ASTIGMATISM is the commonest of the dysfunctions of vision. Probably almost everyone has more or less of this fault. The symptoms are often very different. It generally accompanies some other abnormal condition of the eyes. Of itself it will produce blurring of the image, even to extremeness of failure to see. It produces the sense of straining in the eyes, with perhaps pain in the eyes, and in the head, and may be the cause of reflex nervous disturbances. The symptoms may be quite variable in the same individual. Sometimes, in mild cases, it is not always present; and it may be that certain specific situations apparently cause the onset of the condition; or conversely, they may serve to relieve it.
Astigmatism is defined as a refractive condition of the eye in which the parallel rays falling upon it are not at any spot brought to a common focus. Instead of a single point, they are spread into a diffused area on the retina. There are a number of types of this condition, which is referred to as an aberration. They are classified as latitudinal or longitudinal, regular or irregular, direct or inverse or oblique, simple or compound or mixed, myopic or hyperopic, and these classes are again compounded. These classifications are based upon an elaborate and meticulous study of the many various and complicated ways in which an astigmatic eye may, or may not, conduct itself. The variegated combinations of abnormal refraction which are described are all ascribed to one or two causes. The lens may be too near to, or too farm from, the receiving screen, the retina; or the refracting surfaces of the eye, (that is, the covering of the anterior end of the eyeball, and the lens) are curved too much or curved too little. The surface covering also may have the correct curvature, but may be too dense or not dense enough. Astigmatism, it is stated, may be congenital or acquired.
The vision of an astigmatic eye is not simply indistinct; it often presents different and remarkable peculiarities. Shapes may be changed, the parts of an object seen are not equally indistinct, the image seen may be multiplied, or distorted, or take forms which are actually illusions—inasmuch as they are misrepresentations. In short, impressions are registered on the conscious mind which can be accounted for only by the realization that the visual center itself is acting in an abnormal manner. The text books explain that the visual center may enter into the abnormal situation, when an object is not seen clearly, but often with the result that a further confusion is added. The imagination may try to correct a distorted image, and sometimes, in this way, a new dilemma is produced in the conflict between the insistence of the incorrectly refracted rays and the efforts of the memory and the imagination to register what those faculties believe to be the true image.
The above is perhaps a sufficient explanation, and enough of a technical description, of what occurs in astigmatism. To put the picture simply, it means that the eyeball normally should be perfectly round, and when it is not, a condition is present which is the cause of unequal refractive areas. The uneven external surface of the eyeball sends the light rays in wrong directions, and the result is very much like a photograph taken while the camera was moving.
Why does this happen? After reading many pages of erudite discussion, one finds his mind very much like his hand when he tries to hold water in it. The voluminous and exquisitely perfect descriptions of the manifold findings do not give any conclusive evidence of the cause, and do not offer any method for the correction of the abnormal condition. Such an abnormal condition is inherited, or it is acquired, early in life or late in life. The relief offered, consists in artificial lenses, with the frank admission that where the conditions are extreme, no relief need be expected from the lenses. Two strange ideas have been offered by named specialists, which propose to press the eyeball back into a round shape by devices for subjecting it to periodical external pressure.
Out of the fog of confusion, it can be gathered that the round eyeball has changed its shape. The changes in shape are not constant, and the irregularity is itself irregular. In many cases the condition grows worse, in many cases it does not. In many severe cases the condition improves, even after many years. There are many cases where it varies, some to a remarkable extent, better and worse. There are many cases in which it disappears—simply ceases from troubling—which, in medicine, is called a spontaneous cure.
The explanation of the cause which is given by Dr. Bates, accounts for all of these varieties and variations. There are six muscles fastened into the walls of the eyeball. When these muscles move with the perfect co-ordination which is their normal function, there is no astigmatism. When they impose an abnormal, irregular, and unco-ordinated pressure upon the eyeball, some parts of the surface are subjected to a greater or to a lesser compression than is normal. That causes the flatness in one meridian, and permits a fuller curve in another meridian. When the abnormal pressure is released the fault is corrected. That seems so simple that in the text books it has been entirely overlooked. So was Newton's law, for a long time. When Dr. Bates conceived this explanation, and realized how it solved all the unanswered questions, he undertook the very simple procedure of testing out his theory by stimulating the external muscles of the eye in different animals, and cutting them, and reuniting them. His research experiments proved the truth of the new proposition which his wonderful mind had conceived. It is very easy to confirm his findings. Strangely enough, no other worker has yet tried to do this. That is often the history of a discovery. Some independent spirit is going to do it. The mills of the gods grind slowly. The eye muscles in those cases act in an abnormal way, because they receive abnormal nerve impulses. There is an abnormal tension in the visual center. It is possible to create, or to increase, an astigmatism, by voluntary effort. It has been done, and is a matter of record. It is a very simple matter to stare so hard at a point that the image of the object becomes blurred and distorted. Anyone can do this, and thereby demonstrate tension and astigmatism.
