It’s impossible for a sighted man to comprehend the experience of the blind. He can close his eyes and run his fingers across a few lines of braille or wear an eye mask and gain a sense of what it's like to navigate the world without sight, but the experience is nothing but a pale facsimile. The sighted must simply listen to and learn from those who are blind. They can empathize and understand, but they'll never fully comprehend.
Just as impossible, then, would be to comprehend the dreams of the blind. It would be like trying to navigate the deep ocean and then finding yourself in the Mariana Trench. Of course, the unconscious is a sea of incomprehensibilities for everyone. But when speaking of dreams we instinctively associate them with the visual, don’t we? What, really, do we know about dreaming while blind?
Unsurprisingly, the relatively small sample of studies available has come into conflict on this notion of visual imagery. Most have concluded that those born blind do not experience “visual” dreams, but the disputes have proved largely a matter of definition. A 2004 article in the journal Dreaming framed the debate as the difference between “actual seeing through the visual system” and virtual imagery “without specific reliance on the visual system.”
It’s a reasonable distinction for academia perhaps, but a bit too fine for the rest of us — like saying a dream itself is an involuntary firing of neurons. Staying above the squabble, a recent Danish study in the journal Sleep Medicine seems to have established the right parameters with the phrase “visual dream impressions.” But if anything, that fact may make the study’s findings appear more decisive than they really are.
Over four weeks, study authors monitored 50 individuals. Eleven of them were born blind, 14 were blinded later in life and the remaining 25 formed a sighted control group. Each morning participants completed a questionnaire based on the content of their dreams, which was then compared with other participants’ accounts, along with dream reports from previous studies. The dreams of the blind subjects — both those born blind and those blinded later – were predominantly informed by smell, touch, taste and sound, and none of those blind since birth reported a visual impression.
“[The blind participants] didn’t have that visualization, so the other senses took over,” says Dr. Raj Dasgupta, a sleep specialist at USC. “They had less eye movement during REM. That movement is like watching a movie, and that movie is your dream.”
To say a dream is like a movie is hardly controversial, but the analogy seems somewhat limiting. Might there be other kinds of dreams with visual content that hardly resemble a movie at all? Some blind people would certainly say so. One of them is Steve Kuusisto.
A poet and the author of two memoirs on blindness, Kuusisto directs the honors program at Syracuse. He was born premature with a condition called retinopathy, which severely damaged his retinas and fractured his vision like a kaleidoscope. He takes up the analogy where Gupta left off.
“Let’s say your dream is like a Martin Scorsese movie,” he says. “A blind person’s dream will be more like a Monet painting. It will have people in it and it will have places in it, but it’s going to be abstract or impressionistic — less moored to a faithful, or photographic replication of what a visual person might see."
Kuusisto himself can see colors and a swirl of mutating shapes, but even in talking with his friends who were born completely blind, and who can’t receive any light signals to form images, he finds the notion that the blind cannot dream visually to be absurd. “I’ve never heard them say, ‘Gee. I wish my dreams had images in them, all I’ve got are smells.’”
Kuusisto has a healthy skepticism of the medical establishment’s theories on blindness in general. He’d long worked with one of the world’s best eye doctors, who told him privately that most ophthalmologists know next to nothing about the blind, even as they rushed to give them sight. He sees the same narrow-mindedness of thought at play here: The privileging of a physical marker (like REM) over subjective experience.
This, of course, doesn’t necessarily account for the results of the study, but it seems that this is also a matter of the manner in which a person interprets his world. In the same way that a strong man perceives life with a greater sense of power than a weakling, a blind mathematician might well perceive his with less imagination than, say, a blind poet.
Now, as Kuusisto notes, blind people imagine all day long. They have to. They imagine where they work, they “absorb other people’s narrative descriptions” and develop “a whole arsenal of imagery,” a process of which everyone may be capable, to a degree.
“If we were to blindfold you just for the hell of it,” says Kuusisto, “and take you someplace that you hadn’t been so you didn’t have a corroboration of it — not a baseball game or a subway but something friggin’ weird, a wig factory or something — you would wander around and you would come up with a picture in your head of what the place looks like.”
How much of this acquired imagery is reflected in a blind person’s dream life is another question, perhaps as a measure of the attention devoted to it, perhaps not. But to suggest that these study participants are representative of a more universal quality of blindness seems far-fetched.
Another big point of contention is the idea of color, which is, after all, simply an idea. Dr. Dasgupta’s stance is pretty clear-cut.
“You can’t be able to see in color in your dreams if you’ve never seen color,” he says.
Not so, says Kuusisto. “Blind people see colors all the time. It’s a matter of definition.”
Kuusisto can see some color, but again, his point comes down to language. He describes how we consider a noun an agreed-upon, basic image, which in turn becomes an individual perception with slight variants. It remains a kind of contract that allows us to communicate with each other. But as he points out, a blind man’s idea of Britney Spears might be pretty different than a sighted person’s, just as that sighted person’s might differ from the next sighted person’s.
“Even if you’ve never seen anything, you see blue,” he says. “Someone might say it’s like the ocean. Once you know the word blue, you begin forming a comprehensive idea of it. It might just be a different idea of blue.”
“The Greeks thought the ocean was purple,” he adds.
Which of the study’s (or the medical establishment’s) conclusions persist remains to be seen. This recent research contradicted earlier reports that the subject matter of blind people’s dreams is wholly different from that of the sighted; for instance, the idea that the blind don’t have as many dreams featuring social interactions. The most talked-about “discovery” in this study was that the blind have four times as many nightmares as the sighted, and that these occurred with less frequency when participants were older or had some sight at some point in their lives.
According to Dasgupta, the nightmares may be triggered by the fears and anxiety caused by navigating the world without the use of sight. Kuusisto brings up the hard fact (as does Dasgupta) that blind people have more trouble sleeping, due to the fact that their circadian rhythms, and the consequent release of melatonin, isn’t informed by light like it is in sighted people. But he says he’s never heard any of his blind friends mention having more nightmares than the average person. Then again, the blind participants in the study were apparently unaware they experienced them at a higher rate.
When told about Kuusisto’s responses, Dr. Dasgupta said (and not touchily): “His reality is what he makes it.”
Which, in some respects, is absolutely true in the sense of an actual truth. But it’s not an easy one for some scientists to accept — this idea that the subjective could outpace the objectivity contingent, which tries to disguise its own prejudices under the blankets of methodology and biological response.
“[Dr. Dasgupta’s] assertion assumes that dreams, which are related to imagination, are somehow entirely driven by your senses, and they’re not,” Kuusisto says. “They’re individualized, beautiful, and mysterious.”