The world goes dark for about one-fifth of a second every time you blink, a fraction of an instant that’s hardly noticeable to most people. But for a Formula One race car driver traveling up to 354 kilometers per hour, that one-fifth means almost 20 meters of lost vision.
Considering how often people blink (up to 30 times every minute), a driver could lose as much as 595 meters — over a third of a mile — worth of visual information per minute due to blinking.
People are often thought to blink at random intervals, but researchers found that wasn’t the case for three Formula One drivers. Instead, the drivers tended to blink at the same parts of the course during each lap, cognitive neuroscientist Ryota Nishizono and colleagues report in the May 19 iScience.
Nishizono, of NTT Communication Science Laboratories in Atsugi, Japan, 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 says. So he partnered with a Japanese Formula car racing team to examine how humans blink during high-speed driving.
Nishizono and colleagues mounted eye trackers on the helmets of three drivers and had them drive three Formula circuits — Fuji, Suzuka and Sugo — for a total of 304 laps.
Where the drivers blinked was surprisingly predictable, the team found. The drivers had a shared pattern of blinking that had a strong connection with acceleration, such that drivers tended not to blink while changing speed or direction — like while on a curve in the track — but did blink while on relatively safer straightaways.
The finding highlights the trade-off between keeping our eyes moist and not losing vision during crucial tasks, 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,” he says, “but it’s not just wiping the eyes. Blinking is a part of our visual system.”
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.