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What It's Like to Dream When You're Blind

Hearing other people talk about a dream they had is usually pretty boring, but not when the dreamer is blind.

by Marko Ignjatović
09 April 2016, 12:00am

Illustrations by Lidija Delić


This article originally appeared on VICE Serbia.

It's a universal truth that there's nothing more boring in this world than hearing other people go on about a dream they had last night—except maybe (just maybe) if the dream is about you. As a rule, other people's dreams are usually incoherent and meaningless. The one thing I've always wondered, though, is what people who've lost their sight dream at night—what do you dream if you can't see? To find out, I got in touch with Ivana Zivkovic, teacher at the Dragan Kovacevic Elementary School for Visually Impaired in Belgrade, who told me that blind people "dream exactly how they live."

She explained: "Dreams are experienced differently by different people. There are blind people who say they don't dream, while some insist that other senses are primary when they dream. People born blind have no visual impressions while dreaming, while people who have lost sight later in life do have them. Those visual impressions weaken as time goes by, though. Research indicates that hearing is the most prevalent sensation in the dreams of blind people, followed by touch, smell, and taste."

To learn more, I spoke to Ana Jovcic, Dragisa Drobnjak, and Nikola Zekic. Jovcic and Drobnjak lost their sight at a later age and still have visual sensations in their dreams, while Zekic lost his sight at birth.

Ana Jovcic was born prematurely, and while fighting for life in an incubator, her optical nerves were destroyed by the large dose of oxygen she received to survive. Her sight was impaired when she was younger, but she lost it completely at age 9. Today, she studies Serbian literature at Belgrade University.

Dragisa Drobnjak lost his sight when he was 11, in the sudden blast of an unexploded bomb from World War II. He graduated with a law degree in 1973, and he worked as a legal administrator for the Association of Blind in Serbia for 35 years. He is now retired.

Nikola Zekic is currently studying ethnomusicology at Belgrade's Music Academy. His parents expected him some time in November 1995, but he was was born prematurely on August 22. Like Jovcic, he was given large amounts of oxygen in the incubator, which made him completely blind.

VICE: How do visual impressions appear in your dreams?
Jovcic: My sight has never been good—I don't remember certain objects clearly, but I do remember colors, my parents' faces, and my sister. I don't remember what, for example, the color turquoise looks like, but I have relatively strong memories of basic colors, like red and blue.

If I saw someone once, I'll dream about him or her as I remember. These people will probably have changed in the meantime, but they'll stay the same for me. When I meet someone new, I'll have to imagine him or her first—I make a mental image of his or her look—and that's what he or she will look like in my dream.

Drobnjak: Up until I was eleven, I dreamed with all my senses. After I lost my sight, I had two types of dreams for a while. One was in color, with people, objects, and places I had seen before. The other type of dream was linked to when I had a new experience or met someone new—in these dreams, I heard or felt something, like a voice, or a pat on the back from someone. I had both kinds of dreams for several years, but gradually, the dreams in color began to disappear. I now never have those anymore.

Zekic: I have been blind since birth. I can only see changes in light. I went to Moscow twice for surgery, but this is as far as they could help me. My dreams mostly consist of sounds. I used to dream that I was reading a book—scenes were unveiling in front of me, but when I woke up the next day, I couldn't remember anything.

How detailed are the features of the people you met after losing your sight, in your dreams?
Jovcic: When I've imagined what people look like, I can even dream the color of their clothes. I imagine the structure of their face and the lines on it, as well the color of their hair. Not the color of their eyes, because I couldn't tell that even when I did have my sight. When someone tells me that the way I imagine him or her isn't at all what this person looks like, I try to adjust the image I have and remember that.

Drobnjak: I'm the same way in dreams as when I'm awake: We're talking now, but I have no image of you. I'm a legal administrator—I'm not very imaginative. I don't think about how Ana is dressed, or Nicola, or you. My dreams are about what someone says or does, not about what he or she looks like.

What's the worst nightmare you've had?
Jovcic: I had a dream once, in which a couple of thieves came and hid a package of drugs in my house. I have no idea what a package of drugs looks like, but in my dreams, it was a box that looked like a Christmas gift. They had hidden it under an armchair in my room, and I was very scared. When I woke up, I had to check that nothing was there.

Drobnjak: Sometimes, I dream that I'm on the toilet or in my apartment in my pajamas, and then suddenly I find myself in a public place. That obviously feels very embarrassing.

Do you have any recurring dreams?
Zekic: As a child, I would often dream that I was falling. I would just keep falling all night long. I used to like it because it made me feel like I was flying. And if I lay awake in bed in a certain curled up position, with my head below my neck, that would feel a bit like flying too. Something to do with the way the blood flows to the brain, I guess. I used to be a weird kid.

Drobnjak: I grew up in a village in the mountains, and I used to dream that my brothers and sisters and I were picking wild strawberries in the forest. I remember the green of the forest and the red of the strawberries. But then it started to rain, but it was a storm—with thunder and lightning. I'd wake up convinced that that had really happened, but it never had.

Jovcic: I often dream of Paris, even though I have never been there. Everyone calls Paris the "City of Lights," so I imagine it with lots of light. But when I dream about it, it's always nighttime. There are lights all around me and above me. There are big squares, so many people and beautiful buildings. I can hear the water fountains on the squares. That's Paris for me. I have never seen the Arc de Triomphe, but I've read about it. There used to be a gate in my parents' yard, in the house I grew—I imagine the Arc de Triomphe exactly like that gate.

What is the strangest dream you've had?
Zekic: This one time, I dreamed that I was walking with my dad through a forest, and the trees had no leaves but trumpets. We were there to pick the trumpets from the trees. I picked one and blew on it, but it only gave a whistle, so I said to my father, "It's not ripe yet, we'll take another one." It was just me and my dad picking trumpets in a forest. It was lovely, actually.

All illustrations by Lidija Delić