Blushing is caused when people think others have learnt embarrassing personal details about them. It refers to mild, tender or moderate feelings involving social circumstances. Blushing is not related to life-threatening events or serious offences.
People usually feel exposed when others learn of their personal details. They care about their social prospects and are concerned for what effects such details will have on the judgement of others. The reason it’s possible to blush at strangers is because they represent an unknown social impact. People have to care to blush. Feeling exposed and caring what others think is the essence of blushing.
Feelings of wanting to flee the situation are experienced while also having contradicting feelings of wanting to stay. As if to hide, the head, eyes and shoulders have a tendency to move away from onlookers. In this stage the face may become a little pale. Whilst believing that others’ opinions have just been reformed, a decision is made to stay and face the music. A warm flushing sensation is felt over the face as blood flow is increased to it. Dots appear on the cheeks that then radiate outward into disc-like blotches of reddish pink skin that increase as the blushing continues.
It’s notable that if people do not stay and own the behaviour or thoughts in question, but instead move away and flee, they do not blush. Owning the behaviour in front of others is central to blushing. Most people care how a situation will turn out and if the others’ thoughts will turn negatively or positively towards them. They care enough to stay while feeling uneasy and exposed. It’s this mentality of standing one’s ground, although not aggressively, while feeling vulnerable that causes the blushing or flushing effect on skin.
When people become scared, the blood flow is redirected from different areas, such as the face and internal organs, to other areas, most notably the leg muscles.1 This instinctive feature evolved to prepare the body to run in the eventuality that escape or evasion from danger was needed. This is why people can go pale as a sheet in frightening situations.2 In contrast, when people become angry and stand their ground, blood fills their face and fists, turning them reddish, preparing for fight and the manoeuvre of objects.3 The autonomic nervous system largely controls this cardiac output – increasing and decreasing blood pressure and flow to and from different parts of the body. Despite the bulk of the functions being unconsciously automated, the autonomic system is not stupid even though its output seems inappropriate at times, for its responses are appropriate adaptations to perception.4
Blushing has mild forms of both of the above instinctive reactions. To some degree, people feel like they want to escape a situation but then face the onlookers. The thoughts in mind are not of extreme physical danger. People don’t fear for their lives, but they’re concerned enough to consider how others will think of them. The psychological strain is not great, yet significant enough to cause concern on an instinctive level.
People who have been blind from birth still blush. Also, it’s possible for people to blush whilst they’re alone and thinking about facing someone who has discovered personal details about them. Perception of the incident triggers the reaction.
Interestingly, people only tend to blush on parts of their skin that are exposed to the sight of others. If a woman is wearing a dress that shows cleavage, the blushing that typically starts around the face may graduate down her neck and across her chest, yet restricted to the line of her clothing. It’s possible to blush all over the body, but for unknown reasons people tend to only do so on skin that’s in plain sight.5
People often feel light headed or giddy while blushing. The instinctual processes that move blood away and back to different parts of the body, including the head, must be partially responsible for this. Blushing involves two instincts that, although mild, are at odds with each other. It’s not surprising that people feel disorientated when they blush. All the processes are happening while they’re trying to consider the thoughts of onlookers and the eventualities that may arise.
If the revealed personal details are desirous in nature, blushing often occurs. The more sensitive people are to the opinions and emotions of others, the more likely they are to blush. Blushing is, thus, considered a refined emotion as it shows that people are not shameless. It confirms that people are sensitive to the perceptions of their peers and use empathy to navigate social situations. Arrogant and ignorant emotions block the blushing reaction.
Old English. Bylscan = blush, become red, glow.
Old Norse. Byls = torch.
1. To become red in the face from modesty or embarrassment.
2. To become red or pink in the face.