Ever since I found EM I noticed a, shall we say, somewhat hostile attitude towards the Bates method. I get that people might be frustrated if they tried some stuff and it didn’t work for them. I also understand the need for EM to set itself apart from all the other vision improvement stuff that’s out there. But I think Dr. Bates did have some interesting insights that people who want to improve their vision could benefit from. So, dismissing all of it out of hand seems a shame.
But before diving into the Bates method let me say this: I’m very happy to have found EM and I’m very thankful to Jake for sharing all his insights with the world for free. My intent therefore is not to tell people to start doing the Bates method instead of EM. But I did study the Bates method before starting with EM, and some of the things I learned I still find valuable and helpful. That’s why I often feel an urge to come to Dr. Bates’ defense. But I also realize this forum is not about the Bates method, so most of the time I’ll just resist that urge… But I figured I could dedicate one post to this subject to get it off my chest, and then shut up about it. I am by no means a Bates expert, but I’ve read a couple of books (including Dr. Bates’ original book), watched many YouTube videos about that topic and attended an online natural vision summit and some free online courses. I never took lessons with a Bates teacher, or enrolled in a paid course, however.
So, let me start by examining some frequently heard arguments against the Bates method:
I must admit there are some things about the Bates method I dislike. The main thing is that THE Bates Method doesn’t seem to exist. Most Bates teachers teach and practice other stuff as well, and they tend to incorporate some of that into their teachings of the Bates method. Thus, you get many different flavors of the Bates method. A guy who’s also a Yoga teacher will incorporate things from Yoga. A person who works with people to resolve emotional traumas, will link that to the Bates method and tell you that the root cause of all visual problems is some emotional trauma (Bates never made such claims). Someone who’s into Chinese medicine …. You get the picture, right? And this has been going on for 100 years. The result is that people tend to associate a lot of stuff with Dr. Bates that have nothing to do with his work. You wouldn’t believe the amount of esoteric, pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo I’ve head during the aforementioned summit! No wonder that people with a more scientific mindset will quickly conclude that it’s all just what Jake lovingly calls Unicorn farming…. I totally get that. Every time someone starts ranting about “healing energies”, “vibrations”, “chakras” or “quantum-bla-bla” I get sick to my stomach! But it’s good to realize that none of these things originate with Dr. Bates himself. Fortunately Dr. Bates’ original writings are still available to us in the public domain!
Another argument against the Bates Method that is often made, is that it’s 100 years old and thus completely outdated. But is that really true? Just because a theory is old and predates more recent discoveries it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s useless. Sir Isaac Newton came up with his Law of Universal Gravitation in 1687. Much later, in 1915 to be precise, Albert Einstein approached the same subject from a completely different angle and came up with General Relativity. But this didn’t invalidate Newton’s law, it’s just a different and more refined method that in most cases will come up with the same results as Newton’s law. In fact, Newton’s law is used to this day to calculate rocket trajectories and other stuff.
My point is: the fact that something newer and better was discovered does not mean that discoveries made earlier have suddenly become invalid or totally useless. I think the same thing applies to Dr. Bates’ discoveries. Humans still have the same eyes and the same brains as they did 100 years go. Evolution doesn’t change things that fast. Granted, the circumstances are different today. Dr. Bates could not have known about the way we use our eyes in this day and age. So obviously you won’t find anything in his writings telling you to limit your screen time for example. But if something was relaxing and beneficial for people’s visual system 100 years ago, you can bet that it still is today!
Bates was wrong
Dr. Bates was a respected Ophthalmologist and a scientist. Yes, he had some wacky ideas, but so did Sir Isaac Newton (who besides being a brilliant physicist and mathematician was also an alchemist!). Granted, some of the things Bates said are dead wrong: “The lens is no factor in accommodation” comes to mind. Another one is his claim that “nobody has ever been harmed by looking at the sun”…. Everybody who’s ever used a magnifying glass to burn holes into a piece of paper using sunlight will realize that looking directly at the sun is not a very bright idea! It seems that modern Bates teachers tend to agree on both counts.
