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How do blind people dream?

 

One of the less-talked-about side effects of being blind: fielding many (many!) questions from us sighted folks -- enough questions, apparently, to program a YouTube channel. Tommy Edison, who is blind, hosts the popular YouTube series "The Tommy Edison Experience," where he answers viewer questions: How do blind people use an ATM? How do blind people use paper money?

In one of his latest videos, he posts his answer to a fascinating question: How do blind people dream? 

Edison explains that he's been blind since birth, so, no, he doesn't "see" in his dreams. "I think because I’ve never seen in real life, that my sub-conscious doesn’t know what it’d be like to see, either, so, no. I don’t see in my dreams,” Edison explains in the video.

 “I mean, the way it works for me, is just the way my life occurs, right? So it’s all smell, sound, taste and touch," he continues. "That’s all there is. Just like your life works. I mean, you see in your life, so, obviously, you’d see in your dreams."

To someone who's always been able to see, though, that description might be surprising. (Edison dreams in Smell-O-Vision?) Most sighted people remember the images and emotions from a dream -- but smells, sounds, tastes and touches, maybe not so much. 

"You guys, you’re visually driven," Edison said to me in a phone interview. "I don’t know, 'cause I’ve never seen, but I would think if there was something very prevalent -- like if there was a fire in your dream -- I would think you would remember the smell of it. Or take a bite of the hamburger, and it tastes like lobster -- that’s going to be a funny thing you'd remember." 

In the video, he explains a typical dream: “I mean, just like you guys, right? Weird things happen in dreams. I mean, so here I am, it’s the bottom of the ninth. Runners on second and third, two men away -- and all of a sudden, it’s my seventh birthday. Strange!”

And as it turns out, the question "How do blind people dream?" has been tackled a surprising number of times by academics. 

"One of the interesting things about this idea is people have actually studied it, specifically looking at what kind of content (blind) people have in their dreams," says Dr. Rachel Vreeman, assistant professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, co-author of "Don't Cross Your Eyes ... They'll Get Stuck That Way!" and frequent answerer of some of our odder questions

"It shows in these studies that people who have been blind since birth or very early in childhood have no images in their dreams," although that seems to vary, Vreeman explains. Some studies report that if a person loses his or her sight before the age of 5 will almost never have images in dreams, but a few exceptions exist. For those who go blind in middle childhood, it seems dreams can go either way -- visual or non-visual. And, as it logically follows, those who become blind later in life continue to experience some images in their dreams -- but that can fade over time, Vreeman explains. 

She says at least one study suggests that transportation is a recurring theme in the dreams of many blind people -- perhaps because that's something that often gives them trouble in real life.

"The key with that is it’s your brain that’s making the dream ... It’s really what your brain has experienced and what your brain continues to experience," Vreeman says. "People who are blind tend to have a lot more smells, hearing, tactile (sensations), which people who have vision tend to not have many of those. I can’t remember a dream that I’ve ever had, and I feel like a lot of sighted people feel the same way, where there were lots of textures, lots of smells." 

Edison's videos are an offshoot of his main online presence as the Blind Film Critic -- he reviews movies from the perspective of a blind person. He says after he reviewed "Inception" -- which he says he found easier to follow than most sighted people seemed to -- his viewers started asking him the "how do blind people dream" question. (A question, incidentally, he parodied in "Sh-- Sighted People Say To Blind People," his take on the sh-- X says to Y meme that was everywhere a few months ago: "Hey, when you're dreaming, can you see?")

In each video, Edison cheerfully, charmingly, gives us sighted folks his take on what it's like to live life the way he does. 

"You see people -- they’re not sure what I can and cannot do. People raise their voice: 'HI, IT'S NICE TO MEET YOU.' People don’t know how to be, and that’s OK," he says. "People are curious. You don’t run into a lot of me in the world. Really, you don’t -- there’s not a lot of us, especially people who have been blind since birth."

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