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Bates eye method

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"Yeah, right!"
Against allopathy
Alternative medicine
Clinically unproven
In this way I discovered many facts which had not previously been known, and which I was quite unable to reconcile with the orthodox teachings on the subject. This led me to undertake the series of experiments already alluded to. The results were in entire harmony with my previous observations, and left me no choice but to reject the entire body of orthodox teaching about accommodation and errors of refraction.
—William Bates,
The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses

The Bates eye method is an alternative therapy that purports to "cure" defective eyesight and diseases of the eye by means of specific exercises. It is based on the work and theories of William Horatio Bates (1860–1931), a medical doctor and eye specialist practicing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although rejected and later soundly debunked by his peers,[1] Bates's method was readily adopted into the alternative medicine and health freedom scenes, where it became interwoven with nutritional and other pseudoscience in the hands of early "health fad" figureheads such as Bernarr Macfadden (see below) and Gayelord Hauser (see below).

According to Bates's theory, set forth for the layperson in his 1920 book The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses, refractive errors such as myopia (short-sightedness) are caused not by physiological characteristics of the eye, but by a combination of "strain" and incorrect habits of visual information processing. The Bates method comprises a set of self-help techniques that aim to relieve all "strain" and "effort", and to re-educate the patient in how to see. Correctly used, Bates claimed, his methods restore perfect eyesight without the need for corrective eye-wear, surgery, drugs, or other mainstream medical interventions. In fact, under the Bates model, these orthodox practices are actively harmful.

Bates did not confine his claims to refractive eyesight problems. In a sort of medical crank magnetism, he claimed that the very same methods could cure eye infections, glaucoma, and cataract; that they could be used to cure fever, fatigue, shock, hay fever, rheumatism, and whooping cough,[2] to alleviate chronic or acute pain to the point of dispensing with anesthesia[3] and morphine, and to render soldiers in trench warfare impervious to its discomforts.[4] It sounds almost too good to be true.


William Horatio Bates
Dr. Bates and his disciples claimed that their system of eye exercises eliminates not only nearsightedness and farsightedness but also certain diseases like glaucoma and cataract. Now when you try to get rid of nearsightedness by futile exercises, you are merely wasting your time and money. But if you are suffering from glaucoma… the time wasted in the hocus-pocus is irretrievably lost and you might lose your sight as a result.
—Martin Ackerman, M.D., foreword to The Truth About Eye Exercises, Philip Pollack, M.D., 1956

Bates rejected the mainstream explanation for accommodation,[5] which is the process whereby the eye maintains focus on an object as viewing distance changes. Mainstream optometry holds that the ciliary muscle, located within the eye, is responsible for accommodation, and acts by varying the curvature of the lens. Vision is also affected by the basic shape of the eyeball. Bates subscribed[6] to an older theory that accommodation occurs, instead, when the muscles surrounding the eyeball act to temporarily alter the shape of the eyeball itself. (Imagine squeezing a rubber ball in the hand — it elongates when squeezed, then regains its original shape when the pressure is removed.)

It sounds like an academic vanity squabble of no interest to anyone but optometrists and ophthalmologists, until one considers the real world implications. If Bates was right after all, then it follows that everyone who has ever been prescribed corrective glasses, contact lenses, or laser surgery for a refractive sight issue has been misdiagnosed on the basis of faulty science, and inappropriately treated by the medical profession. If Bates' theory can be proven, then the entire body of eye care professionals has been willfully ignoring a better and less invasive way to treat eye problems for 100 years or more, and nobody but Bates has made a serious effort to raise the alarm in spite of absolutely overwhelming evidence that should be obvious to anyone who examines eyes for a living — which would make it a pretty massive conspiracy.

Conversely, if Bates was wrong, then those who "throw away their glasses" on his recommendation, or who delay proper treatment for their eyes in favour of "eye exercises" and a bit of associated woo, may be endangering their sight, and are definitely throwing away the contents of their wallet on egregious quackery.

Some scientific debate persists to the present day regarding the precise mechanism of accommodation,[7] and thus the cause of refractive sight problems such as myopia. Although it was on the issue of accommodation that Bates had his most fundamental difference with mainstream optometry, the theory is actually of surprisingly little relevance to his treatment methods, which he believed could be effective for medical conditions completely unrelated to vision.

