Do Blind People Dream?
7 min read
Last Modified 4 June 2021 First Added 21 May 2021
Blind people can and do dream, although their dreams can be somewhat different to those of people with sight. The type of imagery a blind person has in their dreams can also vary, depending on when they lost their sight. Paralympic cyclists, Lora Fachie and Neil Fachie, share their experiences about how being blind has affected their dreams. We also spoke to leading psychologists to get a science perspective.
When most people think about dreams, they recognise the intense visual imagery. For many, it’s like watching a movie in their own head. There are many other elements to the experience, including sound, touch, taste, and smell, however, visuals tend to play a central role.
While most dreams contain features that are related to movement or sound, less than 1% involve smell, taste, or touch sensations. These generally uncommon features are more often found in the dreams of blind people.
Dr Alex Dimitriu, founder at Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine explains it further for us:
“Sleep and especially dream sleep is truly a natural virtual reality experience. For people who are able to lucid dream – even more so – because they are able to actually control the content of their dreams and interact with them.
There are two types of blindness – one: congenital – from birth, and the other, acquired over time. People who become blind later in life did have vision at some point, so they will remember the look of things in the real world. People born with congenital blindness have never seen the world visually, but that does not mean their imagination and ability to understand descriptions would limit them from still being able to “see” in the mind’s eye. Much the same way most of us can imagine something we have never seen before, blind people can as well. This process continues in the dream state, even for the congenitally blind.”
Lora Fachie is a visually impaired tandem cyclist, and her family all share the same hereditary condition but lost their sight at different points in their lives. Lora shared her experience of dreaming:
“I was very young when I lost my sight, and it completely deteriorated to sort of nothing which is what I’ve got now, so I don’t see colour or anything in my dreams – it’s usually like my day-to-day life. My middle brother, he’s never really had any sight, so he’s the same – he doesn’t see in his dreams. However, my mum and my eldest brother were both a little bit older, so my mum was like 14 or 15 before she lost her sight, and my eldest brother was eight. They both for a majority of their life could see enough to read and write, and see colours and things. Even now, they still dream in colour, which I find fascinating. So, in their dreams, they can see.”
Neil Fachie is also a visually impaired cyclist with the ParalympicsGB, and having lost his sight later in life, his dreams have a different perspective to Lora’s:
“My sight has gradually deteriorated as I’ve got older, and I think my vision in my dreams is similar to when I was younger. Looking at Lora’s family, it’s possible that there is an age that you learn to dream, or that’s when your memories are from, but my vision is actually better in my dreams than it probably is in my current life, which is really interesting.”
Dreams can mimic both memories and everyday life – it’s almost like a narrative. In Lora’s dreams, her mind focuses on feelings a lot, or it’s like someone is telling a story narrating what’s happening in her dream – sometimes her own voice. Neil’s dreams are a lot more visual.
Blind people have nightmares just like sighted people do, and they can even have them more frequently. Like most people, you do tend to remember more of your nightmares than your dreams.
“One nightmare that I experience on a reoccurring basis – and I think it’s quite a common one – is I dream my teeth are crumbling away in my mouth, and I’ll be sort of spitting my teeth out in my dream. So, when I wake up I have to check my teeth are all still there and intact!”
Neil tends to experience more bad dreams when he’s stressed. He says:
“As you come towards the Games, bad dreams get a bit more common, as you get more stressed. My kind of nightmares are that I’m being chased or running from something, and I just can’t seem to move properly, which is so not in keeping with what I guess I do in sport, so it’s quite disconcerting when you wake up, and you check if everything is still working and you’re good! I think as the pressure ramps up you start to dream more.”
While the contents of a dream don’t vary between blind and sighted people, there are differences in the intensity. This can happen in stressful times, and may be due to an inability to achieve imaginal representations that help to consolidate memories and sensations into something the mind can readily observe and process. So, without that spatial relationship, dreams may become more detached, disorganised, and chaotic.
“When I’m in a heavier training block, I struggle to go into a deep sleep, so I spend more time in that half-awake, half-asleep mode. And at that time, I do think my dreams seem more vivid”
Neil agrees with the level of restlessness affecting his dreams, saying:
“When you’re almost so tired from training that you actually can’t sleep, I find myself straddling the real world and the dream world a bit. I don’t necessarily think my dreams change, but I do think they get a bit weirder when I’m more tired, or coming up to a big event, and experiencing more stress. I think stress encourages less sleep, but also more vivid dreams, too.”
Katherine Hall, Sleep Psychologist at Somnus Therapy says:
“Sighted people often associate dreams with intense visual imagery. However, there does seem to be much more to experience with all of our other senses: smell, taste, sound and touch. Whilst the visual does certainly play a fundamental role, blind people more commonly experience their dreams through the other senses. The senses more heavily relied upon in their waking life seems to transfer over into their dreams.”
With Lora, emotions and feelings are the most vivid for her, and her dreams can be very tactile, because in her day-to-day life her main senses are touch and hearing.
“I remember I wake up in the morning and I’ll think oh, you know, I remember feeling really strange during the night or you know, a bit scared or, or something like that. So again, going back to the teeth… I can feel you know what it felt like in my mouth as my teeth were sort of crumbling away.”
Because Neil’s dreams are very visual, his most heightened sense when dreaming is sight. He says:
“I am very visual still in my dreams. The visual context also drives the kind of biological responses that you have in a dream because it’s so real like you wake up with your heart rate going!”
Dreams can vary widely from person to person, but overall, 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 the same. If anything, the way in which blind people dream confirms that sight and experience are not linked and that lack of sight doesn’t make any experience less ‘real’.