SIGHT is the most precious of the senses. In the last ten years of my practice as a physician, during which I have been especially interested in patients with various defects of vision, I have come to realize that very few have any real consciousness of the situation. Most people are distinctly less conscious of the work of their eyes than they are of almost any other of the organs and functions of their bodies. An abnormal functioning of the stomach, causing more or less distress, attracts very prompt attention. The mere consciousness of the beating of the heart arouses immediate concern. But it is possible for their vision gradually to lose its power to a considerable degree before their inattentive observation remarks the failure of their eyes to discern objects with the same acuteness and ease that they formerly had. When they find themselves obliged to seek relief, they realize that the only help they know of is the use of artificial lenses for the remainder of their lives.
From sources which are not only most interesting, but are of the most vital importance, there has been developed and fostered in recent years a new and prevalent psychology. It does not relate primarily to the human eye. The eye itself seems to be like the "forgotten man." This psychology relates to the wearing of artificial lenses. The atmosphere is so pervaded with glasses, with new and changing styles of lenses and frames, that there is plenty of proof of the claims of a large corporation that it is rapidly making the people of the United States what it calls "eye conscious." The condition might certainly be better designated as eye unconscious. People seem to forget, for themselves and for their children, what it means to put on glasses for the remainder of life. They do not seem even to ask why no other help is possible, and do not seem to care. I have known those who have argued against the removal of plainly diseased tonsils, and even a diseased appendix, to use the slightest kind of a fault in vision as an excuse for joining the procession and appearing proudly with a pair of glasses.
My purpose here is to paint in plain words some pictures that are rather obscure to most of those whom doctors call the laity. Even those who do not wear glasses now, or those whose children are not bespectacled yet, may do well to step out of the procession long enough to look at the prospect I am going to describe and ask themselves if they are interested.
Over forty years in the practice of general medicine have given me opportunity to observe the functioning of the organs of the human body, and likewise, opportunity to observe the conduct of the human mind in its relation to these organs. The fact that I was net, until recent years, engaged in treating the eye itself, has made it easier, perhaps, for me to record whatever impressions I gathered about eyes and vision without any prejudices. Moreover, the peculiar experiences I have had with my own eyes have prepared me for the reception of personal impressions with more open-mindedness than if I had never worn glasses. It has some significance, too, that I have now used my eyes for ten years without glasses after having worn them constantly for thirty-seven years. The experience I have had with my own eyes is a rather extreme illustration, but it is in kind quite similar to the common course of conduct that is the story of eyes which cause trouble because they do not behave in a normal manner.
My vision was quite good until I was twenty years old. The change came with a crash. A severe and remarkable mental shock introduced a long record of peculiar and variable as astigmatism. One summer day I dived into the Hudson River on the water-front of New York City. With a group of strong swimmers I joined in a race to an iron freighter and back. It was a quarter of a mile each way. On the way back my strength gave out and I fell behind. Soon I was alone, in forty feet of water, and unable to swim farther. I can remember, as though it were yesterday, the startling vividness of the picture of the brick barge I must get back to. It was as small as a hat and seemed miles away. The others saw my danger and came back to me. In their company my courage returned and my strength came back. That incident made such an unconscious impression on my inner mind that some hours later I suddenly found myself blind. Sometimes I could see nothing, and then there would be a film, and then it was dark again. In an hour my eyes were clear, but they were not normal. It became necessary for me to wear glasses constantly, and I continued to wear them for thirty-seven years.
My father was a physician, and the first eye specialist he took me to was very kind for some weeks, but my eyes were helped very little. I soon realized that my sight was quite variable. There was indistinctness, sometimes less, sometimes more, there was blurring, there was discomfort. The variableness was noticeable whether the glasses were on or off. We tried a second specialist, and finally a third. The last doctor fitted me with glasses that were much more satisfactory, and I wore them for three years before they had to be changed.
It was only after I learned the fundamental meaning of the discovery of Dr. Bates that I came to understand why those lenses suited my eyes so much better one time than they did another. It was so simple after all. The conduct of the eyes was varying constantly, but the pieces of glass never changed. My condition was diagnosed as astigmatism. That word has a bad case of astigmatism itself! The explanations are contradictory. We are told that it is incurable, but many cases of cures are on record, that recovered without any doctor's help. Apparently the cause of the trouble dissolves out of the picture. In some cases the condition varies constantly, and in others it disappears and probably sooner or later returns. I was told that my astigmatism was congenital; that I was born with it; but it came in an instant, and it was caused by the strange mental condition that I crashed into three hours before, when my eyes shocked my mind.
The experience with which my own years of astigmatism and nearsightedness was inaugurated is named in the textbooks a psychic amaurosis. That means a blindness in which there is no apparent change in the eye tissues. There is a similar condition called amblyopia, in which there is a dimness in any degree up to blindness. Either of these conditions may be temporary or permanent. Try to realize the significance of such conduct in an eye which shows no cause, in the eye itself, for the terrible calamity. The same conditions are found even when there is no apparent change any place in the body that might be a cause. Both of these conditions therefore, may come without any apparent cause. This means that certainly they must be caused by some condition in the mind; and that is why they are described as psychic. They often disappear as they came, without any warning and without any explanation except that their conduct is determined by the mind. Does this not make it plain that the simpler, common dysfunctions of the mechanism of vision are also caused by abnormal conditions in the visual center in the brain?