National Geographic

How the Blind Dream

Most of my dreams are boring. I’m typically talking to someone I know, either on the phone or in person, in a familiar place. The conversations tend to include ideas that I’ve read about or experienced recently in my waking life. Some of my dreams don’t even have the intrigue of another character; I’m just alone, sitting in front of my computer, reading or Tweeting or whatever. Occasionally when on deadline I’ll have a classic anxiety dream, but even that’s pretty tame, with me flunking out of college because I forgot to go to class.

No matter what the psychological message, my dreams are almost entirely visual and auditory. Every once in awhile I’ll have a dream that includes a physical sensation, like my stomach dropping as I ride down an elevator. But it’s so rare that when it happens the feeling sticks with me all day. That probably makes sense, as I rely on my vision and hearing far more than other senses. But what about people who lose their sight, or could never see? What do they dream of?

A group of Danish researchers posed those questions in this month’s issue of Sleep Medicine. They recruited 50 adults: 11 blind from birth, 14 who became blind sometime after age 1, and 25 non-blind controls. Participants agreed that for a period of four weeks, whenever they had a dream they would fill out a computer questionnaire about it as soon as they woke up. (The blind volunteers used text-to-speech software.)

The questionnaire asked about several aspects of the dream: the sensory impressions (Did you see anything? If so, was it in color? Did you taste? Smell? Feel pain?); the emotional content (Were you angry? Sad? Afraid?); and the thematic content (Did you interact with someone? Did you fail at something? Was it realistic, or bizarre?). The questionnaire also asked whether the dream was a nightmare.

All of the non-blind control participants reported a visual impression in at least one dream. In contrast, none of the participants who had been totally blind since birth did. For the group with later-onset blindness, the longer they had lived without sight, the less they saw in their dreams.

Just as there are many ways to take in the world, there are many ways to dream about it. Blind people dream, just as they live, with a rich mix of sensory information.

About 18 percent of the blind participants (both congenital and later-onset) reported tasting in at least one dream, compared with 7 percent of controls. Nearly 30 percent of the blind reported smelling in at least one dream, compared with 15 percent of controls. Almost 70 percent of the blind reported a touch sensation, compared to 45 percent of controls. And 86 percent of the blind reported hearing, compared with 64 percent of controls.

(The differences are more drastic when looking only at the congenitally blind group. Among these participants, 26 percent tasted, 40 percent smelled, 67 percent touched and 93 percent heard in at least one dream.)

Despite these sensory differences, the emotional and thematic content of dreams isn’t much different in the blind and the sighted. Both groups reported about the same number of social interactions, successes, and failures in their dreams. They had the same distribution of emotions, and the same level of bizarreness.

There was, however, one notable difference between the dreams of the congenitally blind and controls. The blind had a lot more nightmares: around 25 percent, compared with just 7 percent of the later-onset blind group and 6 percent of controls. This difference held even after the researchers controlled for sleep quality, which is generally poorer among the blind.

So what could explain all of those nightmares? The researchers don’t know, but they speculated that it may have to do with evolutionary theories about why nightmares exist. “According to these theories, nightmares can be seen as threat simulations, as a mentally harmless way by which the human mind can adapt to the threats of life,” the researchers write. “The nightmare gives an individual an opportunity to rehearse the threat perception and the avoidance of coping with the threat.”

This seems to agree with what the congenitally blind participants reported in the study. Their nightmares included events such as getting lost, being hit by a car, falling into manholes, and losing their guide dog — all very real threats in their waking lives.

This fits with my dreaming experience, too. My dreams don’t have much drama or adventure, probably because I don’t encounter that in my day-to-day life. But that’s not to say I’ll never have thrilling dreams. “Dreams have multiple layers of meaning,” the researchers write, “that are not only determined by actual external conditions but also often relate to internal life and past experiences in complex ways.”

There are 37 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Jianhua Qiu
    February 27, 2014

    It is so good to read this article about dreams. I have a number of photos reflecting some of my real dreams.

