We all know the feeling. You’re walking down the road one fateful day, when your foot takes an unsteady step and you feel your entire body lurching backwards. You fall flat on the ground in a crumpled heap and everyone around you stops and stares. Your face heats up and you can’t look anyone in the eye. You’re embarrassed… obviously. Your cheeks are turning red and you just want to get the hell out of there, or maybe just sink into the ground and disappear.
That rush of blood to your face that heats up your cheeks, more commonly known as blushing, is a common and perfectly normal thing. It happens to everyone, whether we realize it or not, particularly when we experience an embarrassing situation. The question is, therefore, what’s going on inside us that makes our cheeks turn red? Perhaps more importantly, why do we exhibit this strange phenomenon?
What’s Going On Inside Us?
As it turns out, blushing is a phenomenon that is unique to humans. Adrenaline is a hormone that pops up a lot in relation to many different physiological reactions, and blushing is no exception. Embarrassment also triggers the fight-or-flight response, and the resulting action of adrenaline causes blood vessels to increase in diameter (vasodilation), along with an increased blood supply to our facial skin. This entire reaction is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system and is completely involuntary.
In some people, even their necks, ears and upper chest redden when they start to blush. You might also want to keep an ice pack handy if you’re prone to embarrassment, as blushing can sometimes make your face feel hot.
Our Face Is Special
Clearly, our face is on excellent terms with our circulatory system. Turns out, there are generally more blood capillaries and more blood vessels in our facial skin as compared to other skin areas. Furthermore, vasodilation serves to widen blood vessels in the cheek even more, since they are already wider than most other blood vessels and also happen to be nearer the surface of our skin.
Embarrassment is actually the only emotional trigger for blushing that results from the action of adrenaline. Other types of blushing, such as after drinking alcohol or due to a romantic stimulation, are controlled by other biochemical pathways. Blushing is admittedly pretty strange, and even Charles Darwin agrees; he called blushing “the most peculiar and most human of all expressions.”
So why do we blush?
Is There Any Reason Behind It?
Blushing, of all things, is one area that science hasn’t been able to completely explain. The good news, though, is that there are some excellent theories out there about why we blush.
Blushing is brought on by embarrassment, so it can serve as an important signal to other people about the way we feel about a particular situation. That being said, how do others know you’re not just faking the emotion? As mentioned earlier, blushing is involuntary and therefore cannot be controlled. That’s the key to the most probable theory about the role that blushing plays in our body’s natural behavior.
Blushing betrays our emotions to other people. It tells them that we’re embarrassed or wish that things had turned out differently. This can be a very powerful non-verbal cue, and actually endears us to other people, as it shows that we’re self-aware and understand the details of a situation. In effect, blushing shows that we have emotional intelligence, can recognize how others feel, and react appropriately to the situation.
Another signal that blushing sends to other people is that of apology. When we make a mistake, especially if that error affects another person, blushing can help keep the peace.
Remember, violence or hostility can erupt over the tiniest of insults, so if you find yourself in a situation where you’ve unwittingly upset someone, your red face might just save you from getting a black eye. You probably don’t think of a flushed face as your first line of defense, but the next time that heat rises in your cheeks, maybe you should count yourself lucky!