Freshman year of high school had finally arrived, and I was filled with a jumble of emotions. Barely fourteen, I was apprehensive about entering a school where I would essentially be insignificant. My heart would pound every time an upperclassman walked by, and I was constantly worrying about pleasing my teachers. In a nutshell, I was a nervous wreck. Every moment was filled with the fear that I would do something embarrassing and be remembered as “that freshman.” Of course, my time came, as it does for everyone during that first year of high school, when I would have given everything to just run and hide.
It was the middle of winter and bitterly cold in my small northwestern town in Ohio. My brother and I pulled into the school parking lot, got out of the car, and cautiously made our way across the blacktop. I kept my eyes focused on the evil black ice that was taunting me, just waiting for me to fall. I was halfway to the door and thought I was home free when I felt my feet slip out from under me. The ice had won, and I flew up into the air, Charlie Brown style, and crashed down on the hard ground. My brother, a senior that year and much too cool to be seen with a lowly freshman, kept right on walking, not even acknowledging that I had just gotten into a fight with the ground and lost. Instantly, I felt my cheeks flush with that embarrassing sensation we have all experienced, more commonly known as blushing. I felt as if every eye was darting in my direction, watching me as I struggled to get up and wipe the dirt off my pants. My face flamed red hot the rest of the day as I relived the moment in my mind wishing I could have been invisible.
We have all had these moments. Everyone has been haunted by the uncomfortable phenomenon of blushing where one minute feels like sixty, and we just want the embarrassment to end. Whether we’re five years old, a freshman in high school, or ninety, we cannot escape the inevitable fact that humans are instilled with the ability to show their emotions by the appearance of their face. We all do it. There is no denying it. Blushing is a part of our way of life. But what I want to know is why? Is there any specific reason why we blush? What purpose does it serve? If it usually is a result of an embarrassing situation, why were we created to possess this interesting phenomenon? Blushing is part of who we are, but maybe if we understood it better, we would be more accepting of it. That is why I want to explore the question that has been boggling the minds of scientists and psychologists for years. Why do we blush?
The science behind blushing is actually pretty straightforward. When placed in a situation where our emotions begin to flare (such as embarrassment, anger, nervousness), our sympathetic nervous system is alerted. This is also known as the fight or flight system. From there the “vasodilators are stimulated which causes the peripheral capillaries to expand.” As a result, more blood flows to the surface of the face and neck, resulting in reddening of those areas (Why Do We Blush?). In other words, our mind detects an emotion, the blood flow to the face and neck increases, and we are left with the tell-tale redness of blushing. The science is easy. Figuring out the reasoning is the tricky part.
Over the years, different theories have arisen trying to answer this question. While some recent ideas believe blushing evolved as a means of enforcing the social codes to which we must adhere for us to function in a friendly manner, other ideas have been established as well (Clark). There are four major historical theories that are established today for why we blush.
One major theory is that blushing started out as a simple appeasement ritual. It was a way to show dominant members of the group that one submitted to their authority (Williams). Blushing, as we think of it today, occurs when we feel like we messed up or are lesser than someone else. We do something wrong or embarrassing and we don’t feel like we are worthy to be around other people who didn’t make a mistake (theoretically). Authority figures wanted to be assured that they were, in fact, better than everyone else. This first theory supports that claim. Authority figures asked for and received the satisfaction that they were craving in the form of a blush.
The second major theory seems to have developed as a result of the evolution of human beings. It says that as our social interactions became increasingly complex, blushing became associated with higher self-conscious emotions such as guilt, shame, and embarrassment (Williams). As we continued to develop as humans, our personalities and emotions developed as well. The Oxford Dictionary identifies the earliest examples of the use of embarrassment in its modern meaning at the end of the 18th century. Before this time, blushing existed, but the reasons for doing so were different due to the differences in what people viewed as embarrassing.
