Dreaming, Vol. 4, No. 3, 1994
The Role of Dreams in the Rehabilitation of the Adventitiously Blind
Raymond E. Rainville 
The blind author discusses the impact of dream visualization on the waking adjustment of blind persons: including the role of dreams in overcoming the darkness response, the consolidation of waking impression in visual terms, the reminiscence of visual experience, and post-traumatic effects of the onset of blindness as illustrated in dreams.
KEY WORDS: blindness; dream content; rehabilitation; darkness response.
I am a 52-year-old college teacher and psychotherapist who was blinded at the age of 25. Dream experiences played a very important role in my recovery from depression after the onset of surgically induced blindness. Being able to see in my dreams was the first step in the conscious recognition that sight and vision were different phenomena. The process of rehabilitation led me to change my vocational ambition from law to psychology. In the anecdotal account which follows I reflect on both my professional and personal experience with the use of dream imagery in the rehabilitation of blind persons.
Dreams can be of special significance in the subjective life of blind persons. I know this from my personal experience and extensive exploration of this subject with other adventitiously blinded persons. There are very great individual differences in the extent to which rehabilitated adventitiously blinded persons rely on visualization in their daily functioning (Kirtley, 1975). I have talked to several who hardly ever recall their dreams and to whom dreaming has no special meaning. In the majority of instances, however, I have stimulated a very enthusiastic conversation, an instantaneous mutual recognition by asking a question such as, "Have you ever seen that person in your dreams?" This is different from the question, "Have you ever met that person in your dreams?" For as we shall see, the longer a person has been blind the more likely he will dream of himself as blind and, therefore, seeing in a dream comes to have a different meaning.
The belief that dreams and the blind have a unique association sustains some academic support as can be seen by a review of Appendix 1, a bibliography on the subject of dreaming and the blind. It is of interest that 14 of the 27 entries on this list were written by blind people. That so many blind researchers and physicians return to the investigation of dreams is not arbitrary or coincidental. There is a positive archetype of the blind that reaches back to Greek antiquity. This is the myth of Tiresias, a Greek prophet whose special talent was the interpretation of dreams (Kirtley, 1975).
A SUGGESTED CLASSIFICATION
Based upon a review of existing literature, my personal experience and my professional experience as a rehabilitation counselor with adventitiously blinded persons, an outline of suggested classification of dreams is presented which may serve to facilitate rehabilitation and modify behavioral adjustments to the onset of blindness. There are currently no available adequate surveys of blind personsí accounts of dream experience nor extensive collections of blind personsí dreams from which quantitative comparisons can be made. The dream categories suggested herein are by necessity based upon clinical impressions and are by no means believed to be exhaustive. They are presented in the belief that they offer examples which give us clinical leverage in facilitating in the blinded patient insight into his unexamined assumptions about blindness and their consequences on his emotional and behavioral adjustment. As suggested in the Introduction, the author believes that dreams play a special role in the psychology of blindness. The categories suggested and illustrated below point to the need for a more quantitative study of the dream experience of blind persons.
The first category of dreams suggested are seeing dreams in which the visualization of events is experienced by the blind dreamer as though he were a seeing person. Three subtypes of these are described and illustrated: undoing dreams, reminiscent dreams, and consolidating dreams.
Seeing dreams play an ongoing role in the emotional and behavioral life of the adventitiously blinded. The specific three types illustrated here are not exhaustive but are chosen to be presented here because a consensus exists in the literature about the frequency of their occurrence and their relevance by nearly all the writers in the field (Blank, 1958; Deutsch, 1928; Kirtley & Cannistraci, 1974; Kirtley, 1975; McCartney, 1913; Wheeler, 1920).
