How to use blinking to control time and improve your attention and focus

There are many ways we can improve our attention and focus through simple activities and approaches.

Andrew Huberman’s excellent podcast Huberman Lab has many great insights, a lot of them packed into this more than 2 hour session on ADHD & How Anyone Can Improve Their Focus.

From 1:22:50 he shares these fascinating insights about how we can consciously control our blinking, and through this not just our attention and focus, but also our perception of time:

You can do fast, what are called spontaneous blinks and they’re always coordinated between the two eyes or you can do long blinks like when you go to sleep at night, you do one very long blink, and I’m not being facetious. When you go to sleep at night, you are shutting your eyelids and you are limiting the amount of information coming in and your perception of time starts to drift as you go into sleep. Your perception of time changes from very fast, at one moment to very slow meaning the frame rate at which you are analyzing information dreaming, et cetera, is variable when you were in sleep, sometimes it’s very fast. Meaning you experienced things in slow motion.

Sometimes it’s very fast. In waking to your experience of time can sometimes be very fast sometimes be very slow. Typically the more alert you are, the higher the frame rate, your thin slicing your experience. You’ve probably had this happen. If you’re ever very stressed and you’re waiting for something or somebody, it seems like it takes forever because your frame rate is higher you’re analyzing time more finely. Conversely, if you are very relaxed or even sleepy, you wake up and you have to think of all the things you have to do. It will seem like the world is going by very, very fast and that you are moving very slow. Time is going at the same rate, but your perception of time is what’s changed. Believe it or not.

Your perception of time is also changed on a rapid basis. Moment to moment basis by how often you blink. This is a well-established literature in the world of neuroscience that unlike the literature and claims about blinking and sociopathy, which have no basis, the science of blinking as it relates to time perception has some very good data to support it. I want to just emphasize one study in particular, which is quite appropriately titled, “Time dilates after spontaneous blinking.”

It’s a wonderful paper. They examine the relationship between fluctuations in timing and blinking and to make a long story short what they found is that right after blinks, we reset our perception of time, okay? So blinks in that sense are a little bit like the curtain coming down on a scene between scenes in a play or takes in a movie, and they clap the clap thing, they started take in our, what do they say, action and then at the end they do the thing and they click it down and they say, it’s a take that’s one take when you blink it’s a take, okay?

Now what’s interesting and will immediately make sense to you as to why this is important is that the rate of blinking is controlled by dopamine. So what this means is that dopamine is controlling attention. Blinks relate to attention and focus, and therefore the dopamine and blinking system is one way that you constantly modulate and update your perception of time and fortunately, it’s also one that you can control. So the basic takeaway of this study was that blinking controls time perception, but also that levels of dopamine can alter your sense of time and stay with me here, and that blinking and dopamine are inextricably linked. They are working together to control your attention. When dopamine levels go up, people tend to overestimate how long something lasted, why? Because they are processing time more finely it’s slow motion mode. When dopamine levels are lower, they tend to underestimate time intervals.

Let’s remember back to the very beginning of the episode, what’s going on in people with ADHD, they are not good at managing their time, they tend to run late, or they are disorganized. They are not just disorganized in space, meaning in that physical space, around them, they’re disorganized in time. Their dopamine is low, we know that as well and so they are underestimating time intervals and so it makes perfect sense that they would be late. It makes perfect sense that they would lose track of time or the ability to focus. This is really exciting because what it means is that children with ADHD, adults, with ADHD or people with normal levels of focus that want to improve their ability to focus can do so through a training that involves learning how often to blink and when, and how to keep their visual focus on a given target and it turns out this study has actually been done.

There’s a study “Improvement of attention in elementary school students through fixation focused training activity.” I won’t go through all the details, but what they found was a short period of focusing on a visual target, allowed the school children to greatly enhance their ability to focus on other types of information and a significant component of the effect was due to the way that they were controlling the shutters on their eyes, their eyelids, and controlling their blinks. So what they did in this study is they had these kids focus their visual attention on some object that was relatively close, like their hand for a minute or so, which actually takes some effort if you try and do that, they were allowed to blink.

However, it’s known from other work that if people can consciously override the desire to blink, at least to the point where they feel like they have to, or else their eyes were dry out, that actually can increase attention even further and they had conditions where they would look at a point further across the room and even further across the room. It only took a few minutes each day to do this 30 seconds in one condition, or maybe a minute and then at another station of looking a little bit further out and a little bit further out.

So on the one hand volitional blinking can increase dopamine release, which can assist states of focus, whereas children who focused without blinking achieved heightened attention. There are no linear relationships between blinking and attentional states, however we can each experiment with how blinking more or less frequently can assist us in entering useful states of focus.

Image: Hartwig HKD

May 20, 2022

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