Electric Dreams

Dreams of the Blind 

Richard Catlett Wilkerson


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  Wilkerson, Richard Catlett (1995 January 20). Dreams of the Blind. Electric Dreams 2(1). Retrieved July 31, 2000 from Electric Dreams on the World Wide Web: http://www.dreamgate.com/electric-dreams

Though there has been little work done with dreams and the visually impaired (Hunt, 1989, Rainville, 1994), general belief and what little evidence we have seem to favor the notion that people dream as they live in waking life, representing situations to themselves and others in pretty much the same way both awake and asleep. What confuses the issue is our habit or
cognitive style of verbal narratives that represent people and things in visual metaphors. A quick look at the description of a dream by a blind individual may reveal an elaborate array of visual imagery, while a closer examination of the actual sensations of that blind dreamer reveal little or no direct visual imagery.

Jastrow's early but major study of dreams of the blind (1900? Jastrow himself was blind.) is well worth reading and includes other studies of the time. His research indicates that a majority
of those who go blind before 5 to 7 years old will *not* have visual dreams. But, though he attributes this to brain development, it is not clear from his study if a lack of verbal development of visual metaphors was considered.

Helen Keller, relates what dreaming was like before her teacher:

"My dreams have strangely changed during the past twelve years," she says. " Before and after my teacher first came to me, they were devoid of sound, of thought or emotion of any kind, except fear, and only came in the form of sensations. I would often dream that I ran into a still, dark room, and that, while I stood there, I felt something fall heavily without any noise, causing the floor to shake up and down violently; and each time I woke up with a jump. As I learned more and more about the objects around me, this strange dream ceased to haunt me; but I was in a high state of excitement and received impressions very easily. It is not strange then that I dreamed at the time of a wolf, which seemed to rush towards me and put his cruel teeth deep into my body! I could not speak (the fact was, I could only spell with my fingers), and I tried to scream; but no sound escaped from my lips. It is very likely that I had heard the story of Red Riding Hood, and was deeply impressed by it. This dream, however, passed away in time, and I
began to dream of objects outside myself" (Jastrow, 353).

Later Keller relates, "I obtain information in a very curious manner, which it is difficult to describe. My mind acts as a sort of mirror, in which faces and landscapes are reflected, and thoughts, which throng unbidden in my brain, describe the conversation and the events going on around me. I remember a beautiful and striking illustration of the peculiar mode of communication I have just mentioned. One night I dreamed that I was in a lovely mansion, all

built of leaves and flowers, My thoughts declared the floor was of green twigs, and the ceiling of pink and white roses. The walls were of roses, pinks, hyacinths, and many other flowers, loosely arranged so as to make the whole structure wavy and graceful. Here and there I saw an opening between the leaves, which admitted the purest air. I learned that the flowers were imperishable, and with such a wonderful discovery thrilling my spirit I awoke (Jastrow, 354)."

Yet, even after such a imagistic account, Keller goes on to say, "I do not think I have seen or heard more than once in my sleep. Then the sunlight flashed suddenly on my eyes, and I was so dazzled I could not think or distinguish anything. When I looked up someone spelled hastily to me, 'Why, you are looking back upon your babyhood!' (Jastrow, 354)."

As Jastrow notices, "The dreams of seeing and hearing probably reflect far more of conceptual interpretation and imaginative inference than of true sensation; yet they are in part built up upon
a sensory basis (359)." Notice the phrases " my thoughts declared," "my mind acts as a sort of mirror," and "I was informed".

This notion that the narrative elaboration in dreams of the sighted and blind remains constant even though specific visual imagery may vary has been tested more recently in a study (Kerr, 1982) designed to control for other cognitive abilities. The congenitally blind subjects without a history of former vision were able to represent spatial relationships in dream experience without either visual imagery or compensatory imagery in other modalities. The congenitally blind subjects with minimal former vision saw in their dreams only to the extent that they had been able to see in waking life. In neither group did lack of visual imagery adversely affect the richness or narrative continuity of dreaming. I'm including here a sample dream (about a cancer clinic) taken from a congenitally blind subject in the Kerr study who has light perception but no former detection abilities:

Subject(S): I was in a room that looked similar to my instant banker at work, but it was a big machine with lots of buttons, like a car machine.

Experimenter(E): Like an instant banker machine?

S: Right, at {the bank}. And I don't know why I was there, but I guess there was a screen and there were other buttons you could push, you could look in and see how different cancer patients are doing.

E: Was this visual, could you see anything?

