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Darwin and the blush

23 Apr, 2009

DarwinBy Professor Ray Crozier

In this year of Charles Darwin celebrations, it is worthwhile to reflect on the his contribution to psychology, through brief consideration of his writing on that enigmatic and, as Darwin noted, uniquely human expression, the blush.

One chapter in ‘The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals’ (1872) is devoted to the blush and it remains one of the most compelling accounts that we have – indeed, for many years it was one of the few systematic analyses of the phenomenon – and many of the issues he raised are still unresolved.

In a notebook of 1838, Darwin speculated on the blush, wondering whether it occurs in all human groups and in different species [the names are of natives of Terra del Fuego, encountered during the voyage on the ‘Beagle’]:

“Does a negress blush – I am almost sure Fuegia Basket did ((& Jeremy when Chico plagued him)). Animals I should think would not have any emotion like a blush.”

His subsequent research on blushing exemplifies the relentless collection of evidence that characterised his scientific work, drawing upon an extensive network of correspondents. His far-reaching correspondence aimed, inter alia, to establish whether people of all skin colours blush and whether young children do so, and he enquired of doctors whether the blind and “idiots” do.

Darwin refers throughout his chapter to ‘The Physiology or Mechanism of Blushing’ by Thomas Burgess (1839; long out of print but available in the British Library). Burgess reported observations that were useful to Darwin: for example, that a blush was visible on the scar tissue of a black woman and that albino children born to black parents blushed. However, Burgess’s explanation of the blush was less welcome. He argued that it was unique to humans because the Creator had designed it to reveal, involuntarily, man’s innermost feelings and thereby act as a check on conduct. The thrust of Darwin’s writing at this time was the interconnectedness of species and he sought an explanation of the specificity of the blush that would neither accentuate man’s difference nor appeal to the hand of Providence.

Darwin’s solution emphasised self-attention: it is “the thinking of what others think of us which excites a blush”. Thus, infants and animals fail to blush, not because they lack a moral sense, as Burgess argued, but because they have not developed the necessary cognitive capacity. A blush is only possible when we acquire the ability to represent in our own mind how we might be represented in other minds. Darwin related the blush to shyness, shame and modesty, which involve self-attention but not necessarily a moral shortcoming. We blush when we are falsely accused of something, when we expect that our conduct may be misinterpreted, and when we are publicly praised, congratulated or thanked.

Do we understand blushing better than Darwin did? He anticipated contemporary theorising, which relates it to self-consciousness and to psychological states, such as embarrassment, that involve our concern with how we appear to others. Burgess and Darwin offered only a very general outline of the mechanism for producing the blush; recent research has filled out the detail, with the assistance of instruments for measuring cutaneous blood flow (the photoplethysmograph and laser Doppler flowmetry) and cheek temperature.

Yet, even as we attain greater insight into the processes, answers to key questions remain elusive. Why does reaction to being the object of attention take this particular form, especially as it often results in drawing attention to ourselves when we least want it? The blush can create a predicament where none existed.

Another strand of research investigates the blush’s potential social functions. Darwin had not emphasised this, focusing on expression of emotion, perhaps wary of providing ammunition for opponents who would explain any functional value in terms of the Creator’s intentions. More recent evolutionary thinking has analysed the blush as a social signal that communicates apology or appeasement. This is socially useful because it serves to deflect aggression, which is valuable for the stability of the group as well as for the individual. It is a particularly effective signal because it is uncontrollable and therefore cannot be feigned: it is evidence of sincerity. Psychologists have investigated this thesis, finding, for example, that people tend to judge an individual less negatively if a blush accompanies some wrongdoing. Nevertheless, human communication is subtle and substantially influenced by culture, and a compelling explanation must do justice to this dimension.

Darwin brought to many scientific fields eagerness to ask difficult questions and the resilience to sustain empirical projects lasting for years. Even though technical resources necessary for research were not yet in place, as with the blush, his observations have stood the test of time. His account of blushing is coherent and insightful, a model and a challenge for contemporary researchers.

Professor Ray Crozier is attached to the School of Social Work and Psychology, University of East Anglia.
A version of this article also appeared in ‘Wellcome History’ issue 40 (pdf)

Image credit: Wellcome Images
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