If you’re reading this article, odds are you’re wearing contacts or glasses. I am: without them, I’m legally blind, 4 times over. I have 20/900 vision, which means I can see at 20 feet what normal people can see at 900 feet.
I’ve had poor vision since I was 5 years old. Since then, the change from bad to worse has been languidly gradual. As a result I’ve never really noticed it: yearly adjustments in prescription are like outgrowing old sneakers. So last semester, when I visited the Yale eye clinic to check out some normal annoyances (floaters and the occasional shooting star), I expected a dutiful, unexciting prognosis. Instead, the ophthalmologist hit me with congenital retinal syndrome: I have lattice degeneration, “white with pressure” around the edges, and a possible polyp. Because of my high myopia, the diagnosis puts me at risk for retinal detachment.
My ophthalmologist told me I couldn’t do anything. I tried buying sports goggles, supplementing my diet with bioflavonoids, even starting Yan Bao Jian Cao, Chinese eye exercises in which you rub the skin around your eyes to increase circulation. But a part of me was resigned to accept my genetics, and enjoy the time I had before my total ocular breakdown.
Then, I stumbled on vision therapy. If you look up the first few links on Google, you’ll find amateur and sparse websites. A lot of it sounds more like quack science — parapsychology-esque — than an actual medical field. But its promise is compelling for almost all of us: supposedly, it has the power to reverse myopia.
Appelbaum and Hoopes, in their self-help guide “Eye Power,” argue that myopia is caused by “intense close work” when we read. Because we have to simultaneously see the symbols on the page and translate them into meaningful ideas, we focus too intensely on one object, closing our visual system “as if … aiming a rifle.” As a result, our total visual coordination degrades. Eyestrain, headaches and double vision occur because we’ve never been trained exactly how to see. Vision therapy’s job is to integrate vision with the rest of our senses.
Vision therapy offers some useful tips on “visual hygiene”: do all close reading at Harmon distance (the distance between your elbow and middle knuckle), a short distance; occasionally look off at a specific distant object while reading (preferably after every page); tilt books up 20 degrees; be conscious of the background of the objects you look at; and sit upright.
They also recommend a daily regimen of eye aerobics: stretch your eyes by rotating them in a circle; then focus on a distant object using your peripheral vision. More advanced exercises have catchy names, like Thumb Pursuits, where you cover one eye and move one thumb randomly, following your thumb while maintaining focus on the surrounding objects; Marsden Ball Technique, where you suspend a rubber ball to the ceiling and spin it, then try to hit it with a pencil; and Bilateral Motor Equivalents, where you draw circles with both hands at the same time, presumably on a chalkboard.
What vision therapy wants to do — “facilitate better communication between the eyes and the brain” — is most effective with professional help. Behavioral optometrists will use training lenses like “doubling prism glasses” to strengthen your ability to shift from near to far focus. Since traditional lenses don’t correct eyesight — they “merely make up for it” — a vision therapist will proscribe “therapeutic lenses,” which align the body and the mind.
Vision therapy isn’t accepted by the mainstream. The National Institute of Health notes there is no scientific evidence that vision exercises slow down or reverse myopia. But despite the empirical pessimism, my parents told me that my grandmother does Yan Bao Jian Cao every day, looking onto a green bamboo forest in China. Over the years, she’s reversed her myopia. So I’ve started vision therapy — the DIY eye aerobics, at least. I’ll miss one or two days, too tired from work to force my eyes through more acrobatics, but I’m getting better about making it a habit. Learning is a gradual process. And while I realize I might never see results, there’s a definite a placebo effect; I feel as if I have more agency. And given the personal success stories I’ve read online and heard about, it’s a comforting to know that my eyes have a moving, fighting chance to become stronger. Vision therapy might not be a panacea, but right now, it’s my glimmer of hope.
Peter Lu is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Thursdays.