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Our senses define our waking and dreaming lives, especially when we don't have them. And, based on existing research, the deaf have a complicated relationship with sleep. Evidence supports a higher incidence of sleep disturbances among those who can't hear. And their dreams are impacted, too.  

Deafness doesn’t affect dreaming in a uniform way. Only postlingually deaf people (some, not all) report hearing in their dreams, research suggests. People with congenital or prelingual deafness, on the other hand, recall no auditory sensations — they may dream purely in images or in ASL (American Sign Language), according to deaf Redditors in one recent thread. And there is some (though limited) research on the dreams of deaf people, which points to the community experiencing more negative, emotionally intense and aggressive dreams than those of hearing people. But bad dreams and nightmares are different psychological phenomena. Fascinating stuff.

Equally fascinating: Helen Keller, the first deafblind person to earn a college degree, famously said her dreams changed after she learned braille. Keller described her pre-braille dreams as devoid of emotion except for fear. Often, she’d run into a room, stand, feel the vibration of objects falling around her and wake up terrified. But, through the use of braille, Keller was able to learn more about the world around her. Better comprehension of her environment, she explained, coincided with less terrifying dreams. 

Keller's findings hint at an interesting area of research: the nightmares of the deaf. Does lacking the ability to hear affect one’s nightmares?

This is a question raised by a group of researchers from Portugal and published in SpringerPlus. And right now, we don’t know. In fact, the research isn’t just thin — it’s non-existent. Given the heightened link between deafness and trauma, and the potential therapeutic benefits of nightmare analysis for trauma disorders, the researchers say it’s time to investigate the bone-chilling nocturnal narratives of the deaf, and surmise that certain nightmare analysis techniques, such as Image Reversal Therapy, in which dreamer-and-therapist “rewrite” nightmares into good dreams, may have particular therapeutic value.

Evidence supports a higher incidence of sleep disturbances among deaf people.

The meaning of a dream depends on on who’s weighing in. While some behavioral health experts reject anything resembling Freudian dream analysis, others, including psychologists who believe in the dream continuity hypothesis, see diving into REM mentation as a worthwhile and psychologically beneficial exercise. Continuity says dreams are an extension of waking thoughts, and therefore reflect the concerns of the dreamer. According to some, nightmares replicate waking trauma and therefore nightmare analysis is a valuable part of overcoming trauma. Failing to address traumatic experiences, on the other hand, can contribute to the development of PTSD and the recurring nightmares that tend to come with it.

“Nightmares,” study authors wrote, “are dreams of negative content that trigger an awakening associated with a rapid return to a full state of alert and a persistent feeling of anxiety and fear, which may cause significant distress.” Not only are nightmares overall scarier and more distressing; they also reflect failures of emotional processing. Bad dreams may be unpleasant, but they don’t necessarily point to suppressed trauma begging for emotional resolution.

There is some (though limited) research on the dreams of deaf people, which, studies say, are more negative, emotionally intense and aggressive than those of hearing people

The presence of recurrent nightmares, according to study authors, means the dreamer isn’t making new connections between old memories and relived trauma, a process necessary to restoring emotional health.

In addition to the above mentions of their dream content, the deaf population is especially susceptible to trauma, as studies have found a higher rate of interpersonal traumatic experiences among deaf people, as well as a higher-than-normal incidence of depressive episodes, anxiety, impulsiveness, psychoses, PTSD, developmental disorders, psychoses and personality disorders.

Increased susceptibility to trauma among the deaf relates to the inability “to communicate their fears and unknown experiences results in the experience of several negative emotions during or after the stressful, traumatic events, ensuring traumatization and increasing the probability of developing a trauma-related disorder.”

“It would be of interest to study nightmares in the deaf population,” study authors wrote, “given their greater contact with stressful, traumatic experiences and lack of social support.”  They concluded that a greater understanding of the issue would help to improve the practice of clinicians and therapists, since “nightmares represent a conflict in the individual’s inner world that needs to be expressed and understood.”

Were a true study to take place, we’re sure fascinating results would follow.