Then there is his controversial theory about the external eye muscles playing an important part in accommodation. Today nobody (except Bates’ loyal followers) believes that, and even in his time the majority of his colleagues didn’t. But if you read about the (gruesome) experiments he conducted on animal eyes, and the results he obtained with some people who had their lens removed because of cataracts, he does make a pretty convincing case. So, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. I’m no Ophthalmologist and I’ve certainly never done any such experiments, so who am I to say he was wrong? Has anyone, who’s equipped and qualified to make such determinations, ever tried to reproduce his findings recently? Or does even the scientific community have so many preconceptions about the commonly accepted theory being right and Bates being wrong, that nobody has ever bothered to check? I honestly don’t know. Maybe they’re afraid of what they’ll find…. Because having to admit that Bates was right about this, could mean that (heaven forbid) he might have been right about some other things as well; like his outrageous claim that refractive errors might be curable naturally. And of course we can’t have that, now can we? No, it’s far easier to depict Dr. Bates as a raving lunatic, who didn’t know what he was talking about, than risking that.
But I choose to believe that he may have had a point. And if he truly was wrong about it, then so be it. He was just a man after all. It was 100 years ago, and the tools and methods he had at his disposal were after all highly inferior to what we have today. It doesn’t mean that he was wrong about everything though. There are other aspects of the Bates method that have nothing to do with his proposed mechanism for accommodation. Besides, this man dedicated his life to this research and to helping people with vision problems that many others had already given up on. And in many cases, he apparently had great success. And he persevered even when his former colleagues resisted him and had him banned from his profession. Admit it, the guy was a bit of a hero! For that alone he deserves some respect.
Eye exercises don’t work
People who say this when talking about the Bates method, just haven’t understood what the Bates method is all about. It’s not about eye exercises, but much like EM it’s primarily about (re)learning good vision habits. The exercises are merely tools that are intended to teach you these habits. So, mindlessly doing some exercises for a few minutes and then going on with your life as usual will not work. You’ve got to understand what an exercise is meant to teach you, and then apply that in your daily activities. This is no different from what Jake teaches us. Practicing active focus could be called an eye exercise… But doing this for 5 or 10 minutes a day and then forgetting all about it, probably won’t yield much result. But when you learn how to do it and then incorporate it in your daily life, it will become a habit. And that’s when you start making progress.
Secondly the Bates method is about relaxing the eyes and the mind. EM also teaches us that we need to get rid of eye strain, that relaxation is important for active focus, and that our brain (specifically the visual cortex) is a very important part of the visual system. Again, this is not so different from what Dr. Bates taught.
USEFUL BATES STUFF
So, now that I’ve discussed what might prevent people from paying attention to Dr. Bates, let’s move on to the things I personally find useful and which I think might benefit others doing EM. These are not so much exercises but mainly the core principles his work was based upon. I won’t go into too much detail, because (like I said before) I’m no expert. And there are good books out there explaining these things far better than I could. So, I’ll just mention a few things and discuss why and how I find them useful.
For Dr. Bates this was the most important principle of all. It’s based on a simple biological fact. The distribution of photo receptors in the retina is not uniform. The cones, which are responsible for detailed sharp color vision are mainly located in the central area of the retina called macula lutea (or yellow spot). Outside that area the retina contains mostly rods which we use for night vision, and which are good at picking up movements. In the very center of the macula lutea is the fovea centralis (or central pit) that is about as big as the head of a pin, and which contains only cones packed together very densely.
