Why Do We Blink So Much? Blinking Provides Mental Rest, New Research Suggests

Why Do We Blink So Much?
portrait of brown eye of young ...
portrait of brown eye of young ...

Scientists have shown that the average person blinks 15-20 times per minute. That's up to 1,200 times per hour and a whopping 28,800 times in a day--much more often than we need to keep our eyeballs lubricated. In fact, we spend about 10 percent of our waking hours with our eyes closed.

So why do we blink so much?

New research from Japan's Osaka University found that blinking may serve as a form of momentary rest for the brain, giving the mind a chance to wander and "go offline." These brief breaks may last just a split second, or even a few seconds.

When our brains aren't concentrated on a task, brain regions known as the "default mode network" come alive, allowing our mind to switch into an idle mode--a phenomenon researchers discovered decades ago. But how does blinking affect this idle state?

According to the new research, blinking and the brain at rest go hand in hand. In order to understand this phenomenon, scientists monitored the brain activity of 20 healthy subjects in a brain scanner while they watched snippets of a comedy reel.

The researchers found that at points where natural breaks occurred in the video, two things happened: the stop elicited a spontaneous blink in subjects, and the scan showed a dip in the areas of the brain that control focus. For that fleeting moment, the default mode network stepped in to take over for an idle brain.

While our conscious brains may not even detect the stop, the momentary lapse can provide a wakeful reprieve--although perhaps only for a fraction of a second. This new research may help scientists understand the correlation between lying and blinking patterns--it's possible that because lying is an attention-intensive activity, people blink less during deception.

The research was published Dec. 24 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

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