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by Charles DarwinJanuary 27th, 2023
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Nature of a blush—Inheritance—The parts of the body most affected—Blushing in the various races of man—Accompanying gestures—Confusion of mind—Causes of blushing—Self-attention, the fundamental element—Shyness—Shame, from broken moral laws and conventional rules—Modesty—Theory of blushing—Recapitulation. Blushing is the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions. Monkeys redden from passion, but it would require an overwhelming amount of evidence to make us believe that any animal could blush. The reddening of the face from a blush is due to the relaxation of the muscular coats of the small arteries, by which the capillaries become filled with blood; and this depends on the proper vaso-motor centre being affected. No doubt if there be at the same time much mental agitation, the general circulation will be affected; but it is not due to the action of the heart that the network of minute vessels covering the face becomes under a sense of shame gorged with blood. We can cause laughing by tickling the skin, weeping or frowning by a blow, trembling from the fear of pain, and so forth; but we cannot cause a blush, as Dr. Burgess remarks, by any physical means,—that is by any action on the body. It is the mind which must be affected. Blushing is not only involuntary; but the wish to restrain it, by leading to self-attention actually increases the tendency.
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The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin, is part of the HackerNoon Books Series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here. SELF-ATTENTION—SHAME—SHYNESS—MODESTY: BLUSHING


Nature of a blush—Inheritance—The parts of the body most affected—Blushing in the various races of man—Accompanying gestures—Confusion of mind—Causes of blushing—Self-attention, the fundamental element—Shyness—Shame, from broken moral laws and conventional rules—Modesty—Theory of blushing—Recapitulation.

Blushing is the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions. Monkeys redden from passion, but it would require an overwhelming amount of evidence to make us believe that any animal could blush. The reddening of the face from a blush is due to the relaxation of the muscular coats of the small arteries, by which the capillaries become filled with blood; and this depends on the proper vaso-motor centre being affected. No doubt if there be at the same time much mental agitation, the general circulation will be affected; but it is not due to the action of the heart that the network of minute vessels covering the face becomes under a sense of shame gorged with blood. We can cause laughing by tickling the skin, weeping or frowning by a blow, trembling from the fear of pain, and so forth; but we cannot cause a blush, as Dr. Burgess remarks, by any physical means,—that is by any action on the body. It is the mind which must be affected. Blushing is not only involuntary; but the wish to restrain it, by leading to self-attention actually increases the tendency.

The young blush much more freely than the old, but not during infancy, which is remarkable, as we know that infants at a very early age redden from passion. I have received authentic accounts of two little girls blushing at the ages of between two and three years; and of another sensitive child, a year older, blushing, when reproved for a fault. Many children, at a somewhat more advanced age blush in a strongly marked manner. It appears that the mental powers of infants are not as yet sufficiently developed to allow of their blushing. Hence, also, it is that idiots rarely blush. Dr. Crichton Browne observed for me those under his care, but never saw a genuine blush, though he has seen their faces flush, apparently from joy, when food was placed before them, and from anger. Nevertheless some, if not utterly degraded, are capable of blushing. A microcephalous idiot, for instance, thirteen years old, whose eyes brightened a little when he was pleased or amused, has been described by Dr. Behn, as blushing and turning to one side, when undressed for medical examination.

Women blush much more than men. It is rare to see an old man, but not nearly so rare to see an old woman blushing. The blind do not escape. Laura Bridgman, born in this condition, as well as completely deaf, blushes. The Rev. R. H. Blair, Principal of the Worcester College, informs me that three children born blind, out of seven or eight then in the Asylum, are great blushers. The blind are not at first conscious that they are observed, and it is a most important part of their education, as Mr. Blair informs me, to impress this knowledge on their minds; and the impression thus gained would greatly strengthen the tendency to blush, by increasing the habit of self-attention.