Central fixation is nothing more than the statement that you see best in a very tiny area in the exact center of your vision. We usually don’t realize this because our brain is so good at constructing an image of the world that seems equally sharp everywhere. But this is an illusion. This can easily be proven by looking at two similar objects (two pencils for example) at the same time, while one object is in the exact center of your vision while the other is somewhere beside it. You’ll notice that you can see much more detail on the central object that on the peripheral one. Once you realize this, you can start moving the objects closer and closer together until eventually, they’re touching. You should still be able to see the central object more clearly that the one beside it. Dr. Bates said this even applies to individual letters; when you look directly at the top of a letter (with your central vision) the bottom of the letter will be seen slightly worse.
So why is this useful? It means that whenever we want to see something clearly, we need to look at it directly with our central vision. We must understand and accept the fact that we can never see everything in our field of vision with equal clarity. And, according to Dr. Bates, trying to do so will put strain on the eyes and the mind and make our vision worse. And because the area in which we see best, is so small, we need to constantly “scan” our surroundings to get clear pictures of all the points that interest us. That’s where the second principle (movement) comes in. An interesting consequence of this is that small letters should be easier to read then big ones, because if a letter is small, you need to “scan” only a small area to get a clear picture of the entire letter. Whereas a big letter requires you to “scan” a much larger area. This means the (external) eye muscles need to do less work when reading small letters and will become less strained.
One very practical application of this is adjusting the font size of your monitor. Since I learned about central fixation, I’ve set the font size of my 27-inch 4K monitor to 100% instead of 200% or 150%. That means the letters are quite small, but I find that this is indeed easier on the eyes that larger letters. I’ll admit, it takes some time to get used to it. But now I really prefer this to the larger text on regular HD monitors.
Let me repeat a sentence I already wrote above: because the area in which we see best, is so small, we need to constantly “scan” our surroundings to get clear pictures of all the points that interest us. That means no staring! Another interesting biological fact is that our photo receptors have a refractory period, that is a period following a stimulus in which further stimuli won’t be registered. So, by staring fixedly at one point for an amount of time we actually cause visual stimuli to get lost. That effect is what causes this optical illusion. You can test this by purposefully staring at one spot for a few minutes without blinking. If you do this long enough, you’ll start to notice a kind of tunnel vision and it might even feel like going to pass out. You won’t though, don’t worry. As soon as you start to move your eyes again and look at something else, your vision will return to normal.
So, how do I use this knowledge? Simply by reminding myself not to stare. When you do active focus, or when you try to fuse double images, it’s not necessary to stare. Keep your eyes moving naturally. And blink naturally; that is also a form of movement which has the added benefit of lubricating the eyes. Even the smallest movements count. When looking at text, just move your attention from one letter to another, for instance. The various swinging and swaying exercises of the Bates method are all about teaching you this one simple habit. They’re meant to teach your eyes to ”let go”, instead of locking on to one spot and straining to keep it steady at all times.
Eye strain is bad for your vision. I think we can all agree on that. Well, one way of getting rid of strain is relaxation.
The most famous Bates method practice, palming, is all about relaxation. In palming you close your eyes and cover them with the palms of the hands (not the fingers). Cross your fingers over your forehead so that you have a wide enough space for your nose, so you can breathe easily. And while you do this, think about some pleasant memory and try to visualize your surroundings at that time.
Palming is not only about relaxation of the eyes but also of the mind. Dr. Bates put a lot of emphasis on the role of the mind in vision, which is something that is often overlooked when thinking about vision. I recently posted about that here. Palming is also a bit like a meditative practice in that respect. Now, I’m not into meditation, so I’m not the person to tell you about its possible health benefits. But I can certainly understand how closing your eyes for a while and blocking as much of the light as possible, can create a state of rest and relaxation, simply because you take away an otherwise ever-present stimulus. So, when you realize you’ve been straining your vision, just taking a few minutes to give your eyes and your visual cortex a little rest, can be helpful. I find that this really does help to get rid of eye strain and leads to (temporary) better vision. For me this is a good way to deal with large amounts of computer time. I’ve schedules short 15-30 second breaks every 15 minutes where I just look out of a window and do some active focus. But once every hour I’ve scheduled a longer break of 5 minutes, and during this break I will sometimes do some palming. Now, there are anecdotes about persons palming for many hours at a time who were supposedly cured of their myopia afterwards… Do I believe those stories? Honestly, I’m not inclined to do so. I guess it’s possible that the person in question was suffering from a ciliary spasm and that the prolonged palming caused them to completely release that spasm. But it’s not something I’m likely to try for myself, since I know my myopia is due to axial elongation, which I don’t think can be reversed by relaxation alone.