Throw away your glasses! (Or not.)[edit]

It has been definitely proven that practically all the defects of the eyes can be cured without glasses…
—Bates-Macfadden Strong Eyes correspondence course,
advert in Physical Culture Magazine, Aug. 1918

Mainstream optometry aims to detect refractive sight problems, such as short-sightedness (myopia), and then compensate for their effects with artificial corrective lenses. As an alternative to corrective appliances, there is laser surgery, which corrects refractive sight problems by physically altering the shape of the cornea. Certain conditions, for example squint and binocular vision ("seeing double"), are treated with the practice of orthoptics, which works to strengthen and coordinate eye function. These and other eye problems may require corrective surgery, or medication. There is no claim within evidence-based medicine of a universal cure for sight problems. In spite of advances in detection, corrective treatment, and pharmacology, there are still patients whose sight problems are beyond the help of modern medicine.

The Bates method addresses all sight problems with a blend of relaxation and visualisation exercises, self-help psychology, and some potentially dangerous woo. In his book, Bates claimed that his method had "cured" every type of refractive error, along with colour-blindness, squint, cataract (the clouding of the lens), and glaucoma (excess pressure in the eyeball leading to irreversible damage to the relevant nerves). The Bates method, at least according to Bates and his most devout followers, can cure practically everyone of imperfect sight, sometimes in a matter of minutes.

Modern Bates method practitioners tend to be more conservative, or at least more litigation-conscious, in their approach to glasses-disposal. While they may strongly recommend doing without corrective eyewear and shunning laser surgery, they advise that patients should not break the law by driving a motor vehicle without being able to see to the legally required standard,[8] as measured by actual science.

The Bates method[edit]

Underpinning the Bates method is the theory that almost all eyesight problems are caused by strain and effort, sub-optimal conditions for sight, bad habits related to seeing and visual information processing, and misdiagnosis followed by inappropriate treatment with corrective lenses. Bates made some acknowledgement of cases where the eye had been injured by external factors, but claimed success in "curing" even these. Eliminate all trace of "strain" and "effort" in seeing, he claimed, and normal vision is the natural result. Bates believed that mastering his techniques can produce the complete absence of effort and, with it, the claimed health benefits.

The key to the Bates method is the "perfect memory of black". Straying from merely flawed science and into the world of pure woo, Bates concluded that a person able to achieve this memory of perfect blackness, in the absence of strain or effort, would be cured of their sight problems. It is for this reason that the term "eye exercises" is potentially misleading in advertising. When referring to the Bates method, the term "exercise" is meant in the sense of "an activity", and not "physical effort".

While Bates pointed out that any perceived benefit to the patient from being wrongly prescribed glasses could be attributed to the power of "mental suggestion",[9] and even likened the successes of "Faith Curists and Christian Scientists" to the mind-over-matter aspects of his own approach,[10] he appears to have been oblivious to the possibility that his own anecdotal, subjective "success stories" could be accounted for in exactly the same way — in other words, as nothing more than a manifestation of the placebo effect.

Central fixation[edit]

Sometimes mistakenly described as one of the Bates method exercises, or offered by real snake oil merchants as a Bates method treatment in and of itself (to the annoyance of real Bates method practitioners), central fixation is in fact the goal of the exercises. Putting aside most of the pseudoscience, central fixation is what you get when the vision becomes perfect, and what you lose under the influence of all the strain and effort that Bates mentions so often. Under the Bates model, one cannot try to achieve central fixation, nor to perfectly remember the colour black. Central fixation and perfect sight can only occur in the complete absence of effort. (So it's bit like trying not to think of an elephant.)


See no evil. Palming

The patient gently covers the closed eyes with the palms of their hands to provide complete darkness, aiding relaxation. The colours, shades of color, and the phenomena "seen" by the patient while palming are apparently of diagnostic value.[11]


Snellen test card

In conjunction with palming, or with the eyes closed. Perfectly remembering, without strain or effort, the colour black. Bates later found that other colours would work too if the patient preferred them, as would an object like a jewel. The perfectly remembering without strain or effort — that's the key. Mental familiarity and practice with an object makes it easier to remember, and this in turn makes us "see" it better. Bates appears not to have considered that memorising the letters on a Snellen test card ≠ being able to see it perfectly all of a sudden.

Swinging and shifting[edit]

Harder to define based on a reading of Bates' works, and the area in which later practitioners have most substantially altered the original method. A part of it seems to involve inducing brief optical illusions that are then held up as "proof" that the patient has, beneath their functional eyesight problems, perfectly healthy eyes. In other parts, the exercises lean more towards orthodox orthoptics, and in still other parts towards "eye yoga".


