What Blind People See or Experience When They Dream at Night

Do blind people dream? It is a question that people with vision sometimes ponder given that dreams are largely regarded as visual experiences. At the same time, most of us understand that dreams are comprised of thoughts and sensations that extend well beyond that is visually represented in our minds.

How might these thoughts and sensations translate to dreams in those who have either lost their vision or were born blind?

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Dream Sleep in Blind People

Firstly, blind people do dream. The processes that induce dreams in blind people are no different than those in sighted people.

Dream sleep is associated with the sleep stage called rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. During REM sleep, people will experience physiological changes such as deep muscle relaxation, faster respiration, jittering or darting eye movements, and increased brain activity.

In a typical night, REM sleep will lead to around two hours of dreaming, broken up by other alternating stages of sleep.

As for the dreams themselves, some researchers believe that they are simply the mind's way of consolidating memories, either by reviewing and reorganizing recent events or sensations or by connecting new experiences to older ones. Within this context, vision is a central component of memory but not the only one.

As long as there are memories and sensations to connect them with, a person will dream whether they are sighted or blind.

How Blind People Dream

When most people think about dreams, they recognize the intense visual imagery created in the dreamscape. For many, it is like watching a movie in one's head. There may be other elements to the experience, including sounds, touch, taste, and smells; nevertheless, the visual experience plays a central role.

While most dreams contain features that are kinesthetic (related to movement) or auditory (related to sound), less than 1% involve olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), or tactile (touch) sensations.

In people with blindness, these uncommon sensations are more commonly experienced during dreams. In the absence of vision, these are the sensations that blind people rely upon more acutely when awake but also when dreaming.

Visual Dreaming in Blind People

Some blind people experience visual dreaming in which they "see" images in the dreamscape no differently than a sighted person. The facility to do so is largely dependent on when they lost their vision.

Research has shown that people who are born blind or become blind at an early age (typically before the age of five) will not have visual imagery in their dreams.

By contrast, those who became blind after five will more likely experience visual sensations while dreaming, suggesting that there is a developmental threshold during which vision, cognition, and memory are melded. For these individuals, the visual images can be as concrete and identifiable as those of sighted people.

With that said, people with late blindness will often lose clarity and color of the visual impressions the longer they are blind and, as they get older, may only intermittently "see" during a dream.

Although people born blind or who became blind early in life will not have visual dreams, many will experience spatial relationships that allow them to form imaginal representations of the size, scale, position, or movement of people and objects. In essence, they "recognize" time, place, and people in the same way that sighted people do during dreams.

Emotional Intensity in Dreams

While the contents of a dream do not vary between blind and sighted people, there are differences in the intensity of certain emotions.

According to a 2014 study published in Sleep Medicine, people born blind tend to experience more aggression and nightmares that those with sight or who became blind later in life.

This may be due to an inability to achieve imaginal representations that help consolidate memories and sensations into something the mind can readily observe and process. Without some sense of spatial relationship, dreams may become more detached, disorganized, and chaotic.

Others believe that nightmares are more common in people who are born blind because they have a higher rate of threatening experiences in daily life. It is a phenomenon shared by people born deaf, who are also more likely to have nightmares.

A Word From Verywell

People who are blind dream as much as anyone else. Even though the ways in which they dream can differ, the emotional response and content of dreams remain exactly the same.

If anything, the way in which blind people dream confirms that sight and experience are not integrally linked and that the lack of sight doesn't make an experience any less "real." It is a lesson that should extend to how we view blindness in general.

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