  2. Storm Persephone Tara
    February 27, 2014

    I lost most of my vision in my mid 20s, RP, (Retinitis Pygmentosa), a degenerative condition reduced slowly over time my sight. Dreams for me are often complex, I experience playing music, singing, dancing and flight to anxiety dreams where I am in dark places sometimes under water – dreams involving all levels of dreaming, elaborate dreamscapes to the mundane. As I am a creative person, as I am a writer and have dabbled in the arts to alternative lifestyles like music and meditation to learning Reiki etc, and more, I feel this grants me depth in my dreams that do infrequently involve other senses such as touch, smell, taste, and clare audience and claresentience – I see and hear perfectly in dreams and audio-visual is sharp and I often have precog and other unusual dream experiences though these are also infrequent. I do have nightmares, mostly of huanted houses or settings that are otherworldly in some way. I take my dreams very seriously and use them as muses for my stories, poetry and as points of discussion with friends, I love my dreams and the people and beings I encounter, often seeing them throughout my life and revisiting some familiar dreamscapes, both real and fantasy-based etc.

  3. Franking.Wu
    February 28, 2014

    Human is great because of dreams, a nice dream will be make inner peace for blind whoever congenital or acquired,even,if somewhere have a huge of dreams,I think that must be people’s heart.

  4. Brian Schmidt
    March 1, 2014

    The theory that nightmares for the blind are increased due to increased threats doesn’t explain the difference between the congenitally blind and those who became blind after age 1, who face the same threats but whose nightmare frequency is much more like the control group.

    Seems likely to me that the nightmares might have something to do with neurological development as infants. They should break down the the blind groups into those who became blind sometime after early infancy, sometime later in childhood, and as adults.

  5. adrienne
    March 2, 2014

    What an interesting study! The possibility exists that stored visual information mitigates the interpretation that one has had a nightmare.

  6. Rudy
    March 2, 2014

    To pass a urine drug test to get a good paying job. I quit smoking pot, and took a drug cleaner. After 45 days took another cleaner. Passed the test, got the job. I noticed my dreams during that period were in high definition. Violently graphic and I had a difficult time getting a good nights sleep. Worst 45 days of my life. Right at this moment a Nation is getting wealthy on oil. Yet only 110 have the wealth. The rest are dirt poor. Where I am at hard times. Ever been to Niagara Falls? Just look at the beautiful city of Toronto. Then look at the beautiful city of Niagara. Colorado will look like Toronto. Border states like Niagara Falls. Forget some Dictator lets get bombed right here. Sleep tight sweet dreams.

  7. Rabbitnexus
    March 3, 2014

    I think that since fear is greatest of the unknown that the congenitally blind tend to more nightmares/fears due to having never seen and thus facing more unknowns.

  8. joe
    March 4, 2014

    Really Rudy?

  9. Laurel
    March 15, 2014

    I dream in Technicolor and surround sound. I cant recall ever smelling however. I’ve always enjoyed movies and I think that’s where most of my dreams and nightmares are inspired from. I’ve even had dreams of being a man from ancient times and a male pirate. I’ve been wounded many times enough to be dead but have never died. I’ve flown. I’ve even climbed bumble gum walls with sonic the hedgehog and LL Cool Jay. The meaning of those remains a mystery. The ones that do bother me however are the war or end of the world ones. I don’t like those ones…

  10. Steph
    March 15, 2014

    A very interesting article , although I agree not really comclusive as to the small number of people envolved. I myself normally sighted and have had the most amazing indepth dreams all my life , they change normally depending on my state of mind at that time. They can feel feature film like and seem hours long , always in colour and I am often aware of the temperature, I sometimes fly too by jumping until I get high enough to become airborn ! I feel for the people who claim to never dream.

  11. Raq
    March 15, 2014

    Fascinating article! – and Rudy – Really? ha ha..

