You blink 15–20 times per minute. If you watch a 150-minute movie, that translates to about 15 minutes worth of screen time. That's a lot of Middle Earth to miss! (No wonder the Eye of Sauron never blinks.) Don't worry though: Studies suggest that our brains have figured out a way to compensate.

Blink and You'll Miss It

For every few tenths of a second it takes to blink, there's a gap in information that your brain has to fill in. Add that up to the amount of movie plot missed, and it's a wonder we can keep the storyline straight. For a 2009 study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, University of Tokyo researchers led by Tamani Nakano sought to figure out how moviegoers are able to fully understand a film when they lose about 15 minutes blinking. The researchers divided study participants into groups and played them clips from either a silent comedy, an aquarium film with no narrative, or an audiobook.

The results showed that the group watching the silent comedy blinked in near-unison about 30 percent of the time. The aquarium and audiobook groups had no such synchronized blinking. The researchers suspect that this was likely not a coincidence because the synchronized blinks happened during "non-critical" parts of the film, such as after action sequences or when the main character couldn't be seen.

"We all commonly find implicit breaks for blinking while viewing a video story," Nakano says. It just so happens that those breaks are surprisingly similar from person to person.

A few years later, Nakano hit upon why: When people blink during a film, they momentarily decrease activity in the attention-centric parts of their brains but increase activity in the default mode network. That's the part that turns on when you stop paying attention and let your mind wander. "The results suggest that eyeblinks are actively involved in the process of attentional disengagement," Nakano and his team concluded.

You Can't Believe Your Eyes

Movies aren't the only time our brains find the perfect places to blink. Nakano has also found that blinks sync up during conversation, for instance. And in 2016, Nakano teamed up with psychologist and magician Richard Wiseman for a study they published in the journal PeerJ, which showed that people also synchronized their blinks when watching a magic trick. According to the study, those blinks happened most often "after a seemingly impossible feat, and often coincided with actions that the magician wanted to conceal from the audience." Sounds pretty convenient to us.

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For more from Richard Wiseman, check out "101 Bets You Will Always Win: Jaw-Dropping Illusions, Remarkable Riddles, Scintillating Science Stunts, and Cunning Conundrums That Will Astound and Amaze Everyone You Know." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer May 1, 2017

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