Blindness and Dreaming

What blind people experience in their dreams depends upon when and even how they were blinded. The dreams of someone born blind have different characteristics from those of someone who had a period of being sighted.

In fact one of the earliest of systematic dream studies was reported by a German – C. Heermann – in 1838 (reported by Robert Castle in Our Dreaming Mind). Heermann studied the dreams of a hundred blind people. The fourteen subjects who had lost their sight prior to age five had no visual imagery in their dreams. Those who lost sight between five and seven years of age had varied visual and non visual dreams. Visual imagery was present in all the dreams of those who lost their sight after age seven. Heermann also reported that visual dreams persisted in subjects for up to fifty years after they had lost their sight.

In 1888 another researcher in the USA studied the dreams of two hundred blind people without knowing of the study published by Heermann. His findings were almost identical. None of the thirty two subjects blind before age five experienced visual dreaming. It was variable in the six subjects blind between ages five and seven, and present in all twenty people who became blind after the age of seven.

As with some language studies, these finding suggest an enormous change occurring in the brain and learning process between the age of five and seven.

People who are born blind, although they have no visual dreams at all, do have very vivid and multi dimensional auditory dreams. One blind subject reported a dream in which she was carrying on several conversations at the same time, as well as noticing the sound of a hair dryer, washing machine and the sound of dishes being moved. Touch taste and smell also play a larger part in the dreams of the blind than they do in those of the sighted.

The famous blind and deaf woman Helen Keller wrote about her immensely active and dynamic dream life in her book The World I live In. She says ‘I am moved to pleasure by visions of ineffable beauty which I have never beheld in the physical world. Once in a dream I held in my hand a pearl. In dreams we catch glimpses of a life larger than our own. Thoughts are imparted to us far above our ordinary thinking.’

She goes on to say, “My dreams have strangely changed during the past twelve years. Before and after my teacher first came to me, they were devoid of sound, of thought or emotion of any kind, except fear, and only came in the form of sensations. I would often dream that I ran into a still, dark room, and that, while I stood there, I felt something fall heavily without any noise, causing the floor to shake up and down violently; and each time I woke up with a jump. As I learned more and more about the objects around me, this strange dream ceased to haunt me; but I was in a high state of excitement and received impressions very easily. It is not strange then that I dreamed at the time of a wolf, which seemed to rush towards me and put his cruel teeth deep into my body! I could not speak (the fact was, I could only spell with my fingers), and I tried to scream; but no sound escaped from my lips. It is very likely that I had heard the story of Red Riding Hood, and was deeply impressed by it. This dream, however, passed away in time, and I began to dream of objects outside myself.” See Symbolism of Dreams and their Imagery

Here is a blind persons description of her dream life, it is from Helen Keller’s book The Story Of My Life:

“I used to wonder why scientific men and others were always asking me about my dreams. But I am not surprised now, since I have discovered what some of them believe to be the ordinary waking experience of one who is both deaf and blind. They think that I can know very little about objects even a few feet beyond the reach of my arms. Everything outside of myself, according to them, is a hazy blur. Trees, mountains, cities, the ocean, even the house I live in are but fairy fabrications, misty unrealities. Therefore it is assumed that my dreams should have peculiar interest for the man of science. In some undefined way it is expected that they should reveal the world I dwell in to be fiat, formless, colourless, without perspective, with little thickness and less solidity—a vast solitude of soundless space. But who shall put into words limitless, visionless, silent void? One should be a disembodied spirit indeed to make anything out of such insubstantial experiences. A world, or a dream for that matter, to be comprehensible to us, must, I should think, have a warp of substance woven into the woof of fantasy. We cannot imagine even in dreams an object which has no counterpart in reality. Ghosts always resemble somebody, and if they do not appear themselves, their presence is indicated by circumstances with which we are perfectly familiar.