  12. Chris Harding
    March 15, 2014

    I remember at least one dream a night. Most are situations with people I don’t know and I am not myself. It is as if I am inhabiting someone else’s body. I have come to the conclusion that it is the result of TV. Experiencing life via the screen.

  13. martine
    March 15, 2014

    This was really an interesting article, I love dreams – and to dream, both awake and asleep. Here for a while I was reading this book about a boy, only ten years old, and he fell in love with this girl, twice as old as him, but that’s not the point: she was blind, and beautiful. After that, I was so grateful for my sight, because for a very long time, since my ninth, I was so upset with my eye color, which is brown. I have always felt this color is like the dirt on the ground, and blue kind of is the sky’s heaven. I know it is a stupid thought, but you know teenagers, we come up with so much lies, that feels true.

  14. Luka Znid
    March 15, 2014

    I see, hear and feel in almost every dream I ever have. But I dont ever recall tasting… Smelling is almost completly absent aswell. Interesting study, always wondered how the blind dream and if they see in their dreams. Very nice, job well done!

  15. Nasimat Ajoke
    March 15, 2014

    Dreams could be very funny. No matter how funny it may sound or look, it has to do with one life. I believe it stand as a warning or guide in human life.

  16. Rishard
    March 15, 2014

    Dreams are som how real.Coz when you dreaming something,when you foling,runing and hart beats so fast in the dream :D

  17. Tana
    March 15, 2014

    My youngest sister has been blind since birth. She would often talk about her dreams and I have always been curious about what she experienced. I’ve read articles that blind people who regained their sight were accurate about what they perceived colors,trees and other things to look like. Fascinating article.

  18. Mikki
    March 15, 2014

    I have always dream in color even as a child – I don’t have scary dreams, but most are silly ones, some are in familiar places, others in oddly built houses where the rooms didn’t make sense to the layout – most dreams are about family, even those who have passed and we are all young again -

  19. Allison
    March 15, 2014

    Most of the dreams I remember are of the chaos that comes from me forgetting to go to work. Ot waking up late for work. The good ones are of my mother, who visits me in my sleep.

  20. Samia
    March 15, 2014

    What does the term “Non blind control” mean?

  21. Sam
    March 15, 2014

    Hi, I am researching dreams, sleeping, etc. This was a very interesting article and I was wondering if anyone knew any other websites where I could find any information like this. Thank you!

  22. Claudia
    March 15, 2014

    I agree with some of the comments above. It was a group too small to draw worldwide conclusions. I have perfect vision, but still, my dreams are really weird and full of sensations. I open doors with rainbows inside that, after crossing them, turn me into water and transport me into a different dream. In those dreams, I can feel myself becoming water. All of my dreams have background music. And, even though I’m slowly losing my sense of smell, I dream of the perfume of flowers, or the odour of fireplaces, really often too. My sister has nightmares at least once a month since she was very little. And all of her senses work properly and she had a happy, healthy childhood. The thing in common with her, me, and many other individuals I have encountered who happen to have dreams full of stimuli often is that we usually have active imaginations. My sister is a really talented cartoonist, and some of the other people I’ve come across were actors, writers, etc. Couldn’t it be just that? People who have been deprived of one of their senses need to have more active imaginations in order to be more prepared for future threats, but I think that, had the study been broader, they would have found non-blind people who had dreams as vivid and full of stimuli for all the senses. I would love to read about a follow-up for this research with a wider number of participants.

  23. leonard mckeon
    March 15, 2014

    Interesting . I once had the pleasure of working at Law School and a part of my job was to chauffeur Academics to the main campus ..including the Dean , who was totally blind from birth. We used to have wonderful conversations about his amazing use of areas of the human brain that only blind people seem to explore . He was the Dux of his year ..decorated by the University and the Country …and when he was asked what he actually ‘ saw ‘ in that void , where we have a million images . he said ..i see NOTHING ..i do not know what light or dark looks like . The same man could identify people by their smell , take himself across very busy streets in the city , unaided ..to buy a coffee etc , walk around the building without bumping into anything ..and alarmingly RUN down a long flight of steps in the Great Hall like a teenager …much to the awe and chagrin of his peers . The most wonderful human being i have ever had the pleasure and honour to meet .

