Aldous Huxley's "The Art of Seeing"


The Art of Seeing and The Bates Method in Visual Literacy

Summary: In Aldous Huxley’s “The Art of Seeing” he describes his vision problems and a set of exercises known as the Bates Method which allegedly helped him see better. He also critiques the orthodox approach to corrective vision, stating that seeing is both a physical and psychological process and that the common approach to improving vision, corrective lenses, acts only as a crutch which attempts to treat the symptom without addressing the underlying causes while also often failing to take into account individual variations in the possible causes of vision problems resulting in a one size fits all solution. Mr. Huxley claims that his use of exercises within the Bates Method have improved his vision to the point where despite previously being nearly blind he was capable of reading without the use of glasses under certain condition.

Description: The main point of this book is that there is more to seeing than simply sensing imagery. As Huxley argues seeing is also dependent upon memory and one’s ability to interpret said imagery. For a long time the Bates Method has thought to have been refuted because it has been shown both that Mr. Bate’s explanations of what causes vision problems, strained muscles on the outside of the eye, were false, and that his exercises were shown not to have objectively improved how the eye sensed light, they could not reduce what is referred to as refractive error. However people other than Huxley have reported improvements in eyesight from this method and as Huxley’s writing would suggest there is more to vision than refractive error. As such alternative interpretations of the reported successes of the Bates Method are warranted. The exercises included within the Bates Method include the following: palming, or the closing of the eyes for several minutes to relax the eyes, visualization, or the imagining and remembering of mental imagery, movement, the deliberate shifting of the eye’s field of vision, and sunning, the deliberate exposure of the eye to sunlight. Of these listed exercises two stand out as potentially improving vision without reducing refractive error: visualization and shifting. By attempting to recall an image of what one is looking at one may be able to improve visual memory and more accurately interpret what they see without actually seeing it more clearly, also by attempting to control the movement of the eyes, which tend to move rapidly regardless, one may be able to more effectively focus on an image. The problem of testing the effectiveness of such methods is that because it is of a more psychological than physical nature the ability of one to accurately interpret their vision is highly subjective and not easily measured, which other variables to control for are not certain as a number of factors outside of vision problems may affect these factors, and there is always the risk of getting a false positive because people may believe they see better without actually seeing better. As such the effectiveness of these exercises is highly subjective and by no means reliable. Some behavioral optometrists still apply the Bates Method but it is recommended that it be done only as a supplement to mainstream medicine and that the sunning portion of the exercises be excluded as direct sunlight can permanently damage the eyes.

Statement:  The importance of this book stems from the acknowledgement of the role of psychology in seeing things. There is more to visual communications therefore than simply making an image for the eyes to perceive, it has to accommodate the mind of the person being communicated to. That is to say you are not merely making something to be perceived when visually communicating, you are fundamentally making something to be thought about. Something that is recognizable through someone’s visual memory and something which can be visually interpreted both in form and in content. As Mr. Huxley states, the more you know the more you see, but the converse is also true, the more you see the more you know. Within your visual communication there will inevitably be some information or meaning beyond the image itself for the person seeing to find. This makes visual communication a very powerful tool, by influencing what people see, you influence what they know, and by influencing what they know you further influence what they see. Seeing is not just what allows us to appreciate art but is in itself an art constantly and necessarily performed by all people whether they realize it or not.

Bates, William. Perfect Sight Without Glasses. New York: Central Fixation Publishing, 1920.

Huxley, Aldous. The Art of Seeing. London: Chatto & Windus, 1943.

Pollack, Phillip. The Truth About Eye Exercises. Philidelphia: Chilton Company, 1956.