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Blinking plays a crucial role in vision and human perception

Visual perception is deeply linked to the act of blinking. So, have you ever wondered why we blink so much? While it may seem minor, blinking significantly affects our waking hours by impacting our vision.

Humans spend 3 to 8 percent of their time awake with their eyes closed. More than just moisturizing the eyes, blinking plays a critical role in how we see the world.

This connection was the focus of a pivotal study by researchers from the University of Rochester. Their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveal that blinking is crucial for processing visual information, highlighting its essential role in our visual experiences.

Surprising impact of blinking on vision

The study team, led by Michele Rucci, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, investigated the effects of blinking on visual perception.

“By modulating the visual input to the retina, blinks effectively reformat visual information, yielding luminance signals that differ drastically from those normally experienced when we look at a point in the scene,” explains Rucci.

As a result, this modulation allows our brains to receive and interpret visual stimuli in a uniquely beneficial way.

New insights into blinking

Rucci and his team used eye-tracking technologies and computer models to study how blinking affects our vision.

Consequently, their findings challenge the traditional view that blinking only serves to moisten the eyes. Instead, they found that blinking crucially enhances our perception of larger, gradual changes in our environment.

This occurs because the rapid motion of the eyelid during a blink alters the patterns of light reaching the retina. This creates a unique visual signal that aids in processing the overall ‘big picture’ of what we see.

Blinking as a beneficial vision disruptor

The notion that blinking might disrupt visual continuity is a common assumption. However, the research findings suggest otherwise.

“We show that human observers benefit from blink transients as predicted from the information conveyed by these transients,” says Bin Yang, a graduate student in Rucci’s lab and the first author of the paper.

This suggests that blinks actually improve visual processing by providing critical information that compensates for any loss in stimulus exposure during the blink.

Vision: a sensory process aided by movement

The implications of Rucci’s research extend beyond blinking. They contribute to a broader understanding of how vision operates similarly to other senses, such as smell and touch. In these senses, body movements assist in interpreting spatial information.

Thus, this challenges the previously held belief that vision was fundamentally different because spatial information is explicitly available in the image on the retina.

“Our results suggest that this view is incomplete and that vision resembles other sensory modalities more than commonly assumed,” Rucci adds. This new perspective underscores the dynamic interaction between sensory input and motor activities in shaping how we perceive the world.

In summary, the act of blinking, which may seem like a vulnerability in our visual system, is actually a beneficial process that enhances our ability to perceive and process visual information.

By reformatting visual input and providing the brain with information about the overall scene, blinking plays a crucial role in our visual perception.

This research challenges the common assumption that vision is fundamentally different from other senses and highlights the importance of understanding the complex interplay between sensory input and motor activity in human perception.

The full study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


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