Another good idea is of course to prevent strain for occurring in the first place. In the EM method we do this by wearing the right correction for close-up work (differentials) and by taking regular breaks. Dr. Bates didn’t know about this of course, but he did point out that it’s good to regularly shift our attention from near objects to far objects. And as stated above, according to Dr. Bates the principles of central fixation and movement are essential for relaxed vision. So even if these things in themselves probably won’t reverse myopia, I think they can at least help us to prevent eye strain, headaches and ciliary spasms.
We all know good natural light is essential for good, clear vision. But according to Dr. Bates sunlight (including a small amount of UV light) is also essential for the overall health of our eyes. Our eyes have evolved out there in the natural world, but nowadays we spend most of our time cooked up in our homes and offices. So, we just don’t get enough natural sunlight. One consequence is that many people are overly sensitive to (bright) sunlight. Putting on dark sunglasses as soon as you step out of the door, will of course only aggravate this problem. The way to address this issue, is to let your eyes get accustomed to bright sunlight. Nature has provided us with pupils that contract and dilate depending on the amount of available light. If we never expose ourselves to bright light however, this mechanism will get lazy or “rusty”. But it turns out we can train our pupils to work at their full potential again. That is why Dr. Bates advised people do some sunning, by pointing their CLOSED eyes towards the sun and gently moving their head from side to side. This is to be done outdoors (or even indoors behind an open window or door through which the sun shines) without wearing glasses or contact lenses. Because we want to get a little bit of UV radiation, it’s important that there is no glass between us and the sun, since that would block the UV. Sunning is also said to increase the blood flow to the eyes. And sunlight is important to regulate the circadian rhythm (our internal clock), so sunning would benefit that as well as our eyes.
But remember: NEVER, EVER look directly at the sun with your eyes open!
And don’t overdo it. Sunning your eyes for 5-10 minutes once or twice a day, is enough. Also, it is advised to do a bit of palming directly after sunning, for at least the same amount of time.
My experience is that my vision is indeed (temporarily) improved after sunning and palming, so I try to do this at least once every day (if the weather cooperates of course).
Memory and imagination
This is where things start to get a little bit weird, but bear with me. Dr. Bates stresses the importance of memory and imagination in vision. How is that supposed to work? According to Dr. Bates it much easier for us to see an object clearly when it is very familiar to us, and we can quite literally see it with our eyes closed. On the other hand, unfamiliar objects, or objects that cause us stress, will be much more difficult to see clearly. According to Dr. Bates we can train ourselves to see an object more clearly by closing our eyes and picturing that object in our mind.
The theory is that when we can remember or visualize an object (a letter for example) clearly in our mind, we will also be able to see it more clearly once we open our eyes and look at it in the real world. Sounds weird, right? But I think there is some truth to this. Jake says the best thing to practice active focus on is text. Now why is that? Could the fact that most of us are intimately familiar the letters of the alphabet, have something to do with it? We all know what an “A” looks like for example. So, when we see something blurry that vaguely resembles an “A” our brain goes “Hey wait a second… I know what that is! That’s an “A”! Let me clear that up for you.”
