Sometimes the most basic things remain unknown to us. For example, why do we blink?
“Many people have extensively investigated the eye movement, but most of them did not care about the eye blink,” writes Tamami Nakano, as associate professor at Osaka University in Japan, in an email. “The reason why we generate blinks so frequently has been unknown.”
Unknown, until now? Nakano and her colleagues have been examining this very simple question in recent studies. What they did is ask 20 students to watch Mr. Bean for 30 minutes while in a fMRI scanner. Most eye movement researchers have dismissed blinking simply as an involuntary way to lubricate the eyes, but that is not what Nakano believes. She believes that blinking restarts the brain network.
“The present study indicates that even while we pay attention to the external world, the shift from the external attentional brain network to the internal processing brain network (default mode network) dramatically occurs every time we blink,” Tamami says. “I think that blink is closely related to resetting of the brain network and chunking the flow of visual information for memory.”
Her study shows that blinking is like shifting gears between two different networks in the brain. A person may be watching Mr. Bean in the default mode network, but when they become visually more attentive they will blink and switch to the dorsal attention network.
So why do we blink? It seems it may be a bit more complex than just keeping our eyes clear.