Why do we blush?

There is an array of things we do not understand about ourselves yet. And maybe we never will. But of course, science tries.

Living things sense the world around them in varying manners, and then respond accordingly. Often, we respond with action, voluntary or otherwise. Sometimes we simply feel and emote.

It is believed that emotions and their displays are born from a part of the complex brains and therefore, only the higher animals are capable of emoting. Perhaps other life-forms, like plants do as well but not in the terms we understand. We see emotions making the humans, well, human.

Related: Synaesthesia – Biological Magic

But is there a concrete reason for our emotions? Do emotional displays play an evolutionary role? Does everything that the human body is endowed with,, have an ultimate purpose in the scheme of things? Maybe, maybe not. But emotional behavior probably does!!

How it all might have begun

In human evolution, the concept of community has worked to our advantage. We are social beings, and it was this tendency to band together that gave us an edge. When there is a group, there is division of labour and an increase in survival rates.

When you don’t have to worry constantly about surviving, there is window of opportunity to explore, discover and create. But to truly flourish, we need to communicate with each other. Emotional displays worked to convey unspoken messages to the others long before language came in the picture.

Remember, the time our brains must have come up with these connections, words were not a part of communication. If you were happy and excited to have found a new food source or were scared of a predator, or baffled by a sickness, one of the few ways to communicate was facial gestures. Eventually, the muscle-nerve connections in our faces that expressed a certain emotion would be understood to convey a particular message universally.

Many of these gestures were adaptations that differed in different societies. But the very basic and primal of displays of happiness, grief and shame would have become an involuntary response much before the humans started fanning out.

Apart from muscular movements, another way our face mirrors our feelings is the color. When we are faced with a fight or flight situation, the pumping adrenaline nudges our blood flow to our limbs that will help us to run away or fight. And so the blood rushes away from our face, and we go pale with fright.

On the other hand, embarrassment leads to blushing. This oft-awkward human peculiarity is a puzzle to many. Charles Darwin noted that blushing was ‘’the most peculiar and most human of all expressions…’’


How do we blush?

When we blush, our cheeks go red. In some cases, the redness spreads to the neck region as well. Our facial skin contains more capillary loops and vessels closer to the surface than any other region of the skin. Whatever the reason, it is a product of evolution, enabling blushing.

In certain situations, our sympathetic nervous system releases adrenaline. This initiates a chain reaction – adenylyl cyclase in our body signals our blood vessels to expand enabling higher blood flow. This blood rush is evident as the blushing or flushing of our face.

Note that adrenaline is mainly a fight/flight hormone which directs blood from various functions to our limbs so that we can fight off the danger or run away from it. But in situations where we feel cornered and can do neither, not because of fright but because of social implications, we blush.Yaabot_3

The conundrum

What necessary function could be served by being red-faced? How can it be okay to let the world know that you are embarrassed or just too socially awkward?

If we were to again think about the pre-verbal communication world, then we could hypothesize as follows – If there was something that you had done wrong, the only incentive for people to let you back in the super-safe group living was if you showed remorse and guilt.

But even then, isn’t it a little weird that we have an involuntary response that tells the world about our weaknesses and shows that we are uncomfortable? Isn’t this show of weakness at odds with our aim for survival?

Moreover, blushing can send a host of signals – guilt, embarrassment, discomfiture, mortification, shame – how can we possibly decode the signal?

And what about the vicious circle of blushing – when someone tells you that you are blushing, you start blushing even more? This feedback loop has been the cause of many red-faced people.


Solving the puzzle

Blushing is deemed such a humane expression that in the Blade Runner movie, one way to check if the person was a human or a close copy robot called a replicant, was to see if they blush or not when asked about emotionally stimulating questions. But what role does it have in the real world today?

Today we know that the sudden color change in our face is scientifically important. After all, according to neuroscientist Mark Changizi, the very reason for evolution of strong color vision of the humans is to be able to detect minute color differences in another person’s skin, thereby decoding their emotions!

In order to try and understand the role blushing plays in our social interactions, Dutch psychologist Corine Dijk along with Peter de Jong and Madelon Peters conducted a study.

Trust: They showed some pictures to the people being surveyed.  The photos were belonged to random people, unknown to the surveyed. Some photos showed blushing embarrassed faces, others did not. The people were told tales about different indiscretions or small crimes that the photographed had conducted. The blushers were much more likely to be forgiven than the non-blushers, whatever the level of misdeed.

In similar studies worldwide, it has been shown that people are eager to trust people who blush after being caught in a crime than the ones who did not. So it is now widely believed that blushing helps us in gaining forgiveness and earns trust. And both of these are important for our survival and well being in the long run. Evolution strikes again!

Mating: Another aspect of blushing that may have assisted us in our evolution is the desirability factor. Many studies have shown that a blushing face, independent of an embarrassing tale, is actually considered attractive. In fact, the rosy appeal is so high that a large fraction of the cosmetic industry is fueled towards that perfect blush. Perhaps, blushing has been naturally selected due to its added advantage in mate selection. The person who can blush is one who is remorseful, understands when she/he has gone wrong and is trustworthy!

One of the primary reasons blushing is considered so vital in building trust and forgiving someone is the involuntary nature involved. The blush that creeps on one’s face is considered more genuine than any words/explanation one provides, it is not something one can fake. Maybe we trust it more than we trust shifty glances and halted words is because blushing has been around longer than language.

looking to the future

Sometimes this quirk of human face may become unsightly. Some easy blushers find it so unnerving that they get ‘bilateral endoscopic transthoracic sympathectomy’ done. This fancy term entails tweaking your sympathetic nerves to completely stop blushing, ever! Nonetheless, blushing is one of the many endearing human oddity and should be appreciated before it vanishes somewhere in the evolutionary trail.