  24. Danielle
    March 16, 2014

    Samia…in this study, they compared the blind group to a “non blind control” group, this means that the people in that group were not blind. They are called a “control” group because that group is being used as a comparison for the group they are actually testing (the blind group). :)

  25. Franklin Abao
    March 16, 2014

    Implications of this research? That dreams are not messages from god/s nor do they tell the future and that the bible is filled with dreaming bullshitters.

  26. Lon
    March 16, 2014

    Once I dreamt that I was near a building as it exploded and the explosion felt so real that I woke with a ringing sensation in my ears….weird.

  27. Ken T Lim
    March 17, 2014

    I think i dream in color at least 75% of the time;
    full surround sound (i.e. normal) 90%;
    emotional content at least 1/2
    visceral/vestibular sensations ~1/3
    Smell ~10%
    Taste? never?
    The researchers didn’t ask, but I have regular cinematic scenes with cuts, pans, zooms and slow pullbacks.

    I haven’t had any nightmares in longer than I can remember, but I used to have regular, recurring ones as a kid. One recurring nightmare I had isn’t even scary at all when I described to other people, but it would scare the heck out of me and I’d wake up trembling & sweating!

    My dreams are mostly wierd, bizarre, upsetting, jarring, quizzical, but rarely mundane and never humorous.
    Often my dreams are populated by people in “bit parts” by people I haven’t seen or heard from in decades; sometimes people I know I’ve met but can’t remember their names.
    Sometime famous public or historical figures make “cameo” appearances in my dreams to underscore a particular point; oftentimes ”breaking down the fourth wall.”
    Most dreams are viewed in first-person, but maybe 10% are “over-the’shoulder” view, 10% aerial view & 10% are second-person looking at me!
    The other comments are great, too!
    I particularly like :”I’ve even climbed bumble gum walls with sonic the hedgehog and LL Cool Jay.” Finally! Someone as weird as me!

  28. maribel steel
    April 4, 2014

    My right eye is blind, my left almost – as I have Retinittis Pigmentosa and cells of sight have been slowly dying since the age of seventeen. Yet, – I dream in FULL colour. My dreams are not frequent but when I do remember them, they often show me the answer to some problem I have been pondering. I never have my white cane in my dreams which I use in real life so when I wake from the dream, I feel so fortunate to have experienced a walk unaided or having run along a beach – the freedom in dreams is amazing. Maribel Steel (writer and inspirational speaker) Australia. ps. the artist’s painting that appears at top of this article is a friend and talented woman passionate about her art, even as her sight fades.

  29. Dr. Gene~Landrum,
    April 22, 2014

    In Biblical Times, dreams were interpreted to mean many things, some of the writing of those times, wrote of bizarre images, not known to Mankind, make believe or dream based, with no known origin? Dreams, are made of energy, energy comes from all senses of the body, as noted by the non sighted, from birth! Energy in the two minds, produce actions, that sometimes are acted out while Dreaming; Sleep Walking, Organisms, etc. Sleep recharges the Body, by reducing energy used, and stored energy being released! Its all Chemical Reactions that create Energetic Actions, the Serotonin levels predict how well you sleep, Adrenaline levels, wake up up and keeps you up! Testosterone and Estrogen, make you do natural things! All Chemical! Now, Mankind has learned how to change these actions/reactions by chemically changing them, Chemicals in our Foods, Chemicals in the Air, Chemicals ingested, natural or not! Humans and their Bodies really are what they Eat! Thoughts, like Dreams can create a ‘False’ atmosphere, that seems real, and inappropriate actions are taken.