People did blush before that time, but the reasons for shame experienced by contemporary blushers are of recent origin (Crozier). The modern perception of what is “embarrassing” is when we find ourselves performing something that strays away from the norms of society. So now, instead of just blushing to indicate a lack of superiority (which to them was their form of embarrassment), humans are blushing because they actually have done something that would justify their “unworthiness.” Blushing itself did not evolve during the 18th century. What did, however, were people’s perceptions of it. It would seem as though humans were starting to become accountable for their actions by means of a red flush to their face. This theory still holds up today. Our emotions are often times expressed on our faces, much to our dismay.
After browsing through a couple of these theories I soon discovered that they all basically reflect on the positive evolutionary reasons for why we blush. Even though most would say blushing is an embarrassing and bothersome occurrence, there are in fact ideas behind why blushing may be a good thing. This unique gift that humans alone possess is thought to serve as a protection to us. It serves as a guard to the conscience. When we violate our inbuilt sense of right and wrong, we may feel ourselves blushing. This is a built in warning tell us to get back on track (Why Do We Blush?). It’s sort of like a physical version of the angel on our left shoulder telling us to make the right decision.
The third theory tends to stray away from the more negative outcomes of this sensation (such as embarrassment or anger) and focuses more on possible reproductive reasons for it. According to neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California, blushing might have evolved as a way for women to demonstrate their honesty to men so as to obtain their help in rearing offspring (Williams). Women would have wanted to portray themselves as honest and worthy of being reproductive partners with the men. It is possible that blushing achieved this goal for women of the time. Blushing today is sometimes a feature that causes men to be attracted to a woman. One flush of a woman’s cheek and men’s hormones kick in telling them to pursue that attractive creature. This could be an indication that this theory, is in fact, believable.
This theory enhances blushing and highlights it as a positive feature that makes the opposite sex (mainly women) more attractive. Historically, beauty has often times been identified with having a white face with red cheeks. The attractiveness of red cheeks was in part for symbolic reasons and has also been regarded as the color of love and reflects youth, good health and being in one’s sexual prime (Crozier). The blush has also been valued as a sign of modesty, charm, and sexual attractiveness. If one blushes at a compliment it “indicates that [one] is claiming unworthiness of it and is showing oneself as modest” (Crozier). In other words, blushing is not always a bad thing. In fact, it is good! It shows other people that we don’t think too highly of ourselves in a cocky sort of way and it often times enhances our attractiveness. Blushing is nothing to be ashamed of. It makes us more likeable.
A flaw that can be seen with this theory though, is what does that say about men blushing? Even though women blush more than men (Why Do We Blush?), men still are victims of this involuntary sensation. So where does this reproductive theory leave men? Some women may be attracted to a male who has the occasional blush, but as far as the origins of it, this theory leaves us with more questions.
The fourth and final major theory that has been established for why we blush comes from the idea that it makes us more likeable to other people (not just the opposite sex). According to primatologist, Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, blushing “could have emerged as a way to foster trust.” Anyone who didn’t blush might have been at a disadvantage because people are less likely to trust someone who appears to never have been ashamed of anything (Williams). Think about it. It would have been rather foolish of our ancestors to take a person’s verbal or behavioral expressions of remorse at face value. By blushing, we admit to the fact that we have just done something wrong and we are apologizing for it, or that we did something embarrassing and we know we looked silly. Blushing serves as a signal to someone’s genuine regret or remorse over a wrongdoing (Bering). It puts everyone on an equal playing field because no one can feel superior to anyone else because everyone blushes.
Recent findings by Dutch psychologists Corine Dijk, Peter de Jong, and Madelon Peters, show that if you are “committing a social offense or being caught in an embarrassing mishap, the presence or absence of blushing can help determine if you will be forgiven by others” (Bering). Imagine for a moment someone who couldn’t blush after having just done something either wrong or embarrassing. You would probably think they were stuck up or snooty right? They may very well be the nicest person ever, but because they couldn’t admit their wrongdoing by blushing, people instantly disliked them. This theory makes sense because we can relate it to our experiences now. Our ability to blush gives us the chance that we will be forgiven by people around us because we are showing that we are remorseful of our actions. Blushing enables trust amongst people.