The second category of dreams suggested are diagnostic dreams. Diagnostic dreams reveal the pattern of adjustment which the newly blinded person is leaning toward with regard to any domain of his experience in response to the loss of sight. Two broad categories are described as patterns to adjustment to blindness: the catastrophic and the over-compensatory. Some classes of over-compensatory dreams which are illustrated include undoing dreams and reversal dreams. These dreams illustrate a pattern of adjustment in which the grief and suffering associated with the onset of blindness is projected away from the dreamer. Catastrophic dreams, which are illustrated by the subcategory of castration dreams and dreams of darkness, are dreams in which the grief and suffering threaten to befall the dreamer.
The most common seeing dreams in the experience of newly blinded persons are reminiscent and undoing dreams. The following is an example of an undoing dream.
Duck in Time
I am coming to the intersection of 11th and First just like the day of the accident. The truck is coming through the intersection. Iíve got the green light. I know we are going to collide. Instead of trying to control the car, I throw myself on the floor. When the trailer of the truck hits the windshield and shears off the front of the roof, I see it all happen from the floor. I get tossed around, but my head doesnít get hurt (Rainville, 1988).
We do not know at this time how or if such undoing dreams help a person overcome the shock of trauma, but experience with post-traumatic-shock syndrome supports the fact that they are signs of improvement (Frank & Lorenzoni, 1989). They coincide with a shift in attitude which allows the victim to place the trauma in a more peripheral mental set.
In reminiscent dreams, the imagery is cast to a time prior to the onset of blindness. Their prominence in the dream life of a person is an indication of a past or anticipated major life stressor. Such reminiscent dreams decline in frequency very rapidly after the first year of blindness (Kirtley, 1975). For some persons they never recur. In my own experience and that of four other blind persons with whom I have discussed this, who have been blind for more than ten years, they occur once or twice a year. They tend to occur when one is out of his normal routine or associated with some special emotionally provocative event in waking experience. In my reminiscent dreams, the imagery and script tend to be pleasant and happy as in the following example.
Pizza on the Beach
I am walking with my grandfather to the corner of Sea Street and Ocean Boulevard. I am aware of being myself now, but I am in my body as it was at about 11 or 12. The sidewalks are very crowded and we have to wait at the corner to find an opening in the procession of people. There are many beautifully adorned women with sunglasses, jewelry, and bathing suits, and fancy shoes, like high-heeled pumps. My grandfather seems to know a lot of the people going by. A very nice looking woman with big black shiny earrings and a straight navy blue woolen bathing suit stops and talks to him. I canít take my eyes off her legs and I think she knows I am watching. She is gently swaying her hips. I keep looking up at my grandfather, hoping that he doesnít notice my preoccupation. But he is laughing and joking and paying no attention to me. A man in shorts with very white legs comes along and takes her with him. I notice she is wearing a very nice perfume and my grandfather pulls me into the procession right behind them. Then we approach an open stand where there are huge piping hot pizza pies cut into squares. My attention wanders to their aroma. The guy selling them is a friend of my older brother. He looks about 17 or so. Gramps notices my interest in the pizza. "If you want some," he says, "weíll stop." I indicate "yes" with a nod and we stop. He buys a whole pie and we sit on a bench. We have to wait for some of it to cool. Then he says, "Look at who is coming, over there." I am sure he means somebody from our place, family, but as I look up the scene turns into a still-life. Then it is a postcard and then I know it is a dream (Rainville, 1988).
Despite, or perhaps because of, the feelings of security and affection, as well as the happy imagery, such dreams always create powerful feelings of regret and sadness upon awakening in me. Nevertheless, remembering what it was to see, plays a very important and stimulating role in maintaining the psychological capacity to visualize realistically. It is also reassuring to know that the neurological underpinnings are still there.
The most important function of dreams in my waking visual experience is what I think of as the consolidation of visual imagery. In my waking experience, I imagine what a new situation must appear like. Such waking visualization requires deliberate attention, effort and concentration. When my daughter gets her hair cut short, I will Braille it, appreciate it, comment on it. However, the next time she crosses my path, or that I think about her, in my spontaneous waking image of her she will be still wearing long hair, regardless of which hairdo I prefer. Once I dream of her in her new hairdo, that is, once I have seen it, she will appear to me in it pretty much consistently from that time on. This rather sluggish relationship with reality makes one resistant to change.