It will therefore have a much easier job clearing up the blur and producing a clear image, because it has a clear mental reference. Something unfamiliar on the other hand, for which the brain has no reference, will be more difficult to clear up. When people see something very unfamiliar or unexpected, they blink and rub their eyes in an attempt to better see what it is they’re looking at. “I don’t believe my eyes” they say. Could it be that the problem lies not with the eyes, but with the brain, because the mind is confused and doesn’t know what to make of the perceived image? Dr. Bates would probably say yes. I also sometimes wonder whether Chinese characters are easier to clear up for Chinese people, who are very familiar with them, then they are for western people….
So, how it this helpful? I think it’s just good to be aware of these things and not to underestimate the role our brain plays in vision. No, I don’t practice to imagining stuff with my eyes closed, because I don’t believe this addresses the root cause of my myopia (axial elongation). But I do like to remind myself now and again about the importance of the image processing that goes on in my brain. I believe our eyes can adapt fairly easy and relatively quickly to slightly weaker glasses, but I think it takes the brain a bit longer to catch up. That is why we may experience double vision while adapting to a lowered prescription. The good news is that the brain is good at learning new stuff and that it will eventually adapt. And we may be able to speed up that process by providing it with clear reference images. See also my post about double vision.
RECONCILING THE DIFFERENCES
So far, I’ve tried to point to parallels between Dr. Bates’ ideas and what we learn at EM. I think that in many ways both methods are compatible and complement each other nicely. But there are some fundamental differences as well that need to be addressed if we want to combine things from both methods.
Glasses or no glasses?
One of the first differences we’re confronted with, is the question whether we should continue to wear glasses if we want to reverse our myopia. Dr. Bates was quite clear about his opinion; glasses should be discarded and never worn again. Jake is also very clear about this; we should wear slightly weaker glasses suited to the task (close-up or distance vision). In fact, wearing the correct glasses and reducing their strength, at the right time and by the right amount, is one of the key principles of EM. Therefore, one simply cannot follow the EM method without wearing glasses (or contacts). The Bates method on the other hand has changed the point of view about glasses over the last 100 years. Nowadays Bates teachers also advise their students to wear weaker glasses when they need them. They are however not very specific about how strong the glasses should be and how exactly one can come to an informed decision about these matters.
This is clearly one of the strengths of EM! Wearing progressively weaker glasses during our improvement journey is the sensible thing to do. Biological processes work gradually and take time. You don’t tell a person with an injured leg to throw away his crutches and just walk (unless you happen to be Jesus ). EM teaches us exactly how we can determine what glasses we need. Yes, it takes some work to figure it all out, and sometimes there’s more than or option and a person needs to make a choice. But this is way better then just saying “you can wear weaker glasses when you need them”.
On the other hand, there is something to be said for giving yourself an opportunity to see the world unfiltered and unmodified by artificial means once in a while. There are situations in which you probably don’t need glasses. This depends on the degree of your myopia of course. Some one with high myopia will obviously need his glasses more frequently that someone with low myopia. But I think there are always situations in which we can do without them. So why not take them off for a while?
Personally, I still need differentials to work comfortably on my computer. When I watch TV, I need my normalized. Outdoors I need my normalized to practice active focus, but not to prevent me from bumping into things. So, I wear glasses for most of the time. But for all other activities (reading, hanging around the house, etc.) I don’t really need any glasses. So, I take them off. I also sometimes take them off during a walk, because like I said, I won’t bump into things without them, and sometimes it feels good to take a little break from active focus and just feel the sun and the wind on my eyes. So, that is my personal balanced approach to this difference. And I’m very much looking forward to the moment (that should be pretty close by now) when I no longer need my differentials, because then I can be free of glasses for hours a day.
Active focus vs. not straining
This one gave me a lot to think about. According to Dr. Bates strain is the root of all evil, so to speak. Never strain to see something better, is the motto. But here comes along Jake, who says we must practice this weird thing called active focus in order to make progress. What to do?
