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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Dec 27;108(52):21270-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1109304108. Epub 2011 Dec 12.

Inhibition of eye blinking reveals subjective perceptions of stimulus salience.

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Department of Psychology and Yale Child Study Center, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520, USA.


Spontaneous eye blinking serves a critical physiological function, but it also interrupts incoming visual information. This tradeoff suggests that the inhibition of eye blinks might constitute an adaptive reaction to minimize the loss of visual information, particularly information that a viewer perceives to be important. To test this hypothesis, we examined whether the timing of blink inhibition, during natural viewing, is modulated between as well as within tasks, and also whether the timing of blink inhibition varies as a function of viewer engagement and stimulus event type. While viewing video scenes, we measured the timing of blinks and blink inhibition, as well as visual scanning, in a group of typical two-year-olds, and in a group of two-year-olds known for attenuated reactivity to affective stimuli: toddlers with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Although both groups dynamically adjusted the timing of their blink inhibition at levels greater than expected by chance, they inhibited their blinking and shifted visual fixation differentially with respect to salient onscreen events. Moreover, typical toddlers inhibited their blinking earlier than toddlers with ASD, indicating active anticipation of the unfolding of those events. These findings indicate that measures of blink inhibition can serve as temporally precise markers of perceived stimulus salience and are useful quantifiers of atypical processing of social affective signals in toddlers with ASD.

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