Eyesight Recovery

Update January 2019. Even though I long ago removed all links to this page, I keep getting emails about it, so I've finally rewritten it to be consistent with the scientific evidence, and with my personal experience: there is no way to significantly reverse myopia by doing exercises. The only reason I haven't deleted this page is that some people might want to try anyway.

I also find it strange that people don't know how to relax their eyes. You do it the same way you relax your hands, or your neck, or anything else that uses muscles. If you still don't get it, try straining your eyes really hard, and then stop straining. There, you've just relaxed your eyes. As you get better at it, you won't see better, but you might get fewer headaches.

The one practical point, where I think the fringe eyesight recovery people are right, is that if you keep correcting your eyes to 20/20, they'll keep getting worse.

Update January 2018. This Hacker News comment thread is about eye exercises to reduce presbyopia (farsightedness), but it has some links about exercises to reduce myopia -- or at least to stop it from getting worse. This article describes a technique called print pushing: "to read right at the limit of your focal distance, and to systematically push that distance to become farther and farther away."

I've been nearsighted since age ten. Every time the optometrist prescribed me stronger glasses, my eyes got worse. Then when I went to college and was no longer covered by my parents' insurance, I stopped going to optometrists, and my eyes stopped getting worse, stabilizing with my right eye just slightly blurry through my glasses. Some optometrists understand this. A friend was told by his optometrist, "Your eyes are a little worse, but I'm not going to prescribe you stronger glasses, because then your eyes will adjust to the new prescription and just get worse again." A lot of people get laser surgery, which works at first, but then their eyes get worse again.

As far as I can figure out, this is how it works: Nearsightedness, or myopia, is rooted in mental habits of straining to see, and cultural habits of looking too long at things too close. The "genetic" basis is really a biologically-inherited tendency, in the context of your culture, to be the kind of person who ends up straining to see or looking at things close up. For example, if you're genetically/culturally a nerd, you'll read a lot. Myopia was uncommon through all human history until a few hundred years ago when it started to be common in university students.

When you look at something up close, your eye muscles contract and lengthten your eyeball, so that the close image focuses on your retina. I don't have a precise definition of "straining," but it involves some kind of tightening of the muscles that work your eyes. Now, when you look up close too much, and/or strain too much, you develop a habitual tension in those muscles. It's the same thing as Wilhelm Reich's "character armor". Over many years, this tension permanently deforms the shape of your eyeball, making it too long all the time, so you can see only close things clearly.

It's a reasonable assumption that if the eyeball can change shape, it can change back. But you wouldn't do it through strengthening your muscles, since you don't have muscles to shorten your eyeball, only to lengthen it. You would have to do it by relaxing those muscles a lot. Either this doesn't actually work, or no one has yet relaxed their muscles enough.

I've studied "Bates method" materials and read Bates's book Better Eyesight Without Glasses, and some of his ideas are totally wrong. Bates thinks "floaters" are a hallucination, and he seems to think that eyesight itself is a completely mental phenomenon, almost as if he's teaching the yogic technique of seeing without your eyes. He makes the bizarre statement that you can't see something clearly unless it's already familiar to you, which is refuted by anyone who correctly reads an unfamiliar eye chart. He also says that everyone's eyesight changes a lot throughout the day, which is not my experience (except, of course, that it gets better in bright light when the pupil is smaller). And he recommends that you do not focus at all on physically feeling your eyes, which I think is terrible advice.

Fringe eyesight literature is full of stories of miraculous recoveries, where people instantly go from serious myopia to permanent perfect vision. I think these are almost all lies, or honest reports of recovery from psychosomatic myopia. There are also reports of moments of perfect clarity, which are more likely to be honest. Miracles happen, but it is not their nature to appear under controlled conditions. I also think you can bootstrap real miracles from fake ones, which might be what Bates was trying.

I went two years without ever wearing my full-strength glasses, wearing my old 8th grade glasses or going without, and I did a lot of exercises I found in Bates's book and on the internet, and I got nowhere. I did get better at focusing on my physical eye muscles, noticing the tension and releasing it, and I got better at focusing my attention on whatever's at the exact center of my vision.