At first, I chose to just ignore this dilemma, because I had no idea what active focus is supposed to be. I just didn’t get it and was about to give up on the whole idea. For me the penny started to drop when someone told me that active focus and the flashes of clarity described by Dr. Bates may actually be the same thing. Descriptions of active focus for other EM members, saying that you have to relax and just let it happen, were also helpful. Eventually I found active focus, although I must admit I still feel like I need to tense certain muscles to get the desired effect. Maybe this has just become a (bad) habit for me, because that’s how I first figured it out. But I’m making good progress, so must be doing something right!
Anyway, active focus has become much easier over time and started happening more and more automatically. So, after a while I realized that active focus is probably not some weird trick invented by Jake, but a natural function of the eye. People with normal vision probably use this unconsciously all the time to increase the clarity of distant objects under less-than-ideal circumstances. It’s only when we start wearing (too strong) glasses, that take away the need to clear up blur, that we start to lose (or forget about) this ability. Both my wife and my son, who haven’t been wearing glasses for nearly as long as I have, were able to do active focus on their first attempt after I told them about it. And that’s when I stopped worrying about straining my eyes with active focus.
The cause and cure of myopia
This is clearly the most fundamental of the differences between EM and the Bates method. Both agree on the fact that in myopia the eyes are too long, and the light comes into focus in front of the retina. But that’s were similarity ends.
According to Dr. Bates the eye is not rigid, and its shape not fixed. He proposed that, much like the lens of a camera, the eye lengthens and shortens all the time to focus images from different distances onto the retina. The mechanism through which this is supposed to be achieved is by contracting the four recti (straight) exterior eye muscles simultaneously to shorten the eyeball, and by contacting the two oblique exterior eye muscles simultaneously to lengthen the eyeball.
If the eye is indeed such a dynamic system, it stands to reason that chronic strain in the exterior eye muscles could cause the eye to deform and produce all kinds of refractive errors. The proposed cure is then equally obvious: get rid of the strain, relax those muscles (and the mind which ultimately causes the strain), and the eye will return to its normal shape. Therefore Dr. Bates believed myopia could theoretically be cured in an instant. The time it takes to relax those muscles, and the mind, is all that is needed to cure the refractive error.
EM on the other hand sees the eye as rigid and static in the short term. The lengthening or shortening of the eye is not seen as a natural function of the eye to (help) focus the light onto the retina. Instead, it is the result of stimuli in the form of hyperopic (light coming into focus behind the retina) or myopic (light coming into focus in front to the retina) blur, which causes the eye to slowly grow longer or shorter over long periods of time. In other words, our eyes respond to a blur stimulus in such a way that the retina will eventually end up at the point where the light comes into focus. When not interfered with, this is basically a self-repair mechanism! The presence of such a mechanism in biological system seems very likely and would explain why humans (and animals) have been able to live successful and productive lives for most of our recorded history without access to glasses, contact lenses or laser surgery. All that is needed to reverse myopia is therefore a small amount of myopic blur (not too much!) combined with active focus, which will cause the eye to grow shorter over time.
I must admit I find both theories equally beautiful and plausible at first sight. But I favor Jake’s theory for two simple reasons (Sorry, doc!):
- There are modern scientific studies that support Jake’s theory, but there are apparently none that support Dr. Bates’ theory
- There is a suspicious shortage of people who were able to cure their myopia in an instant. Even Bates teachers tell us that in can take years to regain natural 20/20 vision.
If you want to reverse myopia, then EM is definitely your best bet. I do believe however that Dr. Bates had some interesting ideas and insights into the way vision works. I notice there are some parallels in EM and the teachings of Dr. Bates. But there are important differences as well. Knowledge of Dr. Bates’s theories and techniques can however be a useful supplement to the things we learn from Jake and help us to gain a deeper understanding of why things work the way they do. Do we need the Bates method to reverse our myopia when we follow the EM method? Probably not. Everything we need to make progress is right here at EndMyopia. But some elements of the Bates method may help us to speed things up a little bit and look at things from a different angle (figuratively, not literally ).