Each time you blink, the world goes dark for about one-fifth of a second. Most people hardly notice that blip of blindness. But race car drivers zoom at up to 354 kilometers (220 miles) per hour. For them, that sliver of a second means almost 20 meters (65 feet) of lost vision. People blink up to 30 times every minute. At that rate, a racer could lose nearly 600 meters — more than a third of a mile — of visual information per minute. A new study shows drivers have a way of coping with this challenge.
Scientists usually assume that people blink at random times. But brain researcher Ryota Nishizono was surprised to find that blinking in sports hasn’t been studied much. Nishizono used to be a professional racing cyclist. In a race, “a slight mistake could lead to life-threatening danger,” he explains. So he thought the timing of blinking could be important.
Nishizono works at NTT Communication Science Laboratories in Atsugi, Japan. He and other researchers worked with a Japanese car-racing team. To test how people blink during high-speed driving, the scientists put eye trackers on the helmets of three drivers. Then the drivers went through three Formula race circuits for a total of 304 laps.
The drivers’ blinking was surprisingly predictable. They often blinked at the same spots on the course during each lap. These tended to be on relatively safer, straight parts of the course. Drivers usually didn’t blink while changing speed or direction. Nor did they blink much while going around curves, the researchers found. They reported their findings in the May 19 iScience.
People need to blink often enough to keep our eyes moist while not losing vision during important tasks, says Jonathan Matthis. He studies human movement at Northeastern University in Boston, Mass., 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 says he next wants to explore how the brain controls blinking in a given moment. He’s also interested in how blinking varies among regular people.
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