Eyesight Recovery

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."

Update August 2013. My latest idea is that recovery from myopia is a paranormal phenomenon. To begin to understand what that means, I recommend the book The Trickster and the Paranormal by George Hansen, and anything you can find by John Keel or Charles Fort. The paranormal demands a different way of thinking that is difficult to learn, but in terms of eyesight recovery, it means the following:

1) Do not expect to recover from myopia, even slightly, by doing any kind of exercises.
2) If there is ever a scientific study on recovery from myopia through exercises, at first it will show strong results, but after more research, the initial results will fade into statistical noise, and the final conclusion will be that recovery is impossible, except through changes in the lens that happen through aging.
3) At the same time, here and there, there will be anomalous miraculous recoveries, usually temporary but sometimes permanent. These recoveries cannot be directly caused by eye exercises, but exercises might create a frame of mind in which the impossible is more likely.

I still think that a full 20/20 prescription will make your eyes continue to get worse, and you should ask your optometrist for a 20/40 prescription.

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 (if it's not botched up), 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 couple 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 semi-permanently deforms the shape of your eyeball, making it too long all the time, so you can see only close things clearly.

It seems obvious to me that if the eye can change shape, it can change back. But you can't do it through strengthening your muscles, since you don't have muscles to shorten your eyeball, only to lengthen it. To shorten it, you have to relax muscles, and since the eyeball was lengthened, and remains lengthened, through habitual tightness, you have to practice relaxing your eye muscles all the time. To see up close, tighten them for a second. To see far away, relax them for a year!

Of course, this is extremely difficult, which is why recovery from myopia is rare. I've studied "Bates method" materials and read Bates's book Better Eyesight Without Glasses, and I agree with a lot of his ideas, but not everything. 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 totally contrary to 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 perfect vision. More common are temporary recoveries, moments of perfect clarity. I think some of these stories are 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 doing. Anyway, I'm not the kind of person to have weird experiences, so I had to try it the slow way.

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. The reason, I think, is that Bates exercises are tricks for relaxing your eyes, and I wasn't tricked. I did palming and kept my eyes tense, sunning and kept my eyes tense, swaying and kept my eyes tense, moving in the clock pattern, or between near and far focus, and kept them tense.

What finally worked was to just focus on my physical eye muscles, notice the tension and release it, as often as I remembered. When I'm on the computer, I frequently take short breaks and look into the distance. Also, as Bates recommends, I keep my eyes always moving around and blinking, and (if I remember) I don't let them "zone out" focused on one spot. Zoning out seems relaxing but it's actually a way of holding tension. Also, I focus my mind on whatever's at the exact center of my vision, as much as I remember to do so.

These are all meditation exercises. They require mindfulness, being in the moment, remembering yourself. My favorite books on how to meditate are Waking Up and Mind Science by Charles Tart. You can easily put your palms over your eyes for an hour a day, but it takes hundreds of hours of practice over years to get skilled enough to do the mental components of the exercises for more than a few minutes a day. At least it took me that long. Whenever I'm doing something interesting, I tend to forget.

I got my first observable progress after a three day train ride with no books to read, nothing to do hour after hour but focus attention on my eyes and look into the distance. When I got back to Seattle, and pulled out my old full-strength glasses, my right eye was no longer slightly blurry through them -- it was perfect! I estimate I gained a quarter of a diopter.

Later, after breaking both pairs of my old glasses, I bought some lower-prescription glasses online through Zenni Optical, which I recommend. If you need glasses for perfect eyesight, you need a prescription from an optometrist, but if you just want a partial correction, and you stay with spherical lenses (no astigmatism correction), there is no danger in just reducing your numbers. I went down by one diopter, from -5.25 and -4.25, to -4.25 and -3.25, and can still see clearly enough even for night driving.

Here's a list of everything I've tried. I doubt that all of this is helpful, and there's a lot of room for people to do more experiments and find out which techniques work the best for the most people...

Palming. I cover my closed eyes with my palms, fingers crossed over my forehead, blocking all light. This is identical to a reiki position (though reiki has yet to do anything 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 my head from side to side. Again, it helps with relaxation, and it makes my eyes noticeably less sensitive to light, and it just feels really good. I like to alternate this with palming.

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, not just my eyes but my shoulders, my throat, everything I habitually tense. It helps to relax my eyes if I'm trying to relax other stuff at the same time. I like to cycle through the different spots, and when I come around to one spot again, it has usually tensed again while I focused on the other spots.

See black. With your eyes closed, palms covering them, in a dim spot, no light should be reaching your retina, and if your vision is healthy, you should see perfect black. People with eyestrain typically see shades of brown or red or even dancing colors. This idea comes from Bates, and I've found that it's true. But Bates writes as if you can actually force yourself to see black and so improve your vision. I find instead that it's a feedback device: the more relaxed my eyes are, the closer I will see to perfect black. So I don't "decide" to see black -- I decide to try this or that technique, and watch the color to see how good I'm doing. If it gets blacker, that means I'm doing something right.

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

Angry eyes. I got this one from a qigong site (scroll halfway down to question 4). 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. This one is super-easy for me. I can do those "magic eye" 3-D posters in a second. Yet my eyesight has been terrible for years, which makes me think this one is overrated for treating myopia.

Long stare. Another one from the qigong site. I don't think the Bates people would like this one, but I do. Pick a spot in the distance, and just stare exactly at it for as long as you can. I try to go five or ten minutes. Blinking is OK.

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. Again, I suspect this one is easier for me than for people whose vision is much better than mine, so I'm doubtful that helps with myopia, but it's probably good for something.

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 should be able to wear glasses that make them super-blurry, and when you take them off, your sight will be clearer, the same way that walking around with weights makes you stronger. I'm not sure if it works in practice, but I'm trying it, wearing 1.75 diopter reading glasses when clear vision is not important.

Blur patch. This is another one of my own ideas. My left eye is much better than my right, so when I go without my glasses, my left is doing all the work and my right is not getting any practice. Eye doctors used to treat this kind of thing by putting a patch over the good eye, but I suspect the medical industry has phased this out, since it can make more profit with more expensive treatments. Anyway, instead of a patch, I just wear reading glasses with the right lens popped out, so my left eye is extra-blurry and my right gets practice being dominant.

The Reptilian Brain, Dissociation and Seeing from the Core , a great argument that you can see better by being present in your body.

And a good overview of the Bates method.