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Synchronized blinking and shared attention to video stories

September 29, 2013 0 Comments

Vaughan over at Mind Hacks published a post about how we tend to synchronize our blinking when watching video stories.  He strongly endorses a podcast on the subject, which I confess I haven’t listened to yet.

But I did have a chance to download the referenced study by Nakano et al. entitled “Synchronization of spontaneous eyeblinks while viewing video stories”.  It is available online via Proceedings of the Royal Society, here.

movie-theater-audienceAside from the fact that the study uses videos of “Mr. Bean“, which makes it path-breaking on that account alone, it presents some really intriguing findings about when and why we blink and how blinking patterns provide important clues about what we find interesting and what we implicitly decide we can miss.

First of all, blinking is a big interrupter in our visual processing regimen.  The authors estimate that about 10% of total viewing time is lost to blinking.  So we should not be surprised to learn that we blink somewhat strategically, albeit nonconsciously.  The authors hypothesize:

When watching video stories … it is reasonable to expect that blinks are likely to occur at the explicit breaks of scenes. However, given that the scene length is unpredictable, there should also be an appropriate timing for blinking within a scene. If we possess a mechanism for controlling the timing of blinks that searches for an implicit break from visual streams, the blink would become synchronized not only at the explicit scene breaks but also at the implicit breaks.

And this is what they find.  Using some clever techniques to identify and isolate spontaneous blink rates and different blink patterns among individuals, they find significant “synchronization of blink timing within and across individuals at implicit breaks in video stories.”

Our results suggest that humans share a mechanism for controlling the timing of blinks that searches for the appropriate timing to prevent the loss of critical information from the flow of visual information. This excellent control of blink generation may be closely related to the visual attentional system and contributes to stable visual perception and awareness across the interruptions of blinks.

So when do we blink together?  In their scene-by-scene dissection of the inimitable Mr. Bean (”the main character put a brick on the accelerator pedal of the car and began to take off his pyjama trousers”), they discover that we don’t just blink when the scenes change, but when there is a cognitive break in the action.  Synchronized blinking occurs when the main character leaves the scene, when a visual is repeated, or when the camera cuts from a closeup to a long shot.  As we watch, we are implicitly predicting when important information is least likely to be lost, and we are grabbing our blinks – together – at those points in time.

Interestingly, synchronized blinking does not occur for videos that have no intrinsic story, nor does it occur when we are listening to a story, rather than watching it.

The implications for research on commercial video products is obvious.  Whether you’re interesting in ads, movie trailers, TV programs, or full-length films, synchronized blinking could be used to identify the “book ends” of meaningful segments of cognitive activity – attention, engagement, and interest.  As a research tool, this approach is simple, inexpensive, and elegant.  It certainly should give anyone pause who is thinking about running subjects through an fMRI machine to find out how their brains are responding to video material.

On that last point, I recommend the hyperlinked post above from The Neurocritic, who provides some well-deserved criticism of simplistic fMRI solutions currently getting more play than they deserve in the popular media.  Also this post about some more serious fMRI research in this area.

Nakano T, Yamamoto Y, Kitajo K, Takahashi T, & Kitazawa S (2009). Synchronization of spontaneous eyeblinks while viewing video stories. Proceedings. Biological sciences / The Royal Society, 276 (1673), 3635-44 PMID: 19640888

Originally posted on my earlier blog, October 12, 2009.

Filed in: Science • Tags: ,

About the Author:

Steve is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. He is Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting.

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