The Dreams of Blind Men and Women
Dreaming is an overwhelmingly visual experience for sighted people. About half of all dreams also have auditory sensations, but in two large-scale studies less than one percent had gustatory, olfactory, or tactual sensory references (Snyder, 1970; Zadra, Nielsen, & Donderi, 1998).
Kerr suggests that the extremely visual nature of dreams may be why many people wonder if blind people even dream. This wonderment may explain why the presence or absence of visual imagery in the dreams of the blind has been of scientific interest since the early nineteenth century. A series of questionnaire and interview studies since that time have led to four empirical generalizations (Kirtley, 1975):
There are no visual images in the dreams of those born without any ability to experience visual imagery in waking life. Individuals who become blind before the age of five seldom experience visual imagery in their dreams, although Deutsch (1928) reports some visual imagery in six schoolchildren who lost their sight before age five. Those who become sightless between the ages of five and seven may or may not retain some visual imagery. Most people who lost their vision after age seven continue to experience at least some visual imagery, although its frequency and clarity often fade with time.
Studies of blind participants in sleep laboratories using awakenings during REM periods to collect dream reports have shown results similar to the questionnaire and interview studies (e.g., Amadeo & Gomez, 1966; Berger, Olley, & Oswald, 1962; Kerr, Foulkes, & Schmidt, 1982).
Hall's (1948) unpublished interviews with the 18-year-old blind student concerning her sense of objects in her dreams may provide evidence for the close connection between vision and touch. In talking about a dream in which she was sitting around a table with her family in a very nice restaurant, she reported that "I knew we were at a table by kinesthetic sense and knew it was a nice place by auditory sense (thick carpets, quiet atmosphere, etc.)." Then she went on to explain: "I have a picture of a table because I know what a table felt like, not because I have seen one" (Hall, 1948, p. 3).
In another dream she described a beautiful table with two big silver candelabras on it. When asked how she knew the candelabras were silver, she replied it was because they were "very smooth to touch." When the interviewer asked her if she had noticed that she seemed to have a "preference for smooth things," she replied, "well naturally, because it's prettier to touch," thereby applying a highly visual term, "pretty," to something she likes on the basis of touch. She continued this line of thought by saying that "I think if anyone prefers rough textures it's because they are seeing them besides feeling them and the material might look pretty to them" (Hall, 1948, p. 21).
The findings on the lower percentage of dreams with at least one aggression are consistent with earlier findings for a smaller sample of dream reports from blind women (Kirtley & Sabo, 1983), but the low percentage of dreams with at least one friendly interaction does not fit with Kirtley and Sabo's (1984) finding of more friendliness in the dreams of blind women. Lacking information on the lives of the participants in either study, it is not possible to explain this difference with any certainty, but as noted in the introduction, the Kirtley and Sabo studies did not control for the fact that a large number of dream reports from one or two participants might be distorting their general results.
In the present study the participants were also low in the percentage of dreams with at least one success or at least one failure. When considered in conjunction with the findings on friendliness and aggression, the overall findings suggest that the participants have less social interaction and less striving in their dreams than the sighted normative men and women. Due to the lack of information on the amount of social interaction and striving in the waking lives of the participants, nothing more can be made of these findings unless they are replicated in future studies of blind dreamers.
Although it is not possible to draw any theoretical conclusions from most of the findings, some of them are consistent with the idea that there is continuity between dream content and waking cognition (see Domhoff, 1996, for a summary). First of all, the imagery and sensations in the dreams of the blind are generally continuous with the senses they use in their awaking lives, as also noted by Kerr (1993). Those born totally blind or who lost all of their sight very early in childhood usually have little or no visual imagery, but show the same detailed attention to sound, smell, touch, and taste that they do in waking life. The findings on those who lost sight at varying ages after early childhood suggest that visual imagery is gradually replaced by the sensations that come to be more important in their waking lives.
Second, the greater percentage of locomotion/transportation dreams with at least one dreamer-involved misfortune may be continuous with the waking-life concerns about traveling from place to place that were expressed in interviews with the first author (Hurovitz, 1997, p. 31). The specific content of these dreams supports this hypothesis as well. For example, one dreamer found himself on his hands and knees with his ear to the ground listening for traffic at a crosswalk. Another reported that she and her guide dog were lost, but then she pretended that she wasn't lost so no one would know.
For the most part, as Kerr, Foulkes, and Schmidt (1982) also stress, the dreams of the blind reveal no great surprises in comparison to those of sighted dreamers, but they are just different enough on some dimensions to be of potential theoretical interest. Perhaps the findings from this study and the availability of DreamSearch make it worthwhile for other dream researchers to replicate the findings and develop new theoretical insights.
Hurovitz, C., Dunn, S., Domhoff, G. W., & Fiss, H. (1999). The dreams of blind men and women: A replication and extension of previous findings. Dreaming, 9, 183-193.
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