Two Patterns of Adjustment to the Onset of Blindness
Rehabilitation specialists recognize two patterns of emotion and behavior that are commonly found in individuals adjusting to the onset of blindness (Kirtley, 1975; Kirtley & Sabo, 1982).
In the catastrophic pattern, blindness is associated with profound depression, withdrawal, and pessimism. The person becomes dependent on others and is fearful and anxious about change. Three factors predict the likelihood that a particular blind person will be a catastrophizer: 1) the individual is blinded quickly and dramatically; 2) the individual has a relatively low level of self-esteem and personal security prior to the onset of blindness; and 3) the individual possesses relatively weak defenses against anxiety.
The other familiar pattern of adjustment to the onset of blindness is exactly the opposite, overcompensation. It is characterized by denial, unsafe risk-taking, accident proneness, violent outbursts, rejection of assistance, and emotional rejection of family and friends.
A close examination of these two patterns reveals that they are really the obverse of one another. The catastrophizer internalizes his grief and suffers; the over-compensator externalizes his grief and acts out. Certain conditions make the over-compensation pattern more likely. They include the slow or gradual development of blindness, strong pre-existing defenses against anxiety, and a history of high achievement. At extreme levels of adjustment, these two patterns are exclusive of one another. In the middle range they overlap so that a blind individual may take an over-compensatory approach to his vocational rehabilitation, but be quite catastrophic about his social relations.
The over-compensator tends to discover his limitations through action.
Dreams Diagnostic of a Catastrophic Adjustment
Dreams which are characteristic of the catastrophic response to blindness include dreams of blind male persons in which blindness is depicted as parallel to castration.
In the following two dreams from a traumatically blinded personís collection, we can see that the emotional impact of blindness becomes associated with castration anxiety. In waking life this man was blinded by an arrow penetrating his eye.
Itís night and Iím in bed. Suddenly, I see an arrow, shooting through the air straight toward my face. The arrowhead flashes like copper in the sunlight. It becomes larger and larger. Then all at once it changes into the earth. The earth has a bluish, cold-looking haze about it, and through the haze I can see only mountain ranges with tall, jutting peaks. Iím floating in cold black space, far away from the earth, but the earth is rapidly bearing down on me, to crush me.
I had this dream often. Sometimes the earth would change into the head of a rattlesnake or penis (Kirtley, 1975). In the following dream, this manís heightened castration anxiety is explicit.
My university apartment at night. Iím in bed, and the big floor fan at the foot of my bed is going full blast. Suddenly, the fan begins to rock back and forth, then topples forward onto my body, with its blades now hacking at me. I quickly push it back, but in doing so, my hands slip into the blades. They make loud thumping sounds as they strike my fingers. There is great pain, and I am afraid that all my fingers and even penis will be cut off because one of the blades has struck my penis too.
The fan crashes backward onto the floor, and I at once get up and check my penis to see if itís all right or irremediably damaged. It is bleeding at the tip, but I find the wound isnít serious. Itís only a nick and will soon heal (Kirtley, 1975).
Another type of dream which is characteristic of the catastrophic adjustment to blindness is the darkness dream.
Many newly blinded patients are subject to the development of certain blindisms: nervous tics, compulsive gestures, and body postures. These blindisms are much more characteristic of the catastrophic pattern of adjustment. One of these, which can be dramatically affected by dreaming, is the darkness response. Persons suffering from this blindism live in a constant state of awareness which reiterates, "I canít see." They are constantly aware of darkness and tend to assume postures which say, "I canít see." They maintain an upward tilt of the face and eyes, frequently keeping the eyelids closed. They give the impression that they are unaware of their environment which fosters helping behaviors by others, reinforcing the blind personís dependency.
