The world darkens for about a fifth of a second every time you blink, a fraction of a moment that’s barely noticeable to most people. But for a Formula 1 driver traveling up to 354 kilometers per hour, that fifth means nearly 20 meters of vision loss.
Given how often people blink (up to 30 times per minute), a driver could lose up to 595 meters – more than a third of a mile – of visual information per minute due to blinking .
It’s often thought that people blink at random intervals, but researchers found that wasn’t the case for three Formula 1 drivers. Rather, drivers tended to blink at the same places on the course at every turn, 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 background 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 error could lead to life-threatening danger,” says Nishizono. So he teamed up with a Japanese car racing team to examine how humans blink during high-speed driving.
Nishizono and his colleagues fitted eye trackers to the helmets of three drivers and had them drive three Formula circuits – Fuji, Suzuka and Sugo – for a total of 304 laps.
Where the pilots blinked was surprisingly predictable, the team found. Drivers had a common blinking pattern that had a strong connection to acceleration, so drivers tended not to blink when changing speed or direction – such as around a curve in the track – but blinked on relatively safer straight lines.
The finding highlights the trade-off between keeping our eyes moist and not losing sight 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 consider blinking a behavior of nothing,” he says, “but it’s not just about wiping the eyes. Blinking is part of our visual system.
Nishizono next wants to explore what processes in the brain enable or inhibit blinking at any given time, he says, and is also interested in how blinking behavior varies in the general population.