Blushing Epitomises the Human Condition
(This article first appeared at science20.com on 17 Oct 2013)
If any human attribute was to be chosen to epitomise the paradoxes of the human condition, then it would surely be the blush.
Darwin himself described blushing as ‘the most peculiar and most human of all expressions’, and yet with all the advances of science, we have been unable to understand its meaning and cause. The reason it has remained a mystery is because the blush is inextricaby linked with the human condition itself, our confounding capacity for both selfish and selfless behaviour, or so-called good and evil. With the explanation of the human condition at last discovered by the Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith, only now does it become possible to begin to unlock the mystery of the blush.
Darwin made his description of blushing in a book titled The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. This follow-up to Origin of Species was reputedly written in order to support the theory he first put forward in Origin that man and animals had evolved from common ancestors. By far its most interesting chapter though, is the chapter on blushing, an attribute not shared by any other animal.
In his description of blushing, Darwin refers to the work of his contemporary Thomas Henry Burgess. Burgess wrote The Physiology or Mechanism of Blushing in 1839, and in it he put forward a theory that reflected the religiosity of the times, suggesting that blushing occurred in ‘order that the soul might have sovereign power of displaying in the cheeks the various emotions of moral feelings’—a sovereign power that Burgess believed served to check our own behavior, and signal to others when we were breaking ‘Divine’ rules.
Darwin of course, as the champion of natural selection, wanted to distance himself as far as possible from any suggestion of ‘Divine’ influence, and so he applied himself to possible evolutionary causes of blushing, causes that did not contain any trace of Burgess’s divinely bestowed moral element.
Darwin suggested that it is self-consciousness that causes us to blush, not any moral war within us; he said we become self-conscious in the face of scrutiny simply because we value ‘in a high degree’ our appearance. The power of consciousness is then to blame for our reddening because of a purely accidental effect it has on the circulatory system: ‘attention directed to any part of the body tends to interfere with the ordinary and tonic contraction of the small arteries of that part’ wrote Darwin.
Darwin said we only associate blushing with feelings of shame and embarrassment because people normally focus more attention on us when we have transgressed a social standard, and so our self-consciousness is heightened in those situations: ‘Every one feels blame more acutely than praise’ he explains. It is a subtle but significant distinction that Darwin draws between a blush arising from a moral transgression as Burgess holds, and arising from the attention that a moral transgression might give rise to.
More recently, evolutionary psychologists have sought to find a key to better understand blushing by pursuing the idea that it could only have evolved if it had an evolutionary advantage.
In 2009 Dutch psychologists Corine Dijk, Peter de Jong and Madelon Peters conducted experiments involving a computerized game in which participants faced a virtual opponent who betrayed them. After the betrayal, a photograph of the opponentwas shown, displaying them as either blushing or not. Subsequent experiments then showed that the participants would entrust more money to the opponent who had betrayed them if they had been shown a blushing picture of them.
The conclusion that Dijk’s team reached was that blushing has a social advantage. If you are caught transgressing a social rule, then blushing sends a clear signal to other members of your group that you are aware that you have done wrong, and as a result they are more likely to trust you the second time around.
Similar conclusions were reached in a study published early in 2012 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The team of Matthew Feinberg, RobbWiller, and Dacher Keltner concluded that, ‘Embarrassment is one emotional signature of a person to whom you can entrust valuable resources. It’s part of the social glue that fosters trust and cooperation in everyday life.’
While the conclusion that blushing evolved because it confers a reproductive advantage on the individual is highly doubtful (for example why would ‘cheating’ blushers not have evolved?), what the experiments do prove is that we trust a blusher more, and we can only assume it is because it makes us believe that the blusher contains within themselves some element that insists that there is a right way to behave. The converse, that an inability to blush should signal to us that someone is without scruples, was admitted by one who should know: the Marquis de Sade said ‘One is never so dangerous when one has no shame, than when one has grown too old to blush.’
Of course, as stated at the outset, the real question raised by any study of blushing is the question of our contradictory capacity for both selfish and selfless behaviour, without which the situations that give rise to blushing would not occur. This duality, which has troubled the human mind since we first became fully conscious, thinking beings, leads to a very troubling question: are humans essentially ‘good’ and, if so, what is the cause of our ‘evil’, destructive, insensitive and cruel side? Indeed, despite its fundamental nature, so troubling is this question that it is extremely rare for it to be acknowledged. In fact the only reason that I am able to acknowledge the subject at all is because the Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith has at last found the biological explanation of the human condition. It is a breakthrough of incomparable and critical importance, and it is just some small demonstration of how much it allows to be unlocked, that it offers the prospect of finally understanding the phenomena of blushing, ‘the most peculiar and most human of all expressions’, properly.
Griffith’s breakthrough explains (here) that humans’ primary instinctive orientation is a moral one, but that this instinctive orientation then tragically, in-effect, criticised our emerging consciousness’ experiments in self-management, resulting in our consciousness or intellect becoming insecure, and at odds with our instinctive self.
Griffith says, ‘When our intellect began to exert itself and experiment in the management of life from a basis of understanding, in effect challenging the role of the already established instinctual self, a battle unavoidably broke out between the instinctive self and the newer conscious self.’
As a result of this battle, ‘the intellect was left having to endure a psychologically distressed, upset condition, with no choice but to defy that opposition from the instincts’ he says. With an understanding of the elements involved in the human condition of our moral instincts and our rebellious intellect, it becomes clear that the source of blushing is to be found here.
It is tempting to suggest that Burgess had it right when he said the blush was a signal that we had behaved out of accord with what is moral, so easily does his theory mesh with Griffith’s explanation of the human condition (Griffith explains that our soul is actually our selfless instinctive orientation). However it is possible that Darwin had it right, that it is self-consciousness that leads to a blush, because it soon becomes clear that self-consciousness too, and the reason we feel ‘blame more acutely than praise’, are also manifestations of the insecurity of the human condition.
The issue is undoubtedly clouded because under the duress of the human condition compounding situations must have arisen, where the blushing that arose from childhood misreadings of social inadequacy (leading to either feelings of shame, or acute feelings of self-consciousness), would reinforce the feelings of inadequacy, giving rise to a vicious cycle of blushing and shame, making the original source difficult to identify.
Clearer thinkers than I will no doubt determine the precise mechanisms now that the human condition has been explained. Meanwhile the beauty of Griffith’s explanation is that in the end the exact source of any psychological affliction is immaterial: with the first-principle-based biological explanation of our species’ extraordinary, conflicted condition now available, we are in a position to know that all insecurity, all guilt, all feelings of shame, no matter how derived, are safely defended within this all encompassing, dignifying understanding of our essential goodness. All humans are at last in a position to be secure in the knowledge that we are fundamentally, irrevocably good. Understanding the human condition is not only the key to blushing, it is the key to everything.