Do You Dream?
Most of the questions people are dying to know about being blind are the sorts of things you would guess. My favorite, because the answer is far from obvious, is “Do you dream?” Interestingly, at least in my experience, this is something children are more interested in than adults. Closely related to this is a second question: Do you know what colors look like? This seems to be of more interest to adults.
The answer to both questions is “yes,” but the explanation is a little more complicated. Like most people who are legally blind, I had some vision when I was younger. As a result, I have a catalogue of visual memories. I can remember what a blue sky, a sunset, or fall foliage looks like. Of course, images that didn’t exist when I could see aren’t in the catalogue. That is, I have a visual memory of President Richard Nixon but not of an adult Michael Jackson. (There are some images you’d just as soon not have in the catalogue.)
Consequently, when something is described as light red or “dark green,” I can call up that mental image and have an accurate idea of what it looks like. This is really not any different than what someone sighted does when they’re recalling something they’re not seeing at that moment. Of course, if you’ve never seen at all, you don’t have that mental catalogue of images to draw upon.
The only catch to having this catalogue is that it is only as good as the visual memory you’ve stored and any labels that are associated with it. For example, as a young boy I never paid a great deal of attention to the difference between “hunter green” vs. “forest green” and, therefore, can’t use the labels to call up the visual description that is probably stored somewhere in my brain. It’s also quite possible that the degree of vision I had was enough to distinguish between primary colors and some of their shadings but not good enough to pick up subtle distinctions like these.
The explanation to the question about dreams, at least for me, is very similar. I don’t know how someone with a medical background would describe the process, but I think that, when I dream, my brain is unconsciously pulling out images from the visual memory and inserting them as needed in the dream. The most interesting thing about this is that images appear in the dream with the same degree of clarity as when I was able to see them in real life. That is, if a friend from college appears in a dream in my elementary school, the image of the school is relatively clear while the image of the friend is fuzzy since my vision had significantly deteriorated by college.
What about people and objects that I’ve never been able to see? Yes, they appear in the dreams too, except, rather than appearing visually, I just sense that they are there. When this happens, it is almost always with a person. If this seems odd, it really isn’t. It’s not uncommon for someone with normal vision to report the same phenomenon. They sense people and things in the dream without ever seeing them visually.
Even when the eyes are no longer receiving any visual images – they definitely aren’t “seeing” anything – the part of the brain that processes visual stimuli is still active. It’s for this reason that I can picture colors and see in my dreams. I can’t speak for everyone who has had vision at some point in their life and then lost it, but this seems to be a relatively accurate description for everyone with whom I’ve spoken.