Blink in Sync



A typical person blinks 15 to 20 times a minute, constituting as much as 10% of our waking hours, according to Smithsonian magazine. That’s a lot of time to have one’s eyes closed, especially, say, when watching a movie. Take a silent film, for example. Some of the most important parts come and go in the blink of an eye, so to speak, and perhaps text flashes on screen so briefly that if you blink, you just may miss it. Does the world actually pass us by as we blink?

Probably not, because our brains are just too smart for that.

In 2009, researchers at the University of Tokyo ended up, accidentally, investigating this exact problem. The lead researcher, Tamani Nakamo, wanted to know how moviegoers managed to understand a 150-minute film when they lost as much as 15 minutes of information due to blinking. His team, according to New Scientist, enlisted three groups of test subjects while researchers watched for blinks. One group watched a clip from a silent comedy, another viewed part of an aquarium film with no narrative, while the third listened to a section from an audiobook. Each group, after having their blinks recorded, then watched/listened to the same clip again, with a second set of blinks also recorded by Nakamo’s team.

Nakamo wanted to see if individuals have unique blinking patterns — that is, he wanted to know if we each have our own internal cadence. He figured that if the test subjects followed the same blinking pattern during the first viewing and the second, then maybe there was something there. (He used three different types of inputs — silent movie, audio-only movie with no plot, and an audiobook — to control for variances there.) But the sheer number of blinks made it difficult to determine if that was happening intentionally (albeit subconsciously) or if any correlation was simply due to dumb luck.

But his work was not all for naught, as he and his team stumbled across a much more interesting nugget: The group watching the silent comedy blinked in near unison and about 30% of the time — while the other two groups rarely if ever did. New Scientist explained that this wasn’t likely to be a random occurrence, either:

The synchronized blinks occurred at “non-critical” points during the silent movie – at the conclusion of an action sequence or when the main character had disappeared from view. “We all commonly find implicit breaks for blinking while viewing a video story,” Nakano says.

Of course, there’s a better reason why we probably don’t miss much at the movies. Movies are shot at 24 frames per second, so even if a blink takes a fifth of a second, we’re only missing a tiny fraction of content, and our brains can likely fill in any tiny gaps. (See the “From the Archives link below for more on that.) But regardless, the synchronization itself may portend some future developments into how our brains work — even if movies have little to do with it. As another researcher told New Scientist, it “implies that there’s something common to everyone that is triggering the blinks,” and may help us better understand how people typically perceive and process information.

Bonus Fact: When it comes to blinking, humans apparently have something in common with fireflies. They, too, blink in unison. Their reason, though, is different — it happens so the male fireflies can find a mate. As Discovery explains: “a new study shows that when male fireflies synchronize their flashes, it helps their female counterparts to find males of her own species among the other species of fireflies flitting about on warm summer evenings. When she sees males flashing together in the right pattern, she can then answer with her ‘come hither’ counter flash.”

From the ArchivesTemporary Blindness: During the day, we all go blind for a bit, here and there.

Related: “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s not really about blinking, though.