During sleep we enter a strange, mysterious realm which science has thus far not explored. Beyond the border-line of slumber the investigator may not pass with his common-sense rule and test. Sleep with softest touch locks all the gates of our physical senses and lulls to rest the conscious will—the disciplinarian of our waking thoughts. Then the spirit wrenches itself free from the sinewy arms of reason and like a winged courser spurns the firm green earth and speeds away upon wind and cloud, leaving neither trace nor footprint by which science may track its flight and bring us knowledge of the distant, shadowy country that we nightly visit. When we come back from the dream-realm, we can give no reasonable report of what we met there.

But once across the border, we feel at home as if we had always lived there and had never made any excursions into this rational, daylight world.

My dreams do not seem to differ very much from the dreams of other people. Some of them are coherent and safely hitched to an event or a conclusion. Others are inconsequential and fantastic. All attest that in Dreamland there is no such thing as repose. We are always up and doing with a mind for any adventure. We act, strive, think, suffer, and are glad to no purpose. We leave outside the portals of Sleep all troublesome incredulities and vexatious speculations as to probability. I float wraith-like upon clouds in and out among the winds, without the faintest notion that I am doing anything unusual. In Dreamland I find little that is altogether strange or wholly new to my experience. No matter what happens, I am not astonished, however extraordinary the circumstances may be. I visit a foreign land where I have not been in reality, and I converse with peoples whose language I have never heard. Yet we manage to understand each other perfectly. Into whatsoever situation or society my wanderings brings me, there is the same homogeneity. If I happen into Vagabondia, I make merry with the jolly folk of the road or the tavern.

I do not remember ever to have met persons with whom I could not at once communicate, or to have been shocked or surprised at the doings of my dream-companions. In its strange wanderings in those dusky groves of Slumberland my soul takes everything for granted and adapts itself to the wildest phantoms. I am seldom confused. Everything is as clear as day. I know events the instant they take place, and wherever I turn my steps, Mind is my faithful guide and interpreter.

I suppose every one has had in a dream the exasperating, profitless experience of seeking something urgently desired at the moment, and the aching, weary sensation that follows each failure to track the thing to its hiding-place. Sometimes with a singing dizziness in my head I climb and climb, I know not where or why. Yet I cannot quit the torturing, passionate endeavour, though again and again I reach out blindly for an object to hold to. Of course, according to the perversity of dreams, there is no object near. I clutch empty air, and then I fall downward, and still downward, and in the midst of the fall I dissolve into the atmosphere upon which I have been floating so precariously.

Some of my dreams seem to be traced one within another like a series of concentric circles. In sleep I think I cannot sleep. I toss about in the toils of tasks unfinished. I decide to get up and read for a while. I know the shelf in my library where I keep the book I want. The book has no name, but I find it without difficulty. I settle myself comfortably in the Morris-chair, the great book open on my knee. Not a word can I make out, the pages are utterly blank. I am not surprised, but keenly disappointed. I finger the pages, I bend over them lovingly, the tears fall on my hands. I shut the book quickly as the thought passes through my mind, ‘The print will be all rubbed out if I get it wet.’ Yet there is no print tangible on the page!

This morning I thought that I awoke. I was certain that I had overslept. I seized my watch, and, sure enough, it pointed to an hour after my rising-time. I sprang up in the greatest hurry, knowing that breakfast was ready. I called my mother, who declared that my watch must be wrong. She was positive, it could not be so late. I looked at my watch again, and lo! the hands wiggled, whirled, buzzed and disappeared. I awoke more fully as my dismay grew, until I was at the antipodes of sleep. Finally my eyes opened actually, and I knew that I had been dreaming. I had only waked into sleep. What is still more bewildering, there is no difference between the consciousness of the sham waking and that of the real one.

It is fearful to think that all that we have ever seen, felt, read and done may suddenly rise to our dream-vision, as the sea casts up objects it has swallowed. I have held a little child in my arms in the midst. of a riot and spoken vehemently, imploring the Russian soldiers not to massacre the Jews. I have re-lived the agonizing scenes of the Sepoy Rebellion and the French Revolution. Cities have burned before my eyes, and – I have fought the flames until I fell exhausted.”

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