The remedy which Dr. Bates pointed out in his method, is just as simple as his explanation of the cause. Relax the abnormal tension in the control center in the brain. That occurs spontaneously when there is a spontaneous improvement or cure of the condition. There is a natural law involved. The same law controls tension reactions in other functions of the body. Psychologists and psychiatrists have for years been treating in that manner, conditions which are analogous. Why deprive the eyes of the same benefit? The method of Dr. Bates uses the same kind of treatment, with techniques that are especially suited to the mechanism of vision.
A patient of mine, when he came to me at twenty years of age, had been troubled from early childhood with a condition which he said was near-sightedness. Having satisfied my self that it really was astigmatism, principally because he could not fuse the simplest of the stereoscopic photographs, I showed him how to relax. He responded so promptly, that with one hour's treatment, he was fusing most of the stereoscopic pictures. He was confident, and in earnest, and I had him so thoroughly interested in the technique, that he forgot his eyes. He just kept looking softly at the pictures, with an absolute expectation, and his visual center was roused into an interest in the procedure, and a normal conduct of the eyes and the mind was the result. The normal conduct of the factors involved, which developed in one hour, after years of abnormal behavior, has continued now, without faltering, for six years. The young man is in evidence here in Berkeley. There are others on my record with corrections just as remarkable.
The set of stereoscopic pictures is made for the purpose of encouraging eyes which do not focus in a normal manner, to become interested in an objective way. The proper way to practice with them is to use only the plain glasses furnished with the stereoscope. There should be no effort to make the eyes fuse the two pictures into one. With the eyes blinking softly at the pictures as they are seen, the card should be moved slowly back and forth on the slide. The pictures will endeavor to fuse, no matter how imperfect the fusing powers of the eyes are, if the mind is attentive and not concerned. If necessary, it is helpful for the mind to be made to visualize what the picture is when correctly fused. Seeing a parrot perched quietly on nothing but air is not startling; nor looking at a cage hanging without any support. But when they are seen on the same card, the memory and the imagination soon become so conscious of "what is wrong with the picture" that the fusion center receives an impulse. If the mind strains, consciously, it hinders the automatic readjustment. If it waits confidently, and prevents any other thought from distracting a perfect attention, the co-operation of the powers of the mind and the fusion center will result in a perfect conception. This may occur promptly, or only after a series of trials. It is quite common for eyes with good vision to fail to fuse some pictures and succeed with others. The parrot, for instance, may go into the cage perfectly, and then move in and out, and possibly conclude by staying out.
The first essential in the effort to cure astigmatism is to impress the mind with the conviction that the misconduct of the eyes is due fundamentally to a disturbed mechanism. The muscles are getting improper orders. Because they are not working with normal co-ordination, the shape of the eyeball is more or less slightly altered. The conscious mind cannot give specific orders to these muscles. That mechanism is automatic,—and outside the awareness of the conscious mind. To combat the abnormal condition by seeking the help of an artificial device is to ignore the inherent functions of the mind. Education is a training of the physical, as well as the mental functions. Madame Montessori developed a similar system of education for children with abnormal mental reactions. The practice of medicine has been using such systems constantly for years. Such a system is being used successfully to educate shrivelled and helpless paralyzed muscles, so that in many cases the muscles recover their normal power. In order to correct the dysfunction called astigmatism, one must take advantage of the same laws. It is no impediment to success that Dr. Bates was an original and independent pioneer in this work.
He was successful, and others are successful today. To simply deny this truth is not a scientific gesture. If one dares not undertake to test out the method, one should not obstruct, nor suppress knowledge of the facts.
If one will put out of the mind for a moment any actual experiences of failures, and proceed to carry out some of the expedients described in previous chapters, one will soon demonstrate the success which generally rewards the effort. Palming, thoughtfully and earnestly, but with the same impersonal alert interest that one gives to a favorite game, the mental relaxation which is the objective purpose of this practice, will impress a normal relaxed attitude upon the visual center, and there will be a distinct improvement in vision. This is not a theory any more than similar successes, in analogous fields of medical work, that are now established and constantly in evidence.
Proper following of the directions in the chapter on "The Sun and the Eye", will have an almost immediate effect that sometimes is astonishing. I have found, in several cases, that the treatment of the trunk. or even a limb, with an infra-red ray lamp, has produced a fine specific improvement in vision, and relieved a blurring,' because of the general relaxation produced.
Different techniques suit the various specific symptoms of individuals. Often it is sufficient to rely upon simple mental relaxation. The chapters upon "Memory" and "Imagination" describe suitable practices. There is often some degree of myopia, and special methods for treating that element are found in the chapter on "Near-sightedness".
My own custom is to demonstrate the specific difficulties apparent in the case under consideration. The commonest trouble is more or less blurring of letters or pictures. This always varies, and may occur only after considerable reading, or under unfavorable conditions of light or print.
It is a good practice to begin by closing the eyes and impressing the mind, for a few minutes, with the idea that there is a soft feeling in the muscles. It is easier to secure this feeling in separate muscles, one after the other. There is no difficulty in securing such a sensation, if the mind is controlled so that distracting ideas are not allowed to interfere. It is often better to keep all thoughts of the eyes out of the mind. But it may be helpful to think of the eyes, in a specific and positive way, as having a soft and heavy and restful feeling. If one has read the preceding chapters in this book, the knowledge of the method will be of the same value in the effort, as is any knowledge on any subject. The chapters should be read more than once.
