“Hey, Bill, why do we blush when we are embarrassed?”

Dear Bashful,

If you're like me–and I've got a feeling in this particular case you are just like me–you blush when you're caught thinking about something private or unresolved, something awkward, or maybe something you're a bit ashamed of. You blush when you're embarrassed. Your face flushes with blood. You can feel it, and those around you can see it.


The science of blushing
When you're caught ashamed or in an awkward position, your body releases a bit of adrenaline. Your heart rate goes up. You breathe faster. And often, blood vessels that deliver blood to your face dilate–they open up or relax a little. More blood than usual flows to the skin of your face, and your face darkens or turns noticeably red.

Some people even have a condition referred to as erythrophobia, fear of reddening. So, there is a connection between your brain and the blood vessels that feed your face. These blood pathways are regulated by your sympathetic nervous system. In this usage, sympathetic refers to nerve signals that your brain generates unconsciously. It's your thoughts that cause these signals to be produced, but you don't consciously think about producing them. Your brain somehow sends signals to your face, based on what someone has said or what you've seen. You blush. The sympathetic nerves involved here are near the center of your spinal cord; it's the same area that controls the organs in your thorax, your chest.

Blushing about blushing
Some people blush very, very easily. And it bugs them. They feel vulnerable. Those who encounter these people may sense that the blushing people are nervous, and that makes a blusher blush even more. Yikes!

People concerned about their blushing sometimes seek psychiatric or psychological help. They may also respond to advertisements for hypnotists that say they can help people stop blushing. In extreme cases, blushers may opt for surgery that apparently reduces one's tendency to blush. Surgeons isolate very thin nerves near the center of the patient's spine and then pinch or even cut the nerves. Most people who undergo this procedure apparently don't blush nearly as much as they did before the surgery. But this sort of radical step may not be all good. Advertisements for the reversal of this type of surgery may indicate that at least some patients aren't happy with the results. People perhaps aren't comfortable when they can't express certain emotions without saying anything.

The power of blushing
Since you're human, you have blushed from time to time. And it's quite reasonable that there are nerves that control blushing. It's also not surprising to realize that blushing is involuntary. We've all felt it. That we can't control it very easily is just part of being a human. But one cannot help but wonder if blushing doesn't have some higher, bigger purpose. If it's powerful enough to make people want to go under a surgeon's knife, it's probably an inherently powerful phenomenon

From an evolutionary standpoint, if blushing were bad for you, it would have killed enough of our predecessors that the tendency to blush would have been eliminated from our human gene pool. People who blushed too often or too forcibly would have somehow been killed and not had babies. Their genes would have disappeared.

How would that have worked? Let's say there was an ancient society in which a man's or woman's ability to advance depended chiefly or strongly on his or her ability to bluff. This would be some society that valued successful gambling or negotiating, perhaps. Well, then, perhaps if a person was frequently caught bluffing easily, because he or she blushed easily, then that man or woman would be left out in the cold, perhaps literally for some ice-age tribes. They wouldn't have a chance to reproduce, and their genes–including the genes that caused them to blush–would be left out in the cold also, without being passed on to another generation.

Why we blush
Like the members of this hypothetical ancient society, we all have to bluff. We have to have the ability to put extraneous events aside just to get through the week. In the United States, when someone asks, "How are you today?" you usually say, "Fine," even if your dog got hit by a car that morning. Fine? You're miserable; your best friend is in the animal hospital! But often, it's easier to just bluff a little. "I'm fine."

Well, then, are there potential advantages accorded to someone who blushes? When you blush, everyone around you knows that you're embarrassed or being placed in an awkward position. They can decide whether or not to let you slide; they might let you get by with things as they are.

Have you ever accepted invitations to dinner or some other event so that you're double-booked? You accidentally agreed to be in two places at once–on the same evening, perhaps? Humans do it all the time; they're "red-faced." Most of us acknowledge that it happens. We accept your embarrassment and decide whether or not to invite you back again based on other actions or feelings. 

Some of us blush when we're attracted to someone else. If that special someone else catches us looking, well, we're a bit embarrassed. That interesting other knows we're interested. He or she knows our thoughts. And we blush. It can really put the red in a Valentine wish. The downside is that you've lost your advantage of being mysterious. The good side is that he or she knows what's on your mind (or in your heart) without you having to say a thing.

With blushing, we all know about this kind of awkwardness right away. Blushing may be a mechanism that is uncomfortable for the individual, but of great value to the tribe, the community, or society. Why else would it exist? Me blush? I get embarrassed just thinking about it.

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