Does blinking too much reveal your boredom?
06 July 2021
Why do we blink?
Did you know that, on average, people blink 13,000 times a day? Typically, this ranges from between eight to 22 times a minute, and the figure varies according to several factors which we’re going to have a look at in this article. The primary function of blinking is to hydrate the eyes and stop them from drying out, but 13,000 blinks is far more than experts believe we need for this. This suggests that blinking has more of a purpose than simply maintaining healthy, lubricated eyes. Recent research shows that blinking could actually subconsciously influence our conversations and social interactions in day to day life.
Length of blinks in social situations
The length of a blink can have a huge impact on your conversational partner’s behaviour and can help or hinder relationships you’re building socially. We all know that maintaining a good level of eye contact shows that you’re interested in a conversation, but you can also convey this message by blinking. Blinking for the right length of time and with the right regularity can show that you’re interested in – and understand – what you’re being told.
A study was carried out to investigate what the length of blinks can suggest, using a life-like human avatar to ask participants questions. The avatars displayed long blinks (607 milliseconds) and short blinks (208 milliseconds), both of which are within the standard range for the average length of a blink. The longer the blink, the shorter the participants’ answers were. The researchers suspect that this is because a longer blink signifies that you understand what someone is saying to you. Therefore, if your conversational partner feels that you already understand them, they are less likely to elaborate and instead will offer shorter answers.
Frequency of blinks when talking, listening and learning
In day-to-day life, most of us are unaware of our blinking habits and find that any changes to our blinking patterns are entirely subconscious. A range of studies over the years have produced several different theories about the frequency of blinks and what it means in different scenarios. These include the opposing suggestions that:
- Blinking a lot when listening or learning shows a lack of interest or engagement....
- .... but we blink more when taking in a lot of information
- We blink at the end of sentences and when we believe the speaker has finished their point
However, the most widely-believed viewpoint on this topic is that we tend to blink much more frequently when we’re working on something that requires less of our attention. This is because with every blink – even if it’s just for a few hundred milliseconds – we risk missing out on information (hence the saying in the blink of an eye!). It makes sense, therefore, that we subconsciously reduce our blinking rate when we’re learning something new, or when we’re working hard to take something on board, for fear of missing crucial information.
Researchers have studied this by giving tasks to groups of participants and then presenting them with a range of information, some of which related directly to their tasks and some which did not. The blink rate of the participants was then analysed and it was found that when they were viewing content they believed was relevant to their tasks, they blinked less, but blinked more when the information was not relevant. This supports one of the hypotheses that blink rate is affected by level of engagement with a task or information.
This same study also looked at the impacts of reading an electric screen versus reading information on paper and found that participants don’t complete a full blink (whereby the lid covers the whole eyeball before reopening) when information is on a screen, as often as they do when reading paper copies. This might suggest that reading on a screen requires more attention, hence participants are subconsciously more reluctant to blink and miss any information.
Blink rates can also be influenced by a number of factors including, but not limited to, anxiety and panic disorders, as well as dry eye disease (DED). However, the aforementioned research has been invaluable when working with individuals with developmental disabilities. Even in scenarios in which the individuals might not express themselves verbally to show understanding, monitoring their blink rate is a great way for teachers and carers to see if they’re engaged with and focusing on content before them.
Blinking and dry eyes
As we briefly touched on above, using electronic screens can result in a higher number of incomplete blinks, over time leading to dry eyes. Essentially, staring at an object when you’re focusing on it for long periods can result in a thinning of the tear film in your eye and eventually lead to tear film break up.
The use of smartphones and digital screens has shot up in recent years, as well as more digital devices now being used in schools. This has led to 42% of children experiencing some kind of deterioration of their meibomian gland function. This is the part of the eye which aids with lubrication and helps to keep the eye hydrated, and these numbers show just how widely-spread the issues of screen-induced reduced blinking and dry eyes are.
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