Do Blind People Dream?
“The catastrophic consequences to the onset of blindness are illustrated by castration dreams, dreams of darkness and dreams of death… 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.”
Raymond E. Rainville
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 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. I’ve 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 doesn’t 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. They coincide with a shift in attitude which allows the victim to place the trauma in a more peripheral mental set.
In a reversal dream, the blind person is sighted and blindness is projected onto other dream characters.
I can see in this dream, but it is like I am a ghost and can’t be seen myself. The dream happens right here in the rehab center… I’ve got a large bundle of hypodermics full of morphine, and I am going around to everybody’s bed planning to give everybody an injection. I know that each hypodermic contains an OD… 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 dreamer’s 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 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. 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
…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 can’t take my eyes off her legs and I think she knows I am watching. She is gently swaying her hips… (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.
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 article by Raymond E. Rainville originally appeared in the IASD publication Dreaming, Vol. 4, No. 3, 1994, under the title of “The Role of Dreams in the Rehabilitation of the Adventitiously Blind.”