A magnifying glass ("burning-glass") being used to focus sunlight on someone's eye

Light is good for the eyes and makes them healthy. Avoidance of light leads to unhealthy eyes (pay no attention to the Palming method above!). Expose the eyes to lots and lots of light, up to and including staring directly at the sun, and shining the rays of the sun directly into the eye with a magnifying glass.[12] (Please don't do this![13])

Argumentum ad populum[edit]

As Dr. Pollack shows, the apparent "successes" of the Bates system are based on the fact that Batesism is essentially a mental healing cult. Significant is his reference to a statement by Dr. Bates that cures by "palming" are probably in the same category as cures reported by Christian Scientists and other practitioners of faith-healing.

With the rejection of his theories by professional ophthalmologists and optometrists, and with the publication of his book detailing the theory, his methods, and his alleged successes for the layperson, Bates's work achieved a cult-like following within the alternative medicine scene of the early- to mid-20th century. In the hands of unqualified eye practitioners, the Bates eye method quickly became entangled with nutritional, medical, and lifestyle advice from the similarly unqualified. In the field of alternative medicine, argumentum ad populum is often the standard of proof, and thus the Bates method found acceptance. In the field of alternative therapy, proponents need not bother devising an objective experiment to prove or disprove whether a subject is, at any given moment, perfectly remembering the colour black.

Bernarr Macfadden[edit]

Bernarr Macfadden posing as David

Physical Culture Magazine guru and early health freedom crusader Bernarr Macfadden (1868–1955) collaborated with Bates on an eye-training correspondence course named Strong Eyes, advertised via Macfadden's Physical Culture Magazine.[14] Macfadden wrote a later book entitled Strengthening the Eyes, with the method somewhat simplified and adapted to his own healthy-lifestyle philosophy. Some of his health crusades appear progressive in hindsight; he criticised smoking and poor diet and favoured birth control, plenty of physical exercise and fresh air, and promoted a positive attitude to sex. On the other hand, Macfadden also claimed with equal doggedness to sell the guaranteed cure for baldness,[15] and was an outspoken opponent of vaccination.[16] Bates and his unproven, "natural" method fit right in to the Macfadden heath empire and its crusade against mainstream healthcare, while Macfadden's endorsement and marketing of Bates's theories lend them little extra credibility in the absence of any more scientific proof than the baldness cure.

Gayelord Hauser[edit]

Hauser in 1961

Food-faddist and Hollywood self-help darling Gayelord Hauser (1895–1984) stole some of Bernarr Macfadden's profits thunder when he penned a successful book of his own dealing with the Bates method. Unsurprisingly, Hauser took the opportunity to use Keener Eyesight Without Glasses (1932) to market his own brand of miracle food, a fad product as essential for good eye health.

Aldous Huxley[edit]

Aldous Huxley in 1947

Brave New World author Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) was so impressed by his experience with the Bates method that he devoted a 1942 book to the subject — The Art of Seeing. Suffering the rare infectious keratitis during his teenage years, his eyesight was damaged to the extent that he became completely blind. Huxley taught himself Braille while slowly recovering some degree of sight in one eye. In 1939, with his already limited ability to read declining, Huxley embraced the Bates method through the teaching of Margaret Corbett. Huxley was satisfied enough with the results that he discarded his glasses. He became a "celebrity" convert to the Bates method or, as Huxley called it, the art of seeing. One particularly relevant account from Bennett Cerf describes Huxley giving a 1952 lecture, without his glasses, and apparently reading with ease from his notes:

Then suddenly he faltered—and the disturbing truth became obvious. He wasn't reading his address at all. He had learned it by heart. To refresh his memory he brought the paper closer and closer to his eyes. When it was only an inch or so away he still couldn't read it, and had to fish for a magnifying glass in his pocket to make the typing visible to him. It was an agonising moment.

Reviewing The Art of Seeing in the British Medical Journal,[17] ophthalmologist Stewart Duke-Elder was scathing:

It is hardly possible that it will impress anyone endowed with common sense and a critical faculty. It may be dangerous in the hands of the impressionable who happen to suffer from glaucoma or detachment of the retina, and undoubtedly will be dangerous in the hands of the anxious parent of a myopic child who may be misled into neglecting the fundamental medical problems of growth, constitution, endocrinology, and rational ocular care, and may be persuaded to subject it to dangerous eye-strain in the absence of spectacles. But the greatest value of the book will be to the psychiatrist as an intimate and revealing self-study in psychology.

