Dreams: Seeing without seeing

Raven's picture

 Dreams: Seeing without Seeing


Dreaming while sleeping is one of the most extraordinary unexplained processes of the mind. While sleeping, we see images with our eyes closed. This strange phenomenon seems to defy accepted ideas on the functions of the eye. When we see images in real life, light is received by the eye and subsequent visual machinery passes the light to various centers in the brain where the light is turned into an image. Therefore, the question of how we can see images in dreams, without the use of visual machinery arises. Some claim dreams are a collection of previously viewed images, stored in our subconscious, merged together to form a dream. Working on the assumption that images in dreams are similar if not the same as images seen in real life, this idea is plausible. On the contrary, while this explanation makes sense for people with vision, how can one explain the idea that a person who is blind from birth is able to dream visual images? Perhaps the images in dreams and in real life originate from non-visual input demonstrate the dependence on the eye as the primary organ for receiving light should be reexamined. Images formed without the use of photoreceptors suggest the images in a dream cannot come from the external world. Furthermore, this questions how dependent we are on visual input for image formation in the mind. The images must come from the mind, questioning the importance of the eye in the formation of images in the mind.

A study by Bertolo et al, investigated congenitally blind peoples’ dreaming experiences. The individuals were monitored by EEG(electroencephalograph) while sleeping and the study showed the centers that light up during dreaming imagery in healthy individuals also were active in the congenitally blind (Bertola, 2003). Furthermore, the blind individuals were asked to draw the images from their dream, and there were actual images of people and flowers.  Therefore individuals who had never seen images employed the same centers as healthy individuals during sleep and reported images from these dreams. While Lopes da Silva claims this phenomenon can be explained by the reorganization of connections in the brain when these during early ages and contributes the image formation to the inputs of non-visual information from touch and auditory system to make the images, this implies visual imagery can occur independent of visual perception and that imagery can be activated by inputs other than those from the eye (Lopes da Silva, 2003). However, this phenomenon of “seeing” without seeing in the traditional sense leads one to believe the ability to receive light is not entirely necessary. In addition, this is not a foreign concept, as when most people close the eyes, they are able to visualize images.

In the previous example, it was determined that people can see images without the use of visual machinery. However, an alternative view on this subject comes from Carl Zimmer with a story about a patient named MX who was able to use visual machinery to see, but could not use his mind’s eye (Zimmer, 2010). MX came to his doctor one day with a complaint that his mind’s eye was unable to see. MX was an architect and had previously been able to form and rotate images in his mind without actually seeing them in front of his eyes. After a surgery to remove an unrelated clot, he was unable to see with his “mind’s eye”. The mind’s images were not there anymore; however his normal vision was fine. The doctor’s studied and verified his symptom. This interesting disconnect questions whether the image formation machinery was malfunctioned or whether he was not conscious of his image formation machinery. The man had all the machinery to see properly, but could not see things the way he once could. Furthermore, as this man was unable to use his mind’s eye, it may be that we can process visual information received from the eye, just fine, without the mind’s eye.

These examples bring up many questions concerning the connection between the mind and vision. The idea that outputs can be generated without inputs is not a foreign concept. To further probe the idea of seeing without seeing, one questions the image formation of blind people. What do blind people see with their eyes open or closed? Are senses in blind people so heightened, they are able to use inputs such as sound and touch to “see”? Do we need photoreceptors and the optic nerve to see? Is there a way we can enhance the mind’s eye to permit blind people to see? Furthermore, if we could use the machinery that blind people employ when they are dreaming images to reverse this process, they may be able to see “real images? All of these questions may one day be answered by scientists. Of most importance is the connection between the consciousness of sight and the images produced. Do blind people have the ability to see, and a disconnect exists between the machinery and their ability to be conscious of that machinery? Or rather do these people see differently altogether, using different machinery or different inputs to generate the images in the mind’s eye? The study of image formation in blind individuals leads us to question image formation and perception in the eyes of people with normal sight. Carl Zimmer suggests, “Healthy people rely on both the vision we are aware of and the vision that slinks through our brains without knowing” (Zimmer, 2010). While many questions on this subject remain, the study of sight, consciousness and image formation in dreams and real life will lead to better understanding of the way the mind works.






Bertola, H. P. (2003). Visual dream content, graphical representation and EEG alpha activity in congenitally blind subjects . Cognitive Brain Research .


Bertolo, H. (2005). Visual Imagery without visual perception? Psicologica .


Lopes da Silva, F. (2003). Visual dreams in the congenitally blind? TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences , 328-330.


Seeing without Sight. (2010, September ). Retrieved from Psychology Today: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-sense/200909/seeing-without-sight


Zimmer, C. (2010). The Brain . Discover , 28-29.








Paul Grobstein's picture

more on seeing without eyes

I like the Zimmer quote, and his evidence that seeing "inside the mind" is dissociable from seeing what is outside.  Interesting to try and account for all this using our boxes and cables metaphors.  For more of what would need to be accounted for this way, see To see without sight

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