For certain members of the deaf community, dreams are a rare time when communication is easy.
From solar-powered hearing aids to sign language translation devices, today’s deaf community have many tools and options that make communication much simpler than it once was. Nonetheless, during waking hours, being unable to hear in a world driven by sound remains a significant challenge. Lip reading is more difficult and less accurate than popularly believed. And while the use of American Sign Language (ASL) and cued speech has increased, they are still only used by a small fraction of the U.S. population.
But in some dreams, deaf people find they don’t need lip reading or have to worry whether people know sign language. In many of their dreams, everyone knows ASL or communicates through a sort of telepathy where everyone simply knows instantly what everyone else is trying to say.
“I never actually see people signing or speaking,” Gabriel Paulone, a student at Washington D.C.-based school for the deaf Gallaudet University said in an email. “It is as if we use extrasensory perception (ESP). It is like we share similar language without having to say something.”
Paulone’s experience is not unique. According to many of the people in the deaf community interviewed for this story as well as those who’ve posted on online forums like Alldeaf and Reddit’s /r/deaf, effortless, telepathy-like communication is a common occurrence in the dreams of those who cannot hear.
Andrea, a Missouri social worker who posts on Reddit as LanguageVirus, said that while she was born able to hear, no one has spoken in her dreams; she’s simply able to know someone’s meaning.
“I can't even imagine hearing in dreams,” she wrote in a Reddit post about how deaf people dream. “Can't even wrap my mind around it. It's as strange to me as I imagine not hearing in dreams is to the people who do.”
There’s no accurate count of ASL users, but even a high estimate of two million ASL speakers amounts to about one percent of the 231 million English speakers in America. That’s a small community. But in some of the dreams of deaf people, that percentage skyrockets.
A 2007 study of deaf and hearing dreams found that people communicated in dreams as they do in their waking lives, with people who habitually used ASL in their waking lives using the sign language in their dreams. Some of the people interviewed for this story reported ASL use during sleep. National Association of the Deaf employee Violet Blake, who said that “everyone and anyone” can sign in her dreams.
Of course, deaf people do not all live the same lives and don’t dream the same dream. Indeed, several people interviewed for this story said they didn’t think their deafness had a great influence on their dreams, an idea supported by medical experts.
One of them, Dr. Steven Ellman, a New York University Psychology Professor who has extensively researched sleep and dreams, said that while the dreams of the blind are noticeably different than those of people with sight, the dreams of the deaf are close to dreams of people who hear.
“Since dreams are more visual than auditory, typically, the dreams of deaf people look more like ordinary dreams than the dreams of blind people,” Ellman said.
That doesn’t mean the communication that takes place in the dreams of deaf people isn’t meaningful. Several deaf people we interviewed described their dream communication as enjoyable and profound. Blake, who was born without hearing to deaf parents, said she’s experienced universal ASL use and ESP in her dreams. She said both types of dream communication were a contrast to the feeling of disconnection from the general population she often feels in her waking life.
“It’s really cool” Blake said. “It’s only in my dreams that I feel that we are all communicating universally.”