  30. Jason Bratcher
    July 13, 2014

    Before I begin, those of you who want to fine me on Skype, search for imcoocoo as the Skype I.D. I’ve also been blind since birth, and my dreams are downright insane! I could go from a high-school graduation to imitating videogame sounds for kids to – wait for it – a gameshow contestant? And win $1,000,000! Who Wants to be a Millionaire not included?

  31. Tom Potocki
    August 5, 2014

    What about genetic memory ? Could images be passed
    from parent to child as a memory ? – a blind person could
    have dormant images from this process.

    • Virginia Hughes
      August 5, 2014

      No, “genetic memory” in that sense is not a real phenomenon.

  32. lordessa aaliyah
    August 16, 2014

    When i was younger about in the sixth grade i had a dream that started out like a muted movie from the 50s. It started with the title: a teachers life.
    It was about the two latin teachers i had. Mr.g and mr.finkels. In the dream mr.g was a leporchan with a white afro. And mr.finkels was wearing a kilt with those hairy legs. Ewwww. They went to gulf course and there mr. Finkels went to go get gulf balls and then when he came back and mr.g was murdered. Mr.finkels stole the gulf cart and went to this place to ask for help. He went to this alley and there in the alley there were cats and cat pee and fourteen day old fajita. Then my vice principal came out with a nest of birds in her hair and bad make up. She then ordered her army of evil cat minions to attack mr. Finkels of course mr.gs ghost appeared and said run only this time mr.g was taller like he originally is. a cat with syper powers pounces on mr.gs ghost and mr.g screams. “stop cat this feels wrong. Get of my leg. stop raping my leg. You dont mess with a ghost tnat looks like a holograms leg. Oh thats right im a ghost.” He then dissapeared then a supernatural cat alien with laser eyes turned mr.finkels to ash. Then it ended with a black screen saying happy ending then another eternal black screen that lasted until i was awakened.

  33. Jason Bratcher
    August 18, 2014

    In a dream I had last night, I was “Proving Your Worth”.
    First, a weatherman for a local TV affiliate,
    Than, a news anchor,
    A field reporter for that affiliate (reporting a story live on location),
    A voiceover man doing idents for the affiliate,
    Finally, a gameshow host of: Let’s Ask America!
    At the very end of the dream, a lady at about my height walked up to me with tears in her eyes and said I was absolutely perfect – exactly what she and the other people wanted to hear each day. In showing her thanks, she handed me a hand-sculpted glass trophy for a hell of a job well done, only for my brother to grab it from me and shatter it on the floor by dropping it, then shooting me in cold blood!
    “Hey yall, my blind bro’s dead; Let’s get outa here ‘fo Elliot Stabler finds me, dawg?”

  34. ADRIANA PETERSEN
    September 17, 2014

    As the brains captures, retains and archives every bit of data it perceives, from every human sense, it then, during the sleep process, releases and scrambles this data like scattered pieces of a puzzle, and in a place of no boundaries or self-judgement, it then mix, matches and weaves these pieces into beautiful masterpieces which we call dreams…each imprinted with our own personal signature…oh, how lucky we are to have been gifted a human brain!

  35. Ndumba David
    October 8, 2014

    I disagree to a large extent, How is it possible for a blind man dreaming either fighting a boxing sport and defeat the opponent?
    How will a blind man dream about eclips of the moon and the sun while he/she have never seen them?
    How will a blind man dream about something in a green or blue colour?
    How will a blind man dream about a gun while he have never seen it?

    How will a blind man dream about crossing the ocean while he have never seen the ocean?

  36. Lenora Smith
    October 24, 2014

    I love dreaming and see it to be a blessing from God. I dream in deep color, I smell, I talk, I feel fear, and I fly. I have seen some of the most exhotic places from crystal seas, snow cap mountain, beautiful gardens, and I have this warm euphoric feeling, and I have orgasims in my dreams. A recurring dream is one of big beautiful haunted houses. I love dreams!

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