Eye blinks are perceived as communicative signals in human face-to-face interaction

PLoS One. 2018 Dec 12;13(12):e0208030. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0208030. eCollection 2018.


In face-to-face communication, recurring intervals of mutual gaze allow listeners to provide speakers with visual feedback (e.g. nodding). Here, we investigate the potential feedback function of one of the subtlest of human movements-eye blinking. While blinking tends to be subliminal, the significance of mutual gaze in human interaction raises the question whether the interruption of mutual gaze through blinking may also be communicative. To answer this question, we developed a novel, virtual reality-based experimental paradigm, which enabled us to selectively manipulate blinking in a virtual listener, creating small differences in blink duration resulting in 'short' (208 ms) and 'long' (607 ms) blinks. We found that speakers unconsciously took into account the subtle differences in listeners' blink duration, producing substantially shorter answers in response to long listener blinks. Our findings suggest that, in addition to physiological, perceptual and cognitive functions, listener blinks are also perceived as communicative signals, directly influencing speakers' communicative behavior in face-to-face communication. More generally, these findings may be interpreted as shedding new light on the evolutionary origins of mental-state signaling, which is a crucial ingredient for achieving mutual understanding in everyday social interaction.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Blinking / physiology*
  • Communication*
  • Empathy / physiology
  • Facial Recognition / physiology*
  • Feedback, Sensory / physiology*
  • Female
  • Healthy Volunteers
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Verbal Behavior / physiology*
  • Virtual Reality
  • Young Adult

Grant support

This research was funded by the European Research Council (Advanced Grant #269484 INTERACT awarded to Prof. Levinson) and the Max Planck Gesellschaft. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.