S: I couldn't, but I stood by the screen and I knew that *others* could see what was going on through all the little panels... I guess I imagined the board with the buttons. Maybe because I imagined in my mind, it was not that I could really see them with my eyes, but I know what that board looks like, and the only reason I know what it looks like is by touch, and I could remember where the buttons were without touching them on the boards... E: O.K. Where did the
events in this experience seems to be taking place? What were the settings?

S: It seemed to be a large room that was oblong in shape, and there seemed to be an x-ray machine's work. I felt like it was in an office building where I worked.

E: And you mentioned something before about the bank?

S: Un huh, it looked like the bank where I do my instant banking (E: O.K.), except it was larger and more oblong.

E: And is that more like where you worked?

S: No, where I do work, the room is smaller, just large enough for that little instant banker machine.

Kerr notes : "This description of a novel setting illustrates that visual imagery is not the only means by which spatial knowledge can be represented in dreams. In fact, such knowledge need not depend on imaginal representation in *any* sensory-specific modality. The subject was aware of the size and shape of the room she was in, although she did not describe touching it or walking around in it. She was aware of the observations panels and the buttons on the machine without having to touch them. More generally, this subject could create dream environments made up of elements from settings familiar to her in waking life, but she was able to do so without representation of specific sensations of either vision or touch (292)."

Rather than saying that visually impaired individuals have limited dream imagery, it would be a more useful and sophisticated position to say that imagery is inspired and carried by visual
components, but is not particularly dependent upon visual elements. Rather, imagery is a cognitive conveyance, a way of seeing rather than something seen. When H. Robert Blank, in
his article ( "Dream Analysis in the Treatment of the Blind," 1959) states that the blind have no visual dreams and that, "This will surprise only those who believe in a racial unconscious or the hereditary transmission of memories... (190)," he misses the point that imagery is not a visual perception, but a psychological apperception.

The post-Jungian James Hillman, in his book The Dream and the Underworld (1973/1979) further unfolds how extensive this visual bias is. He feels is our society's greatest cause of psychological illness is our inability to be imaginal and metaphorical, and our continual insistence on literalness (for example, suicide is seen as the person's confusing the imaginal need for drastic rebirth with the literal act of self destruction.

Jung is now famous for saying the same thing about drinking--that the person mistakes
the metaphorical need for spiritual contact with 'the spirit in the bottle'.

It is interesting that one of the great interpreters of dreams, the ancient Greek Tiresias, was blind. Perhaps in our listening to the dreams of the visually impaired, we may, like the those who encountered Tiresias, come to see our own blindness.

Annotated Bibliography

Adelson, Edward T.,Ed. "Dream Analysis in the Treatment of the Blind. Dreams in Contemporary Psychoanalysis. New York: The Society of Medical Psychoanalysts. 188-211, 1963.
Some important considerations for clinical work and psychodynamic insights about the issues that will arise around blindness as castration and the identifications of the victim with the castrating father and social majority that may lead to self persecution.

Hillman, James. Dreams and the Underworld. New York: Harper and Row, 1989.

----------. "The Dream and the Underworld. Eranos. 42: 237?31, 1973.
Two versions of the same writing. Many feel put off by the references, the obscurity, the digressions, the hard questions put to dream interpretation, psychology and society in general. It's my favorite dream book.

Hunt, Harry. The Multiplicity of Dreams: Memory, Imagination and Consciousness. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
Simply the finest readable summary of research into cognitive studies on dreaming.

Jastrow, J. "The Dreams of the Blind." Fact and Fable in Psychology. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1900.
Worth reading just for Helen Keller's report, but also a good summary of research at the time. Jastrow Himself was blind.

Kerr, Nancy H., Foulkes, D., & Schmidt, M. "The Structure of Laboratory Dream Reports in Blind and Sighted Subjects. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. 170:(5), 286-294, 1982.
A good cognitive dream research study. A quote from the abstract: "Overall, the results are consistent with the view that the dream is a constructive cognitive process, rather than a reproductive perceptual one, and with the view that the integrative cognitive systems responsible for both the momentary and the sequential organization of the dream do not depend on the presence either of contemporaneous visual?perceptual experience or of well developed visual cognitive codes (287)."

Kirtley, Donald D. "Emperical Studies in the Dreaming of the Blind." The Psychology of Blindness. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1975.

---------------------. "Prospero: A Study of Personality Through Dreams." The Psychology of Blindness. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1975.

Rainville, Raymond E. "The role of Dreams in the Rehabilitation of the Adventitiously Blind." Dreaming. 4:(3), 155-164, 1994.
Very interesting and useful information for clinical work and the vital role that dreams play in the life adjustment of the newly blind. Also a great bibliography on dreams and the blind and an interesting notation of which of the listed authors were themselves blind.