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Apr 29
Blink
Image by ballookey via Flickr

Not that this has anything to do with anything, but the average human blinks close to ten million times a year, roughly 800 hour’s worth of shut-eye whilst remaining awake. If as a triathlete you were to train this much each year, you would likely perform better on race day. The moral of the story? Open your eyes and get training.

This quote is form Chuckie V. blog. He is a triathlon coach, and former pro triathlete.

Are we blinking our life away ?

His joking quote got me thinking, 800 hours a year that is a lot of blinking. What would you do if you were given 800 free hours each year to do anything you want?

(first I wanted to do a quick check on his calculations. Blink rate: range of 2-30 per minute with the average often quoted as 10. The average blink takes 300-400 milliseconds - so for fun say 350ms average. Therefore, per minute are eyes are closed in blink 10 x 350ms = 3,500ms. Since 1,000ms = 1 second on average are eyes are closed 3.5 seconds out of each minute. Assuming being awake 16 hours a day and sleeping 8 hours I calculate 56 minutes each day is lost to blinking, and hence 340 hours each year - but this is for a 10 per minute blinker. Maybe Chuckie blinks at slightly more than 20 per minute, which would put him in the range of 800 hours each year :)

Being an easily distracted neuroscientist I had actually read a few articles about some neuroscience behind blinking. While we might all know that the function of blinking is to lubricate the eye, there is at least another level to the story.

Blinking rate correlated with cognitive flexibility:

One theory suggest that people who have a high blinking rate have better cognitive flexibility, but decreased cognitive stability (easily distracted) when compared to those with a lower blinking rate (Dreisbach et al., 2005). Levels of prefrontal cortex dopamine is thought to be involved in blinking rate (though like any interesting science there is some controversy). The general thought from previous papers is the higher the level of dopamine the higher the rate of spontaneous eye blink.

But beyond just blinking of the eyes, is there a brain blink (I know sounds a bit crazy), and are the two blinks related?

Attentional blink:

If two things are presented at a fast rate (sounds like our modern digital world) there might be a reduced ability to detect the second thing presented if the time between them is too short (between 200 - 500 ms). Meaning that most of us have no problem if the time between presented objects is longer than 500ms. So even if your eyes don’t blink your mind blinks and you may miss rapidly presented information. Dopamine is also thought to be involved in the attentional blink - interesting (Colzato et al., 2008). Previous work had found that a shorter attentional blink (AB) is correlated with better working memory (Arnell et al., 2008, Colzato et al., 2007). Think of a shorter AB meaning you can detect two objects very close in time - meaning your attentional blink was not screwing up your recognition of the two objects.

Even more interesting is that Colzato et al., (2008) found that eye blink rate predicted the mind’s attentional blink. Subjects with highest blink rate had a smaller attentional blink (in this case a smaller attentional blink is a good thing). As an aside, there was a fair bit of variability in spontaneous eye blink rate - in this study ranging from around 2.4 to 31.8 blinks per minute (see above eye blink calculations).

The authors argue that higher prefrontal cortex levels of dopamine is related to higher blink rates, shorter attentional blink times, and better working memory.

Take home:

But Chuckie would of course tell you this all comes at a cost - you are ’sleeping’ away your life with all that blinking. And at least Dreisbach et al., 2005 might tell us there is a cost to the high dopamine, high eye blinking rate and this is maybe these people might be prone to be easily distracted (though there are many variables including the amount and type of dopamine receptors and the exact task being tested - so hard to draw any firm conclusions. Fascinating field of research but not straighforward).

Maybe Chuckie is on to something, if you want to be a focused athelete a high blink rate with its easy distractibility and all those lost hours each year would be deterimental to your training, and hence performance. Maybe a slower cow like blink rate and a dedicated focus on putting in the hours of training is the likely key to success. You have to put the hours of work in.

But of couse this was mainly a light hearted post. But don’t waste your life - either by ’sleeping’ it away, or by being too easily distracted.

Open your eyes and get out there and do something with your life.

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