Author: Katherine Chen
Editors: Hwi-On Lee and Jaylen Peng
Artist: Acey Li
Picture yourself walking when suddenly, you accidentally trip on the pebble atop the pavement. You try to play it off, but all of a sudden, it feels as if all eyes are on you. Your thoughts drift to what the person behind you might've thought, and you grow self-conscious. Gradually, a hue of red spreads across your cheeks, and more people turn to notice the color of your face. What is the science behind this blushing phenomenon, and why does it exist if not to make you feel more embarrassed?
Blushing usually refers to the reddening of the face, an involuntary reflex that results from feeling stressed, embarrassed, or ashamed. This is not to be confused with “flushing”, which results from a physiological mechanism, such as when your face turns red from exercise. Blushing falls more on the psychological side and is triggered by an emotional response. Even if there is no real reason to feel embarrassed, triggering a blush doesn’t take much. Prolonged eye contact is enough for this effect to take place. It is caused by our body’s sympathetic nervous system, the network of nerves that activates fight or flight responses such as rapid breathing and a faster heart rate. When we feel any of those emotions that make us self-conscious, the nervous system will send a signal to release adrenaline, both a hormone and neurotransmitter, from the adrenal glands. Adrenaline then dilates the blood vessels to improve blood flow and oxygen delivery in a process known as vasodilation. With this expansion and relaxation of blood vessel walls, more blood rushes to the face, causing this reddening to take place. For some people, their ears, neck, and chest are also affected, and for individuals with paler skin, a more noticeable shade of red appears.
Many people wish they didn’t blush, feeling a part of them being exposed without control. But, it is a pretty unique way to display our emotions. Humans are the only organisms that can blush. Charles Darwin, who wrote extensively on blushing in his book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, described blushing as “the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions.”
Scientists aren’t too sure about exactly why we blush, but one theory is that it is an adaptation to help people communicate their thoughts to others. Blushing is a way for humans to better express their feelings of regrets and remorse during social interactions. Research has shown that people who blush more tend to be perceived as more trustworthy. A study conducted back in 2011 at the University of Groningen examined whether blushing after an individual breaks social rules can instill trustworthiness. The researchers had participants play a computerized prisoner’s dilemma game where it was decided whether or not to betray an anonymous prisoner. The virtual opponent betrayed the participant in the second round and reaped the benefits. Afterward, a picture of the opponent was displayed on the computer, and when the picture showed an individual blushing, the participants judged less harshly, claiming that they would still trust that individual in the future more than a non-blushing opponent. So, don't be embarrassed the next time you find yourself blushing. Instead, embrace the idea that it is an easy way to express your emotions, to acknowledge what you did, and a plea to not be judged severely in return.
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