A dream with clear visual imagery can be the breakthrough which subjectively convinces the blind person that his darkness experience was in fact a visual response to fear, and it need not be a constant companion. The following dream was such a breakthrough for a 22-year-old blinded veteran who had been at a rehab center for four-and-a-half months after a three-month hospitalization. Throughout that time his nonverbal communication consistently generated one signal, "Look out for me, I canít see."
Eddie Visits Me
Itís like I relive all of Eddieís visit (Eddie was a college and army friend who visited the patient the night before this dream), except in the dream I could see. Eddie was wearing a blue pullover sweater. I remember joking with him that I didnít like his moustache, thought he looked better without it. He turned around and said, "I donít have a moustache." Sure enough, when he turned his face back towards me, he didnít have a moustache. Then the girl he brought with him who I never met before had a very distinctive appearanceóshort reddish-brown hair and dark blue eyes. In the dream she was carrying the bottle of Johnny Walker which Eddie really did sneak in here last night. She passed it to me under my blankets. She was teasing me, but not feeling sympathy, you know. I remember Eddie fiddling with his glasses, taking them on and off. I wanted to tell him he looked better without them, but I didnít want to start a round of criticism in front of the girl. Just then, one of the counselors came down the ward. I was telling Eddie to hide the bottle when everything went black again. I was saying, "Blind people canít hide things, this place is like a prison. They treat us like kids." Then, I wondered if Eddie was still there, but I was blind again and couldnít tell (Rainville, 1988).
In subsequent counseling, this dream played a critical role in changing this patientís attitude toward visualization and orientation training. Success in both of these depends heavily on the blind personís active use of visual skills. The capacity to imagine the visual environment and to orient in it by looking in the direction of imaginary things helps to orient the other senses so as to maximize their ability to collect relevant information. In this particular case, the specifics of the disappearing moustache and the fully imagined female companions were critical in bringing about the insight by the individual that his visual intelligence was still functional and that anxiety (the arrival of the counselor in the dream) signals the onset of the darkness response.
Dreams Diagnostic of an Over-Compensatory Reaction
The first type of dreams which are diagnostic of an over-compensatory adjustment to blindness, are denial dreams in which the visual handicap is projected onto the environment.
The most common theme running through the dreams of these subjects is the denial of dependency. In the collection of six newly blinded rehab patients who were considered by counselors to be over-compensators, we found an elevated frequency of conveyor dreams in which the dreamer was the pilot or driver, and in which numerous near misses occurred due to obstructed vision. Nearly all of these dreams ended in loss of control or an accident. The following is an example.
Camouflaged Personnel Carrier
We had to move a bunch of troops who were casualties out of a fire zone. I had a lot of minor cuts and bruises myself, but I was not as seriously injured as the other guys. The terrain didnít look like Nam at all; it looked more like around here, you know, green hills, lots of trees, no jungle. The APC had been camouflaged, it was all covered with hemlock and I couldnít see out of the windows or windshield very well. I was just following a lighted pathway through the woods. We were hitting big rocks and ruts and I had to go very slowly. Then I went off an embankment on my right, and we turned over on our side. The men cried out in pain (Rainville, 1988).
Notice that the poor vision and suffering are projected away from the self. Despite the prevalence of such projected consequence of blindness in the dreams of the over-compensating blind, pointing it out to them does little to modify the tendency.
A second type of dream which is diagnostic of an over-compensatory adjustment is a reversal dream. Such dreams are much more common among over-compensators, but only relatively so. In a reversal dream, the blind person is sighted and blindness is projected onto other dream characters.
School for the Blind
We are in some large village hut. Itís got a walled-off yard and itís a center for blind Vietnamese. There are little kids and teenagers. Some are wearing bandages around their eyes and others have their hands over their eyes. I am waiting for a school bus to come and move these kids. They are wandering all over the place, and I am having a hard time keeping them in a bunch. Some of the teenage kids are wearing nothing but hospital johnnies and I am trying to get them to cover up their genitals. When the bus does arrive, it is a female MP driving and I am even more embarrassed at the way these kids are dressed. I take each oneís hand and put it on the railing so that they can climb into the bus, but even then some donít even know what to do. I am starting to yell and push. My anger is really getting out of control. The driver is telling me to calm down (Rainville, 1988).
