originally published June 7, 2014
The day I acquired my first pair of eyeglasses – those big, clunky 80’s frames that cock-blocked so many teens in the throes of inescapable hormones. I was thirteen and wholly displeased. Sure, now I could read my Star Wars poster from across the room and I no longer had to squint at the TV to see which blur was Maddie and which was David, but at what cost? A life sentence of either sticking lenses into my eye socket or plunking a clunky plastic-glass-and-metal accessory onto my face?
If only I had known about William Horatio Bates and his patented (well, not really, but he wrote it down) method of eyeball therapy. According to Bates, no one needs eyeglasses. We merely have to train our eyes not to strain, and they will eventually obey us and restore our perfect eyesight. Bates was – pardon the pun – a visionary. Plus, he was a legitimate ophthalmologist.
Unfortunately he was also a notable peddler of theories that were so lacking in scientific merit and validation, you could probably get a decent shvitz from the steam rising off the bullshit in his teachings. But Bates had a golden shovel, and his theories received a wide swath of attention. If only he’d been right.
Bates believed that our most common eye problems – nearsightedness, farsightedness, astigmatism and presbyopia (the deterioration of close-up vision due to aging) – were caused by the tension of the muscles around the eyeball. These muscles were acting wonky because of our mental strain. If we could relieve our strain, our eyes could be cured. It’s all in the mind, you see. Even blood circulation problems, which Bates linked to glaucoma, cataracts, double-vision, as well as crossed and lazy eyes, was all mental.
It all comes down to accommodation. This is the process by which we adjust our focus from something close up to something far away (or vice versa). Whereas the so-called “scientists” with their so-called “evidence” would tell you that this is performed by the cilliary muscle inside the eye, Bates indicates that it’s all up to those muscles around the eyeball. You see, those muscles elongate the eyeball to focus on something close up, and flatten it to focus on something far away.
Forget all the science that yammers on about the verifiable fact that our eyeballs don’t physically change shape when a mosquito lands on our hand and distracts us from gazing at a far-away pretty rainbow. The Bates Method is based on his assumptions, and if you’re going to get all frazzled by fact, you’ll never have perfect vision through the magic of Bates’ teachings.
Bates also encouraged his patients to discard their eyeglasses. Corrective lenses, he said, only forced the eye to strain to adjust to their correction. You want less strain, not more. Bates advocated non-surgical therapy work, with the aim being the achievement of ‘central fixation’, the ability to see what lies in the central point of vision without having to stare. There are three components to this therapy. I recommend immediately smashing your glasses and getting started on this right away.
Step one is known as eye palming, and it’s as simple as closing your eyes and covering them with the palms of your hands to block out all light. If you’re seeing any flickering colors or lights in the darkness, that’s your straining muscles messing you up. With true relaxation you’ll see only pure blackness. That’s assuming you forget about Eigengrau, the scientifically proven “visual noise” that nearly all of us experience. It’s up to you what you want to believe: either those little flickers of non-existent light are caused by the thermal isomerization of rhodopsin at the input of the transduction chain, or it’s a sign of your inability to just chill out, man.
Bates also advocated visualization as part of his Method. Think about pure black, he said. The darker the blackness you can visualize in your mind, and the smaller the area of black you can imagine, the more relaxed you are. Don’t concentrate on it – this shouldn’t come from your memory, as that would merely be straining. Just… see the blackness. Enter the blackness. Become the blackness.
Exercise is also important to the healing eyeball, specifically ‘shifting’ your eyes back and forth to get an illusion of objects ‘swinging’ in the opposite direction. The smaller the area of swinging, the greater the benefit to your eyeballs’ recovery. You should eventually be able to achieve the “universal swing” by being able to close your eyes and visualize something swinging over an area smaller than a period in a newspaper. Not sold yet? Maybe you should try sungazing.
Yes, the Bates Method actually believes that staring directly at the sun will help. After all, people with normal vision can stare at the sun with no injury or discomfort, right? You, the recovering strain-sufferer, should gradually work your way up to looking specifically at the sun, you’ll eventually get there and be stronger for it. In Bates’ book, Perfect Sight Without Glasses, he advocates using a burning-glass to focus the sunlight onto the eyeball.
For the love of freaking fuck, please don’t ever try this.
It should come as little surprise to anyone that there has been no scientific evidence to back up the Bates Method of eyesight recovery. After Bates died in 1931, Margaret Darst Corbett, his research assistant and third wife continued teaching his methods in Los Angeles. She was charged with practicing medicine without a license, but she insisted she only ‘instructing’, not ‘treating’ people. The jury agreed.
Aldous Huxley was a pupil (sorry – no pun intended once again) of the Bates Method. Huxley had had serious vision problems since a bout of keratitis left him nearly blind at age sixteen. At 45 years of age, he began receiving treatment – sorry, “instruction” from Margaret Corbett, and he soon claimed he could read easily without strain, fatigue or eyeglasses. He recorded his experiences and published them in a 1942 book, The Art Of Seeing.
Ten years later, Huxley was giving a speech at a Hollywood banquet. He delivered the speech off his cue cards without glasses, and without struggling at all. Until he hit an awkward pause. He raised the cue cards to his eye, but still couldn’t read it. Even with a magnifying glass he struggled. It became clear to all those in attendance, Huxley’s vision wasn’t fixed, he’d simply memorized most of his speech and faked reading it.
In a pre-laser-surgery world, it made sense that people – even doctors – would seek out a method to cure cruddy vision. But there’s only so much that can be accomplished by the Bates Method. Pretty much nothing, actually, unless you count the damage done by folks foolish enough to stare into the sun.