Margaret Corbett[edit]

Margaret Corbett (1889–1962) became Dr. Bates's pupil after consulting him about her own husband's vision. She went on to establish a School of Eye Education in Los Angeles. When charged by the State of California with practicing medicine without a licence in 1940, Corbett produced a persuasive selection of witnesses to testify to her successful cures. She successfully argued, in a case closely watched by professional eye practitioners, that she was not practicing eye medicine nor representing herself as a doctor. She was an "instructor of eye-exercises", just as one might be an instructor of other forms of health-giving exercise. Subsequently, a bill was brought before California legislature, with the intention of making the teaching of "eye exercises" and similar practices illegal without a medical license. In the wake of the media interest in her trial, Corbett was able to bring considerable public support to bear. A letter writing campaign ensued, and the bill was ultimately defeated.

The Bates method thus became, quite literally, "the cure they tried to ban", lending it even more credibility in pseudoscience.

Present day[edit]

The Bates method is still around today, more than 100 years after Bates himself failed to convince his peers that his theory of accommodation — and with it his treatment method — had any merit. A quick Internet search for "eye exercises" or "natural vision" turns up any number of Bates method advocates, and even more woo-enhanced variations on the theme. Other self-help eye methods are based more on the orthodox practice of orthoptics. These are more often found under the banner of "eye training" or "vision training", but there is considerable crossover and confusion.

The Bates method now has even more of the hallmarks of woo than it started with:

  • The basic concept still contradicts evidence-based medicine, with the Bates model of accommodation remaining unproven. Ipse dixit declarations that there can be "no room for doubt",[18] that the truth of it is obvious to all[19] or that the patient's subjective improvements are all that matter[20] are the only "evidence" on offer.
  • There are no proper studies that support the theory. Unlike so much of alternative medicine, the underlying Bates theory of accommodation appears entirely falsifiable and could therefore be subjected to proper scientific study. His animal experiments, photographic studies, and clinical observation methods are entirely repeatable experiments and could be used to satisfy science and medicine as to the validity of Bates's theory. Instead, the Bates movement falls back on argumentum ad martyrdom; Bates must be correct because he was dismissed and abused by self-interested orthodoxy.
  • There are no proper studies that support the claims of a universal cure for eyesight problems using the Bates method. Such studies as have been done, for example regarding Bates's methods for preventing myopia in populations of school children, show subjective, temporary improvements as reported by the subject, without any clinically measurable changes to the vision.
  • It relies on argument from authority. Aldous Huxley thought it was great and wrote a book about it, so it must be valid (Appeal to celebrity). "This many people can't have been wrong," (even if many more medically qualified eye specialists are assumed to have been wrong!) In addition, much of the "authority" cited is that of William Horatio Bates himself.
This book aims to be a collection of facts and not of theories, and insofar as it is, I do not fear successful contradiction.
—William Bates,
The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses

As with many alternative therapies, there are the well-intentioned practitioners who endeavour to teach the Bates method as he intended, and there are the people tagging along on the coat-tails of the fad in search of a quick buck. In 2006, Vision Improvement Technologies was ordered by the Polk District County Court to cease sales of its $350 See Clearly Method kit,[21] with the Iowa Attorney General noting that "They represented that consumers who used the method could quickly and easily free themselves of having to wear glasses or contact lenses. They used illegal tactics including exaggerated claims of effectiveness, false implications of scientific validity, and misleading consumer testimonials in advertising".

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. The Truth About Eye Exercises, Dr. Philip Pollack, 1956
  2. The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses by William Horatio Bates, 1920, page 208
  3. The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses by William Horatio Bates, 1920, page 204
  4. The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses by William Horatio Bates, 1920, page 288
  5. The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses by William Horatio Bates, 1920, page 23
  6. The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses by William Horatio Bates, 1920, page 38
  7. The Great Accommodation Debate by Nick Lane
  9. The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses by William Horatio Bates, 1920, page 86
  10. The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses by William Horatio Bates, 1920, page 209
  11. The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses by William Horatio Bates, 1920, page 124
  12. The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses by William Horatio Bates, 1920, page 191
  13. Catholics treated for eye injuries after staring at the sun in order to see a vision of Mary.
  14. Physical Culture 1918-08, Vol. 40, No. 02, page 65
  15. Physical Culture 1929-11, Vol. 62, No. 05, page 22
  16. Physical Culture 1939-12, Vol. 82, No. 06, page 10
  17. Aldous Huxley on Vision Reviewed by Stewart Duke-Elder. Br. Med. J. 1943 May 22; 1(4298): 635–636
  18. The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses by William Horatio Bates, 1920, page 53
  19. The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses by William Horatio Bates, 1920, pages 8-9
  20. To See or Not to See — Natural Vision Correction. June Godfrey, quoted in BBC article on vision correction
  21. Iowa Office Of the Attorney General, Court Orders Vision Improvement Technologies to End Sales of "See Clearly Method" Kit