It is difficult for this dreamer to deny that at some level he considers blindness as rendering one a foreigner, dependent, helpless, and vulnerable. Given this concept of blindness, the struggle to over-compensate is understandable.
In the following example, we have a much rarer case of reversal reported by a blind subject with a strong catastrophic adjustment.
I can see in this dream, but it is like I am a ghost and canít be seen myself. The dream happens right here in the rehab center, and when I go past the main entrance, I shine my flashlight into the receptionistís face. She doesnít even look up, so I know I am safe. Iíve got a large bundle of hypodermics full of morphine, and I am going around to everybodyís bed planning to give everybody an injection. I know that each hypodermic contains an OD. They are three times the size of the emergency morphine we had in the field. First I go into Alex and Johnís room and the guy in Alexís bed, who looks like a combination between Alex and this guy, Art, whom I knew in Nam, is looking right at me, but he is blind and I am invisible anyway. I hold him down with my arm across his chest and stab him in the thigh with my hypodermic. His body begins to relax and he sighs very deeply. Black tears come from his eyes. It is like they are made of blood, but they are black. He gently squeezes my hand in gratitude, and I know soon he will die. Then he is alongside of me and he too is a sighted ghost, and without talking to each other we agree that we are going to finish this job together (Rainville, 1988).
Being an invisible ghost is a common image among the terminally ill. It is clear that this dreamerís conception of blindness is that it is worse than death and that the true self would sacrifice bodily existence in exchange for sight. This specific dream was very instrumental in an encounter which helped the dreamer give expression to his rage and bring him closer to acceptance.
In conclusion, the author argues that dreams have a special place in the psychology of the adventitiously blind. The case is made that blind writers have focused on dream phenomena with special attention. The fact that in many adventitiously blinded personsí dreams visual imagery plays an active role, provides the individual with an opportunity to integrate his previously sighted life with his ongoing blind experience. Three examples of such beneficial dreams were provided: undoing dreams through which the individual gains some distance from the trauma of the onset of blindness; consolidating dreams through which the individual can integrate in visual terms experiences acquired since the onset of blindness; and reminiscent dreams through which the memory of having been sighted is actualized. It is suggested that there is no other parallel experience in the experience of the adventitiously blinded which can have as great an integrating effect.
Some diagnostic dreams are presented to make the case that the newly blinded personís beliefs, feelings, and behavioral adjustment to the meaning of blindness can be articulated in a dream in such a way so as to provide substantial clinical leverage. The catastrophic consequences to the onset of blindness are illustrated by castration dreams, dreams of darkness and dreams of death. It is suggested that all the elements of grief represented by these images are opportunities for expression of feelings which the newly blind must process in order to overcome depression. Dreams which are associated with over-compensatory reaction to the onset of blindness were also illustrated: denial through the projection of the handicap onto the environment; reversal by making the dreamer sighted and other characters blind, illustrate conceptions of blindness which are ultimately defeating to the newly blind.
That dreams can play a special role in the rehabilitation of newly blinded individuals highlights the need for the establishment of systematic and quantitative research on the dreams of the blind.
Frank, Bernd & Lorenzoni, Erich (1989). Experiences of Phantom Limb Sensations in Dreams. Psychopathology, 22, 182-187.
Kirtley, Donald D. (1975). The Psychology of Blindness. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.
Kirtley, Donald D., & Sabo, Kenneth, T. (1979). Symbolism in the Dreams of the Blind. International Journal of Rehabilitation Research, 2, (2), 225-232.
Rainville, Raymond E. (1988). Dreams Across the Life Span. Boston: American Press.
