December 24, 2012
We all blink. A lot. The average person blinks some 15-20 times per minute—so frequently that our eyes are closed for roughly 10% of our waking hours overall.
Although some of this blinking has a clear purpose—mostly to lubricate the eyeballs, and occasionally protect them from dust or other debris—scientists say that we blink far more often than necessary for these functions alone. Thus, blinking is physiological riddle. Why do we do it so darn often? In a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of scientists from Japan offers up a surprising new answer—that briefly closing our eyes might actually help us to gather our thoughts and focus attention on the world around us.
The researchers came to the hypothesis after noting an interesting fact revealed by previous research on blinking: that the exact moments when we blink aren’t actually random. Although seemingly spontaneous, studies have revealed that people tend to blink at predictable moments. For someone reading, blinking often occurs after each sentence is finished, while for a person listening to a speech, it frequently comes when the speaker pauses between statements. A group of people all watching the same video tend to blink around the same time, too, when action briefly lags.
As a result, the researchers guessed that we might subconsciously use blinks as a sort of mental resting point, to briefly shut off visual stimuli and allow us to focus our attention. To test the idea, they put 10 different volunteers in an fMRI machine and had them watch the TV show “Mr. Bean” (they had used the same show in their previous work on blinking, showing that it came at implicit break points in the video). They then monitored which areas of the brain showed increased or decreased activity when the study participants blinked.
Their analysis showed that when the Bean-watchers blinked, mental activity briefly spiked in areas related to the default network, areas of the brain that operate when the mind is in a state of wakeful rest, rather than focusing on the outside world. Momentary activation of this alternate network, they theorize, could serve as a mental break, allowing for increased attention capacity when the eyes are opened again.
To test whether this mental break was simply a result of the participants’ visual inputs being blocked, rather than a subconscious effort to clear their minds, the researchers also manually inserted “blackouts” into the video at random intervals that lasted roughly as long as a blink. In the fMRI data, though, the brain areas related to the default network weren’t similarly activated. Blinking is something more than temporarily not seeing anything.
It’s far from conclusive, but the research demonstrates that we do enter some sort of altered mental state when we blink—we’re not just doing it to lubricate our eyes. A blink could provide a momentary island of introspective calm in the ocean of visual stimuli that defines our lives.
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