An excellent general practice is with the Snellen Test Card of letters. The different ways of using the card have been described in a special chapter. To practice reading, when there has been blurring, or indistinctness, allow the eyes to flash open just long enough to see the first word, or perhaps only the first letter of a word at the beginning of a line. Do not allow the eyes to pay attention to more than that, and close the eyes instantly and note what was seen. If it was clear, flash the eyes at the next word the same way, and close them instantly. It often helps if the eyes are kept closed long enough between the flashes to recall some color that comes easily and rests the eyes. If the first word, or the first letter, is not clear, continue to practice on the first letter until it shows clearly. If not successful with this practice, instead of looking at the letter, look under the letter, at the spot of white paper. It is not necessary to stare to see a spot of white paper, and the eyes will relax. Keep recalling the fact that in order to see, it is only necessary for the eyes to remain passive, and allow the rays of light to do the work. That consciousness is very helpful in relaxing the tension which is causing the trouble. By looking at a letter, or a small word, for an instant only, and then closing the eyes for a few seconds, while the mind keeps all other thoughts out, it will very soon develop that the letters will be sharp and clear, and appear blacker than the other letters in that area. When one word has been cleared up so that it remains sharp and black, even when looked at for a' good part of a second, it will be found that other words will readily be seen the same way. That is because the eyes are working better. It is worth while to be patient and insistent with one letter, or one word, until a satisfactory result is secured, A confident attitude of mind almost always accomplishes this in a few minutes.
Another good practice is to begin at the left end of a line and allow the eye to travel across while looking only at the paper immediately underneath the print, blinking the eyes softly, and not trying to read the words. The value of this is the schooled effort of the mind not to try to see. The rays of light, at the same time, are reflected into the eyes, while they are relaxed. A more advanced practice of this technique is easily learned, and is generally very gratifying in results. While blinking softly, and directing the eyes from left to right, imagine, make-believe, there is the finest thread of a line, whiter than the white of the paper, running across close under the printed line of letters. Pay no attention to the print. Keep the mind on the white line. Then close the eyes for a few seconds, and continue to think of the white line only. Repeat by blinking across under the line of letters, and making believe the white line is there, and closing the eyes and waiting for it to appear. Very soon, some letters or some words, will stand out, here and there, apparently plainer and blacker and more widely spaced, than the words around them. This is because they have been more deeply impressed on the visual center, while it was relaxed and attentive; and it will be found that the vision has improved. Much depends upon the degree in which the mind is absorbed in the technique, and all thought of any difficulty in vision is forgotten in carrying out the practice. Each flash of new power in the eye is a proof of what can be accomplished, and the proofs come very soon.
It is surprising, to one not familiar with the conduct of the eyes, to find the marked effects that are sometimes produced by the simplest kind of practices. One cannot realize, in a moment, the factors at work in a mechanism of which one has had no previous knowledge. To blink softly at a blank wall, of any color, or at a white sheet, or at a large dull black cloth, seems to some, a strange and trivial procedure. But when the trouble with the eyes is nothing more than a tension in the muscles, caused by a tension in the visual center, that very simple technique, when it is done carefully as directed, has a very relaxing effect. It is very easy for one to demonstrate that.
Let the strong sun shine on the closed eyelids for a period, with the body comfortable, and the mind entirely engaged with some pleasant prospect, and find how all the muscles feel soft and liquid. Then open the eyes and notice how much clearer everything appears. But do not demand, just expect, and do not let other thoughts intrude and distract.
Close the eyes and make believe that there is a familiar hill-top in sight, or is tree, or some other picture that comes readily into the mind. Float down the stream in a canoe. Swing in a hammock. Picture a new hat or pretty dress, or better, some most familiar face. Imagine a perfect pair of eyes—not your own eyes—just a pair of eyes that are normal and fine that can see the tiny spots, and carry colors in the mind, and distinguish things in the distance and never get tired.
Do not treat the matter like a strange and ominous and incurable disease. Think of astigmatism as the established facts prove it to be—a dysfunction, a misbehavior on the part of the eyes, a condition which constantly varies in its degree, as everyone who has it knows, and often disappears, one might say, without any help. There is so much accumulated evidence of the power of the mind over abnormal conditions of the body. even in the tissue changes of disease—authentic records accepted by the medical profession as proved cures, that it is no longer possible to disprove the reports of cured cases of astigmatism by merely dismissing them as a matter of personal opinion.
Those who have only slight disturbances of vision will be wise to remember that generally the different varieties of those disturbances begin that way. Severe conditions are found in eyes that had fine vision for many years. It is a simple matter to correct slight dysfunctions. When the habit is confirmed and one has become accustomed to dependence on spectacles, it still is often an accomplishment easily possible. Your vision is a very precious possession, take good care of it, but do not desert it, by enslaving it to a pair of glasses, and probably paying a life penalty for the neglect of a little simple care.