and taste, sensations which generally occur less often in the dreams of sighted people.
The purpose of dreaming is not entirely clear. However, some researchers believe that exploring the content, themes, and sleep behaviors of blind dreamers, particularly in comparison to sighted dreamers, may provide some ideas about why people dream.
What Do Blind People Dream About?
The content of a blind person’s dreams is similar to that of a person with sight, full of emotions and sensations that reflect their experience of waking life. Dreams often center on activities from day-to-day life, so common dream scenarios for blind people tend to represent situations and concerns that they may be more likely to face.
Dream content can vary widely for both people who are blind and those who are not, though common stressful dream themes include falling, being pursued, or failing a test. However, the content of blind people’s dreams has not been as documented or studied as extensively as that of sighted individuals.
A small number of studies have offered some evidence that blind people may have certain types of dreams more frequently than others. Recurring themes tend to be related to stressful situations that involve movement and transportation or navigating obstacles in an unfamiliar environment.
Visual Dreams and Sensory Experiences
Dreams are a sensory experience that can include elements of sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. The sensations a dreamer is likely to experience depends on whether they have been blind since birth, became blind as a child, or are not blind at all.
For sighted individuals, most dreams are primarily a visual experience that may include sound and touch. Sensations of smell and taste are far less common. For people who have been blind since birth, dreams rarely include visual elements, but incorporate taste, smell, touch, and especially sound.
Certain parts of the brain are responsible for enabling people to interpret what they see. In the absence of sight, it is believed that the brain will rely on other senses, especially touch, to develop these parts of the brain. Other senses are heightened in blind people and contribute to the formation of dreams.
Although the function of dreaming is not entirely understood, some researchers speculate that dreams are a result of the development of the brain’s sensory skills in early childhood. As evidence, they point to the differences in visual dream sensations between people who were born blind or lost sight within the first few years of life and people who are not blind at all.
For example, people who lose sight before about the age of 5 report few, if any, visual images in their dreams. But, those who become blind after about the age of 7 are more likely to dream with visual imagery in adulthood.
Dreaming in People Born Blind
Congenital blindness refers to when an individual is blind from birth. Blindness may be due to inheriting the trait from a parent or experiencing an infection or disease before birth. Some people with congenital blindness have total blindness while others may be able to sense some light or color.
The dreams of people born blind are more likely to have sensory components instead of visual elements, including smells, sounds, tactile sensations, and tastes. When visual elements are present, it is usually in the form of color or light in blind people who experience those same sensations while awake.
When compared to people who became blind later, people born blind experience sound, smell, and taste both more frequently and more intensely while dreaming. Heightened awareness of these senses in a dream state correlates with how well congenitally blind people perform on tasks that involve evaluating things like pitch, odor, or flavor.
Questions about what kind of visual sensations people born blind experience in their dreams can be complicated to answer for a number of reasons.
First, blind individuals may use words that apply visual concepts to describe the contents of their dreams because of the nature of language. Speakers may use terms like “take a look” or “watch out” to describe how they intake and understand information from the environment, regardless of whether they are referring to the use of sight.
Second, some say that because blind people are able to draw a picture of what happened in a dream, it means that they are able to visualize images in a dream. Others counter this claim, noting that blind people learn to draw by tracing raised images with their fingers and understand that a drawing can be a virtual rather than visual representation of how objects exist in a space.
Dreaming in People Who Become Blind Later
Some people develop blindness and visual impairments after they are born due to injury or other health conditions.
Some studies have shown that people who became blind within the first 5 years of their life have a similar dream sensory experience as those who are congenitally blind. That is, they are far less likely to experience visual elements while dreaming.
However, in some cases, children who became blind around age 7 or later retain some visual memories, which can show up as visual elements in their dreams throughout the rest of their life.
People who became blind later in life are not as likely to have elements of taste and smell in their dreams as those who are born blind. However, like the congenitally blind, they do experience significantly more tactile sensations compared to sighted individuals.
By studying the differences in sleep behaviors and dream content in those who were born blind and those who were not, researchers are able to learn more about certain aspects of sleep.
For example, eye movements during sleep are thought by some to be a sign that a person is visually scanning their dreams. One study found that all blind participants had fewer eye movements than sighted people. However, those who became blind later in life had some visual imagery in dreams while those born blind did not, which does not support the initial theory.
Can Blind People Have Nightmares?
Blind people can have nightmares. In fact, some studies have shown that people who are born blind experience nightmares more often than sighted individuals or those who became blind later in life.
Some researchers have speculated that blind people have nightmares more often because they are more likely to encounter obstacles or difficult experiences while they are awake. Common themes in these nightmares include getting lost, falling into holes, or being struck by a vehicle.
Although these recurring themes may provoke feelings of anxiety or fear, researchers found that the overall emotions of blind dreamers are the same as sighted dreamers. Some even say that nightmares may serve a positive purpose, providing a safe space for an individual to experience and cope with feelings from real threats that can occur in waking life.
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