Sabo, Kenneth T. & Kirtley, Donald D. (1982). Objects and Activities in the Dreams of the Blind. International Journal of Rehabilitation Research, 5, (2), 24 1-242.
Bibliography of Dreams of the Blind, Selected References Compiled by Judith M. Kaplan.
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*Blank, H. Robert, Dreams of the blind, Psychoanalytic Quarterly, Vol. 27, 1958, pp. 158-174.
Cason, Hulsey, The Nightmare Dream, Psychological Monographs, Vol. 46, No. 5, 1935, 51 pages.
Deutsch, Elinor, The Dream Imagery of the Blind, Psychoanalytic Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, 1928, pp.288-293.
Dreams of the Blind, Harperís Weekly, Vol. 55, No. 2868, December 9, 1911, p. 25.
Fraser-Harris, D. F., Dreams, Forum, Vol. 80, No. 4, 1928, pp. 575-582.
From the Dream-Life of the Blind, Beacon, Vol. 8, No. 86, February, 1924, p. 15.
Furness, Rex, Dreams Without Sight, Beacon, Vol. 5, No. 58, October, 1921, p. 16.
*Hall, Granville S., Aspects of German Culture, Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1981, pp.267-271.
*Hirst, Alfred, My Dark World, Sunday Magazine, April 19, 1897, pp. 226-231.
James, William, The Principles of Psychology, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1910, Vol. 2, p. 44.
*Jastrow, Joseph, The Dreams of the Blind, New Princeton Review, Vol. 5, January, 1988, pp. 19-34.
*Jastrow, Joseph, Fact and Fable in Psychology, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1900, pp.337-370.
Johns, B. G., How the Blind Dream, National Review, Vol. 5, May, 1885, pp. 309-319.
*Keller, Helen A., My Dreams, Century Magazine, Vol. 77, No. 1, 1908, pp. 69-74.
*Keller, Helen A., The World I Live In, New York: Century Company, 1908, pp. 134-165.
*Kimmins, Charles, W., Childrenís Dreams, London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd., 1937, pp. 102-114.
*Kimmins, Charles W., Special Features in the Teaching of the Blind, Teacher of the Blind, Vol. 11, No. 1, April, 1923, pp. 9-14.
*Kirtley, Donald & Cannistraci, Katherine, Dreams of the Visually Handicapped: Toward a Normative Approach, AFB Research Bulletin #27, New York: American Foundation for the Blind, April, 1974, pp. 111-133.
*Kirtley, Donald D., The Psychology of Blindness, Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1975, 312 pages (Empirical Studies of Dreaming in the Blind, pp. 169-220; Prospero: A Study of Personality Through Dreams, pp. 221-298).
*Kirtley, Donald D. and Sabo, Kenneth T., Symbolism in the Dreams of the Blind, International Journal of Rehabilitation Research, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1979, pp. 225-232.
*McCartney, Fred M., A Comparative Study of Dreams of the Blind and of the Sighted with Special Reference to Freudís Theory, Masterís Thesis: Indiana University, 1913, 83 pages.
*Rainville, Raymond E., Dreams Across the Life Span, 1988, American Press.
Singer, Jerome & Streiner, Bella F., Imaginative Content in the Dreams and Fantasy Play of Blind and Sighted Children, Perceptual and Motor Skills, Vol. 22, No. 2, April, 1966, pp. 475-482.
Stratton, G.M., Experimental Psychology and Its Bearing Upon Culture, New York: Macmillan Company, 1903, p. 182.
Walsh, William S., The Psychology of Dreams, New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1920, pp. 238-239.
Wheeler, R. H., Visual Phenomena in the Dreams of a Blind Subject, Psychological Review, Vol. 27, 1920, pp. 315-322.
*Indicates that the author is blind.
State University of New York, College at Oneonta.
 Correspondence should be directed to Raymond E. Rainville, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, SUNY/Oneonta, New York 13820.
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