When you blink, you miss a fraction of a second of the world around you. But for a racing driver who speeds up to 354 kilometers per hour, that fraction could mean the difference between life and death. That’s why racing drivers have developed a remarkable skill: they blink at the same points on each circuit, avoiding critical moments when they need to focus on changing speed or direction.
This is the finding of a study that used eye trackers to record the blinking patterns of three professional drivers on three Formula circuits in Japan. The study, published in the journal iScience, revealed that the drivers had a shared pattern of blinking that had a strong connection with acceleration. They blinked less when they drove faster and mostly blinked on straightaways rather than curves.
The researchers, led by cognitive neuroscientist Ryota Nishizono at NTT Communication Science Laboratories in Atsugi, Japan, were surprised to see such consistent blinking patterns across the three drivers. They speculated that this could reflect their similar cognitive states as they control the car.
“Blinking is a part of our visual system,” says Jonathan Matthis, a neuroscientist at Northeastern University in Boston who studies human movement and was not involved in the research. “We think of blinking as this nothing behavior, but it’s not just wiping the eyes.”
Blinking lubricates our eyes, but how it links to other aspects of our health are unclear. Studying this further could help us better understand conditions where blinking rates change, such as Parkinson’s disease. We generally blink 12 times per minute, with each blink lasting around one-third of a second. Our blinking rate has been linked to the attention we give a certain task, with some people blinking less when they concentrate on a screen.
“Many people think that blinking is done solely to moisten the eyes, but only a few blinks per minute suffice for this purpose,” says Nishizono, who was inspired to study how humans process information during physical activity by his past as a professional racing cyclist. He was surprised to find almost no literature on blinking behavior in active humans even though under extreme conditions like motor racing or cycling, “a slight mistake could lead to life-threatening danger.”
Nishizono next wants to explore what processes in the brain allow or inhibit blinking in a given moment, he says, and is also interested in how blinking behavior varies among the general population.
“Factors affecting the timing of eyeblinks are numerous and not fully understood,” says Omar Mahroo of University College London. Better understanding blinking could increase our knowledge of conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, which is associated with a reduced blinking rate, and blepharospasm – eyelid twitching or blinking that a person can’t control, he says.