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Wink! Flirty gesture or facial spasm?

By Diane Mapes

Most people have come to expect a certain amount of wonkiness during an election year, but last week's vice presidential debate offered something new: winkiness.

With a half dozen blinks of her left eye, Republican Sarah Palin raised eyebrows and rampant speculation, inspiring the launch of a new Web site — palinwink.com — and  prompting the British newspaper The Guardian to dub the seemingly flirtatious phenomenon, "Winkgate."

Image: Body Odd

But what exactly is a wink and what does it signify?

[Watch the first wink of the debate by going to msnbc.com's Debate Analyzer and clicking on the question "How would you work to shrink the polarization in Washington?"]

While blinking may be necessary for healthy eyes, winking is generally a deliberate expression of personality and is a learned behavior, like snapping your fingers, rolling your tongue or raising one eyebrow, says Dr. Roy S. Rubinfeld, an ophthalmologist in the Washington, D.C. area and clinical correspondent for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.

"It's normal for us to close our eyes, to blink; that's a natural important element of eye health and is unconscious," he says. "But winking is generally a conscious act, although there are medical reasons that cause people to wink or blink pathologically."

For example, blepharospasm, which causes people to blink or wink in a spasmodic way, is one such condition. Hemifacial spasm, a neurological condition which causes one side of the face to contract, resulting in a pronounced wink which generally involves both the cheek and mouth, is another. Involuntary winks can also be caused by head injuries, particularly those involving the seventh cranial nerve — the nerve which allows you to close your eye. 

But most winks aren't due to any type of medical condition, including Gov. Palin's, says Rubinfeld.

"I would think that winking is something she's done since she was a kid," he says. "It's become part of her personality and her body language."

Interpreting what message Palin was trying to send with that particular bit of body language, however, can be tricky, says David B. Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies and author of "Love Signals: A Practical Field Guide to the Body Language of Courtship."

Winking can be a flirtatious gesture, but it's not always meant to be sexually suggestive, Givens explains. "Winking packs a lot of different meanings," he says. "[It can be] something you do to build rapport. It's a friendly gesture, like laughter. It's mildly flirtatious, but you do it with anybody."

At least in theory.

When President George W. Bush winked at the Queen during a 2007 visit to England in an attempt to cover a verbal gaffe (he'd accidentally suggested she was more than 200 years old), Her Majesty was not amused.

In addition to being a friendly come-on, winks can also imply a knowing deception, that "you don't believe what you're saying," explains Givens. "One guy will promise another guy something at a meeting and then wink to a third guy. He's saying he's not going to follow through. He's being disingenuous."

That's where winking can become a risky choice for a politician, especially when used in a high-profile event such as a national debate.

"Winking is probably something Sarah Palin has done throughout her teenage years and her adult life," says Givens. "She's used it in a flirtatious or rapport-building sense, to get people on her side. But ... to me, it gave [her words] a slightly deceptive ring, like she didn't believe what she was saying."

As ambiguous as a wink may be, other types of body language are generally a reliable barometer of a person's true feelings, says Givens, offering us a window into a politician's moods and emotions. Think of George H.W. Bush famously checking his watch during his 1992 debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot (and again during Laura Bush's address at the 2008 Republican convention). Or Bill Clinton's tightly-compressed lips during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

When it comes to Palin, the governor of Alaska's overall body language and physical appearance are an attention-grabbing signal to men, Given feels.

"The big hair, the makeup, the dress, the smiles, the winks – it's a message that says 'Look at me, I'm attractive," he says."She plays up the feminine signals to a degree that's more noticeable than what you'd see in the average American businesswoman or politician such as Hillary Clinton or Martha Stewart."