Having all of these theories definitely is a step in the right direction, but there are still so many questions that are left unanswered! This seems to be a never ending quest. What is even more frustrating is that when we blush we are afraid that we are blushing and therefore are fearful of what others may think, which causes us to blush even more. It’s confusing, I know. We tend to overestimate how much people really care about our embarrassing mishap, but unfortunately this just means we blush harder and longer (de Jong).
Thinking you’re blushing makes you blush even more, according to research conducted by Corine Dijk. In a research study, 100 participants were wired up to machines that detected physiological measurements of their facial skin temperature and color. They were asked to make conversation with two strangers. Half of them were given feedback via a vibrating device on their finger about how much they were blushing. They thought this feedback was accurate, but really it was fixed in advance. The participants that were given this “false feedback” were told they were blushing a lot more than what they actually were. This caused them to blush even more and think that they were being rated poorly by the strangers they were conversing with (Blushing: A Vicious Cycle). Studies like this shows that a lot of what blushing is, is just a mental game. It is uncontrollable and involuntary, and we are completely at its mercy.
A sensation that is linked with dreaming, altruism, art, superstitions, body hair, and nose picking, blushing surely is a curious thing (Macrae, Bates). A question that seems to spawn even more questions, the search for the answers never seems to end. Among the typical question of why we blush there are other interesting aspects that are still unclear. For example, those who are blind and deaf still blush. You would think that if you do not have to ability to see or hear someone “laughing” at you after an embarrassing moment, then you would not be subjected to the blush. It’s quite the opposite really. Even when we are alone and are reading or thinking about something that is embarrassing we still blush (Why Do We Blush?)! This stems from the idea that blushing is not only a physiological phenomenon but also a psychological one as well. Something in our minds tells us that what we are doing is either embarrassing or wrong and therefore, over the course of evolution, we must admit and acknowledge our screw ups.
While exploring the history behind blushing is certainly interesting, there are some people who have found it to play a much more significant, if not hindering, part of their everyday lives. For most of us, blushing is a slight inconvenience, but we are able to see the benefits of it. However, there are some people who have an intense fear of blushing, known as erythrophobia (Clark). Their fear is so severe that they feel as if they can no longer function because of blushing. They are more affected by the embarrassment that comes with blushing and often times have more areas of the body that portray the redness.
Fortunately, there is a solution to this problem. There is a surgery available known as endothoracic sympathectomy where the surgeons will operate on the patient’s spine and will snip the tiny nerves that control blushing (Clark). It has a reported success rate of 80-90% where the patients no longer experience the phenomenon of blushing (Nicolaou, Paes, Wakelin).
Surgery is a rather drastic measure to control blushing. While there is no other way to halt blushing completely there are ways to try to control it without having to go under the knife. People can camouflage the areas with make-up or clothing. There is cognitive behavioral treatment available as well as task-concentration training to help focus the mind on other things. There are drugs such as B blockers and injections such as intradermal botulinum which can help control the effects (Nicolaou, Paes, Wakelin). There are a few “do it yourself” methods that can help to reduce the effects. You can try to imagine yourself in a place that is calm and soothing, or picture yourself in a less threatening place by trying to block out other people. Also, you can take four slow, deep breaths, and focus on releasing the tension throughout your body (Life’s questions, answered). One thing that must be remembered though is that blushing is involuntary, cannot be fully controlled, and can be triggered by the mildest of emotions and therefore these methods are not fool proof (Nicolaou, Paes, Wakelin).
As we have explored, blushing is a complicated and mind boggling occurrence that has many different aspects to it. There are several theories behind historical blushing, information about which sex blushes more, possible explanations for how blushing can increase attractiveness, and possible treatments to control it. There is no definite answer to why we blush. It is a natural occurrence of all human beings, and it is most likely that the best explanation for this puzzling sensation is a combination of all these different theories. Information continues to be revealed about its origins to this day and the effects of it can be both positive and negative. Without a doubt, people will continue to question and explore this curious phenomenon known as blushing. So the next time you find yourself in an embarrassing situation, don’t be ashamed of your blush. Wear it proud and just know that you are continuing the uniquely human gift that has been bestowed upon us in the form of the color red.
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