We all do it. Your mom, your dad, your siblings, even grandma does it. Of course, I’m talking about blinking. (What else would I be talking about?) Blinking is an involuntary and necessary function for your eyes. But, why? And, how long can we go without blinking? Well, buckle up, because we’re about to find out.
Why do we blink?
We blink a lot. The average person blinks around 15-20 times per minute, meaning roughly 10% of waking hours are actually spent with our eyes closed. Blinking serves to clear away foreign particles, like dust, and keep eyes safe from potentially damaging stimuli, like bright lights. In the process of blinking, the eyelids spread lubricating fluid across the eyeballs and keeps them from drying out. In windy or smoky environments, your rate of blinking goes up considerably to help protect your eyes in those more severe situations.
Similarly, the rate of blinking lowers during certain activities too. Scientists say the timing of your blinks can actually become predictable. Most readers tend to blink after each sentence is finished, and a person listening to a speech often blinks when the speaker pauses between statements. Additionally, a group of people watching the same video tend to all blink around the same time as well, whenever there is a lull in the action. This gives scientists clues that there might be more to blinking than we previously thought; blinking may be used as a sort of “mental resting point,” to briefly shut off outside visual stimuli and focus our attention.
Why don’t we notice when we blink?
With all the time we apparently spend with our eyes closed, you would think we would notice gaps in our day. However, our brain is pretty well-trained to ignore the momentary blackouts. The “blink of an eye” only lasts about one-tenth of a second. During that time, the human brain actually suppresses activity in multiple areas that are responsible for detecting changes in your environment. Thus, your brain basically ignores the blinking, and you perceive your experience of the world to be continuous.
Do you have to blink?
Yes, you do have to blink. Although, scientists do think we typically blink more frequently than necessary for just eye lubrication. However, that doesn’t mean you should force yourself to blink less.
Not blinking causes eye strain and irritation, making the eyes redden and water the longer you go without blinking. Not to mention, extended time between blinking gives dust and foreign particles more opportunities to get into your eyes. Plus, it’s just uncomfortable. In a 2012 televised staring contest in Australia, competitor Fergal “Eyesore” Fleming said around 35 minutes in, it felt "like getting a tattoo on my eyeball.” Yikes.
Depending on what you’re looking at, lower rates of blinking can be more dangerous to your eyes as well. For instance, we already know that the rate of blinking lowers while reading. This also applies to reading on screens. Blue light emitted from your screen, combined with the lower rate of blinking can contribute to increased eye strain, as well as a slew of other effects.
How long can you go without blinking?
While the Guinness Book of World Records doesn’t actually have an official record for the longest time without blinking, there are plenty of unofficial records floating around on the internet. The most recent, and most notable, was from an actor, comedian, and TV host in the Philippines. Paolo Ballesteros went one hour, 17 minutes and three seconds without blinking during an on-air contest in 2019. He beat out his co-star (who lasted a still-impressive 30 minutes, 44 seconds) and the previous “unofficial record” which was about one hour and 5 minutes.
We already know that, scientifically, it’s probably not that great to go that long without blinking. But, it seems humans constantly push the limits on what we can do further. This record is pretty recent, but who knows who is out there testing how long they can keep their eyes open to achieve a new record. Personally, I can’t even make it one minute before my eyes force themselves closed. How long can you go without blinking?
Blinking is an important function that not only keeps your eyes safe, lubricated, and free of foreign particles, but also might serve to help your brain process information. In my eyes (no pun intended), anything that your body does involuntarily is probably there for a purpose. So, unless you are the next unofficial-staring-contest-world-record hopeful, I would just blink whenever your body tells you to.If you happen to be venturing into a great, dusty unknown - you don’t have to rely on just your blinks for eye comfort. Don’t forget a pair of sunglasses to help improve eye comfort and block some more dust from getting in your eyeballs.