These are mindfulness exercises. My favorite books on meditation/mindfulness are Waking Up and Mind Science by Charles Tart. The most likely benefit of eye exercises is that you'll get generally better at being fully present in the moment.

One time I did get a barely observable temporary improvement, when I was on a long train ride, and spent hour after hour looking at the far horizon. Now I just use Zenni Optical to get glasses about half a diopter weaker than 20/20, which has worked in keeping my eyes from getting worse.

Here's a list of exercises you could try...

Palming. Cover your closed eyes with your palms, fingers crossed over your forehead, blocking all light. This is identical to a reiki position (though reiki also never worked for me). I find it helps to relax my eyes, if I focus my attention on relaxing instead of just thinking about stuff.

Sunning. Look at the sun with closed eyes, maybe slowly turning your head from side to side. Again, it helps with relaxation, and it makes my eyes noticeably less sensitive to light, and it does feel good.

Swinging. I'm not sure how this is supposed to help, but you do it by swaying your head and body so that your eyes sweep back and forth. A few sources say to keep your eyes on a fixed spot in the distance, but I agree with most sources that it feels better to sweep your vision along with you.

Keep eyes active, moving and blinking, not zoning out. At the same time, do the next one:

Central fixation. Bates thought this was all-important. The idea is to focus your mental attention on whatever is in the center of your vision, the tiniest center you can focus on.

Open focus. The opposite of central fixation. Focus your attention on your whole field of vision at once with everything equal. Ideally, this will make your eyes spontaneously move around. A fun thing to do is to go back and forth between open focus and central fixation on different things. I've also read that you can get in an altered state of consciousness by walking around at night with your attention focused on your peripheral vision.

Relax other muscles. It helps to relax your eyes if you're trying to relax other stuff at the same time. And it's generally good for you.

See black. With your eyes closed, palms covering them, in a dim spot, no light should be reaching your retina. Supposedly, if your vision is healthy, you will see perfect black, while people with eyestrain will see shades of brown or red or even dancing colors. This idea comes from Bates, and he writes as if you can actually force yourself to see black and so improve your vision. I think it's more likely to work as a feedback device: the more relaxed your eyes are, the closer you will see to perfect black. So you don't "decide" to see black -- you decide to try this or that technique, and watch the color to see how you're doing.

Tense everything. Sometimes the way out of habitual small tension is to blow it out into enormous tension and then release it. So squeeze all the muscles around your eyes and face as hard as you can for like ten seconds, then release, then do it again a few times.

Angry eyes. I got this one from a qigong site. It's the same as the above, except you alternate closing your eyes as tightly as you can, with opening them as big as you can.

The clock. This is the most common eye exercise I hear about. You visualize a big clock face, and move your eyes from the center up to the 12 position and back, then to the 1 position and back, and so on, all the way around. I prefer a similar one where you just go slowly around the edge in a big circle, several times, both clockwise and counter-clockwise.

Near and far. Shift your focus back and forth between two things that are in the same direction, but different distances. Three things at different distances is even better. Or you could go slowly out and back along something like the edge of a table. I've seen the suggestion to hold a string up, going straight out from your eye to arm's length, and move your focus along it, but this seems silly when there are already so many objects and surfaces you can use without having to hold your arms up.

Long stare. Another one from the qigong site. Pick a spot in the distance, and just stare exactly at it for as long as you can.

Right and left dominant. This is one I invented myself. It's purely a mind exercise to switch which eye is dominant at the moment. I hold up my thumb about a foot in front of my eyes, and focus to the distance. Now I'm seeing two ghostly thumbs. Keeping my eye-focus in the distance, I focus my mental attention on the right thumb and make it solid, so it blocks out what's behind it, and then make it nearly vanish, and then do the same with the left thumb, and so on.

Reading glasses. This one makes sense: If wearing glasses warps your eyes in one direction, glasses that bend light the other way should warp it in the other direction. Or, if your eyes are already blurry, you could wear glasses that make them super-blurry, and when you take them off, your sight might be clearer, the same way that walking around with weights makes you stronger. Unfortunately, this doesn't seem to be the case.

Again, I've seen no good evidence that any of these exercises can significantly reverse myopia, but they might help with mindfulness or with general eyesight agility.