Do blind people 'see' anything in dreams?


Published: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 31, 2006 at 10:06 p.m.

Long the fascination of psychologists, dreams for many are a visual feast of bizarre images.

Facts

Who is asking?

  • Name: Erica Miles
  • Age: 62.

  • Resid- ence: Gainesville.

  • Occupation: Medical transcriptionist.

  • But Erica Miles, a Gainesville resident, wonders if everyone sees what she sees when she dreams.

    "My question is how do people who have been blind since birth dream," Miles, 62, wrote to Since You Asked.

    Miles said the question just came to her a few months back and she hasn't been able to track down her eye doctor to see if he knows the answer.

    Well, turns out that Miles isn't the the first to ask this question. In 1999, a team of researchers set out to learn whether the congenitally blind see anything in their dreams. Drawing on a sample of 372 dreams from 15 blind adults, the researchers asked the subjects to record memories of their dreams for a two-month period on audiotape. The researchers then analyzed the dreams and found that those blind since birth had no visual images in their dreams.

    "People that are born blind, who go blind before roughly age 4, do not report visual imagery in their dreams," said William Domhoff, who co-authored the study. "They feel, they taste, they hear and so on.

    "People that go blind after age 7 will continue to have visual imagery in their dreams. Maybe there will be a gradual drop-off for many of them over the years - that is, when they're 30 or 40 there's less visual imagery if they went blind at 5 to 7."

    Domhoff, a research professor in psychology and sociology at the University of California-Santa Cruz, says "Virtually everybody agrees" with his team's findings.

    In 2003, however, another team of researchers in Portugal rebuffed the Domhoff group's paper, suggesting that those born blind do indeed "see" in their dreams. The Portugal group used a different technique than Domhoff, measuring brain activity in congenitally blind people while they were sleeping. While blind subjects had a lower dream "recall" the morning after, activity in the areas of their brains associated with vision was comparable to that of sighted subjects.

    Domhoff considers the Portugal group's study to be without merit because he says mere stimulation in these areas of the brain does not necessarily mean blind people "see" in their dreams.

    For people who are totally blind, it stands to reason that an area of the brain normally associated with vision might eventually serve a different function, he said.

    "They drove us wild (with their study)," Domhoff told The Sun. "They just recorded electrical activity off visual parts of the brain (in) places that are generally dedicated to visual influence. The point is that there's lots of evidence that when an area's not used for its original purpose, it can be used for other things."

    Though he can't speak for other blind people, 53-year-old David Linn says he never has visual images in his dreams anymore. A Gainesville resident, Linn was born with glaucoma and had his left eye removed at the age of 5. He had very poor vision in his right eye, which was removed by the age of 10 because of high eye pressure.

    "When I dream, there is nothing visual about it all," said Linn, who works as a rehabilitation specialist for the Florida Division of Blind Services. "There hasn't been for years."

    Linn says that up until about the age of 20, he could recall images in his "mind's eye" from when he had sight. Those images have since left him and his dreams.

    Like many, Linn says he doesn't remember his dreams very well even when he has them. But when he does dream, Linn said he often dreams of working on cars with his late father like he used to as a boy. He can hear the humming engines or the unmistakable sound of that 1959 Buick LeSabre that so captured his interest as a young mechanic.

    "There's no visual image," Linn said. "It's just the sound, perhaps (my father's) voice in the dream . . . In my dream, I can hear the car."

    Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@gvillesun.com

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