Can Blind People See in Their Dreams?

This post was inspired by a recent Documentary from the RSBC (Royal Society for Blind Children), in which artist Robert Montgomery produced a piece of art surrounding the dreams of a group of blind children. Robert believes that there is a “kind of universality to ‘dream vision’”. “My theory is that we all probably dream the same whether or not we’re blind or sighted, and I also feel as though when we go into this world of the imagination, in the imagination we can all see everything”. This is a fascinating topic, and one that I felt would be interesting to explore here.

The short answer is no, I don’t see in my dreams. I experience dreams exactly as I do real life. I have never known sight. As far as I’m aware I have never experienced sight subconsciously in a dream; though if I had I’m not sure I would recognise it for what it was, or be able to interpret it to be anything meaningful. I experience life through my other senses – sound, smell, touch and taste – and my dreams are best described as a kind of subconscious recollection of those experiences. I suppose it could be likened to a virtual reality experience, where the mind is able to recall past sensory experiences from memory and apply them to a situation, but also imagine new ones or fill in blanks.

To understand how I dream it will help to first understand how I experience real life. By far my most useful sense is my hearing which not only enables me to communicate and listen to my surroundings, but is also essential in my ability to identify people and environments, and facilitates Echo Location which is essential in navigation and identification of objects, surroundings and people.

Unfamiliar people who I have never met in person are essentially represented visually by two-dimensional figures, a bit like a line drawing or stick figure. When I do meet a person for the first time, I am able to identify their height and build using echo location, and roughly scale my visual figure accordingly to three dimensions. If we have some form of physical contact – a hug for example, that image is further refined to more accurately scale the visual picture of their build. From that point, physical elements are built up either through estimation based on description, or through physical contact. For example, if we shake hands, an accurate physical image of their hand can be added, including size, strength, temperature and the tiny unique details such as skin texture, small crease lines or whether they are tense or relaxed, the latter not only an indicator of possible apprehension but also the way they carry themselves and their body language. This is done within a matter of a second; far less time than a handshake may actually last.

I can remember those details as part of my image of that person, and use them to instantly identify their touch, or identify them with a high degree of accuracy by echo location alone. Their voice, personality and other details are added to complete a visual picture of each individual, which I can recall usually instantaneously or within a matter of seconds if they are unfamiliar; a bit like if you see a face that you’ve not seen for a number of years. I may also recall memories of my encounters with them, situations we’ve been in together, or perhaps memorable things they’ve said or done to help with identification.

Environments and surroundings are visualised in much the same way. Most details are unearthed via echo location or in some cases descriptions from people, if the surroundings are unfamiliar. In familiar spaces I’ll build a mental map of where objects are located, and through touch I build a three-dimensional image of an object. Large objects (buildings, walls, vehicles etc) are usually identified by echo location, as to touch the entirety of a large object is impractical. Some objects can only be identified by their shape and are visualised as an outline – a car, aeroplane, large boat or a building for example. Picturing a large object involves a certain level of guesswork, and sometimes generic shapes have to suffice. If I picture the outside of a familiar house for example I’ll mostly imagine a generic house shape, perhaps with some details filled in like a flat roof at the front, window and door positions, or the texture of the outer or inner walls etc. Most of my visualisation of the house will be inside, including the layout, size, smell, fittings and features, sounds and atmosphere.

When I dream, those visualisations are as essential in a dream as they are in every-day life. If familiar people feature in a dream I can recall my visualisation of them, just as you could see their face. If the person in a dream is unfamiliar an incomplete visualisation of them might be formed, along the lines of the above and usually based around rough details such as their gender, age and physical build. I can then estimate voice and traits of personality, building a visualisation as above.

Environments appear to me exactly as they ordinarily would. I can explore surroundings in a dream, walking around familiar environments and exploring new ones with my imagination filling in missing details as best it can, though unfamiliar surroundings appear far less realistic than familiar spaces do. If I dreamt about an unfamiliar house, it would appear as a building with the rough shape of a house, but with rooms that were mostly square and empty. If my dream were based in a familiar house, I would be able to mentally map the entire property down to the location of the furniture and fittings as I remembered them, with a realistic recollection of the ambient sounds and the atmosphere of the house. But in a dream based in an unfamiliar property, my ability to mentally map the area would be limited to my location at the time, perhaps with a visual picture being developed as my subconscious explored and imagined.

I don’t have the ability to remember every one of my dreams. After a particularly deep sleep I’ll have limited recollection of a dream, though I’m usually conscious of whether I dreamt or not. The way my dreams are experienced however makes the few snapshots I can remember far more vivid than they might otherwise be, almost like memories of things that happened when I were conscious.

The purpose of this post was to explore whether or not we blind people can see in our dreams. I asked a number of people, both totally blind and with varying degrees of partial sight, to see whether there is any correlation between either having sight or having had sight, and being able to see in dreams. The results were interesting and not entirely conclusive.

In all cases, those who were partially sighted do have sight in their dreams. In half of those cases their degree of sight reflected their real life sight impairment, while the remainder could dream with unimpaired vision. Of those with total blindness, an overwhelming majority said they could not see in their dreams. Half of those had previously known sight for a period of time no less than 2 years, having lost their sight owing to their condition, while the rest were blind since birth. Only two people with total blindness said they felt they had some sight, though they described the experience as being able to see objects that they had a physical recollection of, plants or grass for example. It could be argued that these are nothing more than mental visualisations based on description or familiarity, and not true visual representations.

Danish research in 2014 suggests that those who lose their sight later in life can see in their dreams, but that as time passes they are less likely to dream in pictures. The same research suggests that those who are born blind have more nightmares than sighted people, based on a theory that nightmares are mental rehearsals of potentially distressing events and can help develop coping mechanisms. During this research, all of the sighted control participants reported a visual impression in at least one dream, while none of the participants who had been blind since birth did. See Here for more detail.

PGO (Ponto-Geniculate-Occipital) waves are an electrical oscillation in the brain that are thought to activate the visual cortex and serve as a visual dream generator during sleep. The location of PGO waves seems to indicate where and when eye movements will occur, and in turn these eye movements are thought to show where the subject is viewing visual content in a dream. PGO waves on the right side of the brain will precede an eye movement, and indicate visual content, in the right field;of vision, while PGO waves on the left indicate eye movements to the left. It seems therefore that these electrical oscillations are stimulating eye movements and exciting corresponding areas of visual cortex, with visual content in dreams being ‘seen’ where the activity occurs.”.

Bértolo, Mestre, Barrio, & Antona, 2017) investigated whether blind subjects exhibit eye movements and visual activity similar to sighted subjects during sleep, and whether this is the case in subjects who have been blind since birth. While the blind subjects did have fewer rapid eye movements than the sighted subjects, their dream reports did contain reference to visual sensation, there was no difference between the two groups in the quantity of visual content reported in the dreams, and their eye movements did correlate with visual dream recall. You can read a more in-depth analysis of the paper Here.

Based on my own experience and research, it would seem that whether or not a blind person can see in their dreams does in fact correlate to whether or not they have, or have had sight. It seems to me that while the brain’s visual cortex may display activity, the subconscious or conscious mind cannot interpret those visualisations, and thus a person with no recollection of sight cannot see in their dreams.