Skip to main content

Red in the Face: The Science of Blushing

You interrupt a big meeting to correct the speaker. She challenges you, and, oh, no - you’re wrong! You’ve never been so embarrassed. Or perhaps you’ve worked up the courage to give your secret crush a dozen roses for Valentine’s Day… As you do, you feel your cheeks getting warm and your face turning bright red. Let’s wonder about the science behind blushing.
 
We’ve all been there. You do or say something foolish, or you find yourself in an uncomfortable social situation. Blood rushes to your cheeks. The more you think about it, the worse it gets. If it seems as if there’s nothing you can do to stop that feeling of becoming flushed when you’re embarrassed, you’re right. You have no conscious control over blushing – it is an involuntary response.
You can no more stop blood rushing to your face than you can will your lungs to stop breathing air or your heart to stop pumping blood.  
You can no more stop blood rushing to your face than you can will your lungs to stop breathing air or your heart to stop pumping blood.  
 
Blushing is part of your body’s “fight-or-fight” mechanism, which is the way your body responds in an emergency. To direct all available energy to your muscles in an emergency, you need your heart rate and your breathing rate to increase to deliver as much oxygen as possible to your muscles and organs. You’ll likely benefit from seeing more acutely, so you need your pupils to dilate to let in more light.  
 
Adrenaline is responsible for all of these emergency response measures. The body’s natural stimulant, adrenaline increases your breathing rate, and causes your pupils to dilate. It also causes the blood vessels deep in your muscles to dilate, in order to get more oxygen and more energy where it’s needed most. The veins in your face also dilate. As they open up allowing more blood to flow, your cheeks become warmer and redder. You’re blushing.
 
But wait!  Surely being embarrassed is not an emergency. Why does embarrassment trigger the fight-or-flight release of adrenaline?  
 
A clue to the answer might be found in how different veins in your body respond to adrenaline. You get an advantage when the veins in your muscles dilate. You wouldn’t get an advantage from the veins in, say, your arms and legs dilating … and guess what? Those veins don’t dilate when adrenaline is released.  
Many psychologists believe that this suggests that blushing is a defense mechanism, a response we developed to help avoid a potential fight-or-flight confrontation. 
What advantage is gained by the veins in your face opening up? As blood rushes to your face, there is a noticeable effect on your appearance. Many psychologists believe that this suggests that blushing is a defense mechanism, a response we developed to help avoid a potential fight-or-flight confrontation.
 
A number of animals exhibit behavior clearly intended to avoid a fight. Dogs, wolves, and even lions roll over to expose their (vulnerable) bellies. Cats flatten their ears and tuck their tails between their hind legs. Rabbits crouch and remain still. These are all public statements that the animal wants to avoid arousing anger in another. “I’m sorry,” it seems to be saying. “I have violated a social code.  Don’t be angry with me!”  
 
It is not unreasonable to suppose that blushing evolved for the same reason that cats flatten their ears and dogs roll belly up. Through a public display of your own discomfort other people are able to recognize that you didn’t intend to attack or offend them. 
 
Yes, when you’re embarrassed you likely feel quite uncomfortable. But that discomfort will pass. And remember: more than likely, your body is just trying to protect you!
 
 
 --------------------------------
 
Question to ponder: 
 
How do you respond when you see someone else blush?
Science
health,psychology,Illuminate

More articles by this author

    Follow us on Instagram
    Follow us on Flickr
    Follow us on Linkedin
    Follow us on Vimeo
    Follow us on Youtube
    Share
    Share