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The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Eye-Blink

Her eyelids were flickering rapidly, like moth wings. --PHILIP MARLOWE (of Vivian Regan), The Big Sleep
"My God," he whispered. He blinked rapidly and turned his face away. "I . . . don't understand. It never occurred to me that I might be stealing someone else's idea." --Shadow of a Broken Man (Chesbro 1977:30)


Sign. A rapid closing and opening of the eyes.

Usage: Our blink rate reflects psychological arousal in the manner of a polygraph test. The normal, resting blink rate of a human is 20 closures per minute, with the average blink lasting one quarter of a second (Karson 1992). Significantly faster rates may reflect emotional stress, as aroused, e.g., in the fight-or-flight response.




E-Commentary: "Today on NBC's Today Show Matt Lauer talked about how Madonna had lied to him about her announced pregnancy just the other day. He showed the video and her response, but he missed something to ponder about. She did what I call the eyelash flutter (different, under high speed camera, from the eye-blink: we can see that it does not close completely and the speed is amazing) when asked, 'Are you pregnant?' I first observed this eyelid behavior in 1985, and find that people who are troubled by a question or an event do this, especially if they have to answer and are about to lie. I tell attorneys to look for the eyelash flutter when they have people on the stand; it means they really do not like the question at all. I even had a case where the individual picked out the route of escape for me when I went through several routes with him; I just waited for the flutter to pick out the way." --Joe Navarro, Special Agent, FBI (3/21/00 7:02:26 PM Pacific Standard Time, and subsequent)



Primatology."Eye-blinking is another well-known primate movement. The moment you have the least little bit of stress, the eyelids blink, bang! bang! bang!" (Niko Tinbergen, in a 1974Psychology Today interview)

U.S. Politics. In the 1996 presidential debates, candidate Bob Dole averaged 147 blinks--seven times above normal. President Bill Clinton averaged 99 blinks a minute, reaching 117 when asked about increases in teen drug use, a sensitive issue of the day (Tecce 1996).


RESEARCH REPORTS1. In mental patients, eye-blink rates rise with anxious or tense topics, and with changes to a new topic (Kanfer 1960). 2. "The eye blink has been found to occur during vocalizations at the beginning of words and utterances, usually with the initial vowel of the word . . ." (Condon and Ogston 1967:229). 3. The average rate for someone speaking on TV is 31 to 50 blinks a minute--twice the relaxed rate (Tecce 1996).

Neuroanatomy. The blink reflex originates in paleocircuits of the amphibian brain. Nervous impulses travel from vision centers of the superior colliculi to the facial nerve's motor nucleus, causing involuntary contractions in the eyelid portion of orbicularis oculi muscles.
Neuro-notes. We blink faster when excited because eyelid movements reflect bodily arousal levels established by our brain stem's reticular activating system (RAS). Emotion from thelimbic system stimulates the RAS to act on our midbrain's substantia nigra, which releases the excitatory chemical, dopamine, to the superior colliculi (Karson 1992:417). Thus, we bat our eyelids faster in courtship (see LOVE SIGNALS III), when speaking in public (see STRANGER ANXIETY), and when lying (see DECEPTION).
See also FACIAL FLUSHING.