The tendency to blush is inherited. Dr. Burgess gives the case of a family consisting of a father, mother, and ten children, all of whom, without exception, were prone to blush to a most painful degree. The children were grown up; “and some of them were sent to travel in order to wear away this diseased sensibility, but nothing was of the slightest avail.” Even peculiarities in blushing seem to be inherited. Sir James Paget, whilst examining the spine of a girl, was struck at her singular manner of blushing; a big splash of red appeared first on one cheek, and then other splashes, variously scattered over the face and neck. He subsequently asked the mother whether her daughter always blushed in this peculiar manner; and was answered, “Yes, she takes after me.” Sir J. Paget then perceived that by asking this question he had caused the mother to blush; and she exhibited the same peculiarity as her daughter.

In most cases the face, ears and neck are the sole parts which redden; but many persons, whilst blushing intensely, feel that their whole bodies grow hot and tingle; and this shows that the entire surface must be in some manner affected. Blushes are said sometimes to commence on the forehead, but more commonly on the cheeks, afterwards spreading to the ears and neck. In two Albinos examined by Dr. Burgess, the blushes commenced by a small circumscribed spot on the cheeks, over the parotidean plexus of nerves, and then increased into a circle; between this blushing circle and the blush on the neck there was an evident line of demarcation; although both arose simultaneously. The retina, which is naturally red in the Albino, invariably increased at the same time in redness. Every one must have noticed how easily after one blush fresh blushes chase each other over the face. Blushing is preceded by a peculiar sensation in the skin. According to Dr. Burgess the reddening of the skin is generally succeeded by a slight pallor, which shows that the capillary vessels contract after dilating. In some rare cases paleness instead of redness is caused under conditions which would naturally induce a blush. For instance, a young lady told me that in a large and crowded party she caught her hair so firmly on the button of a passing servant, that it took some time before she could be extricated; from her sensations she imagined that she had blushed crimson; but was assured by a friend that she had turned extremely pale.

I was desirous to learn how far down the body blushes extend; and Sir J. Paget, who necessarily has frequent opportunities for observation, has kindly attended to this point for me during two or three years. He finds that with women who blush intensely on the face, ears, and nape of neck, the blush does not commonly extend any lower down the body. It is rare to see it as low down as the collar-bones and shoulder-blades; and he has never himself seen a single instance in which it extended below the upper part of the chest. He has also noticed that blushes sometimes die away downwards, not gradually and insensibly, but by irregular ruddy blotches. Dr. Langstaff has likewise observed for me several women whose bodies did not in the least redden while their faces were crimsoned with blushes. With the insane, some of whom appear to be particularly liable to blushing, Dr. J. Crichton Browne has several times seen the blush extend as far down as the collar-bones, and in two instances to the breasts. He gives me the case of a married woman, aged twenty-seven, who suffered from epilepsy. On the morning after her arrival in the Asylum, Dr. Browne, together with his assistants, visited her whilst she was in bed. The moment that he approached, she blushed deeply over her cheeks and temples; and the blush spread quickly to her ears. She was much agitated and tremulous. He unfastened the collar of her chemise in order to examine the state of her lungs; and then a brilliant blush rushed over her chest, in an arched line over the upper third of each breast, and extended downwards between the breasts nearly to the ensiform cartilage of the sternum. This case is interesting, as the blush did not thus extend downwards until it became intense by her attention being drawn to this part of her person. As the examination proceeded she became composed, and the blush disappeared; but on several subsequent occasions the same phenomena were observed.

The foregoing facts show that, as a general rule, with English women, blushing does not extend beneath the neck and upper part of the chest. Nevertheless Sir J. Paget informs me that he has lately heard of a case, on which he can fully rely, in which a little girl, shocked by what she imagined to be an act of indelicacy, blushed all over her abdomen and the upper parts of her legs. Moreau also relates, on the authority of a celebrated painter, that the chest, shoulders, arms, and whole body of a girl, who unwillingly consented to serve as a model, reddened when she was first divested of her clothes.

It is a rather curious question why, in most cases the face, ears, and neck alone redden, inasmuch as the whole surface of the body often tingles and grows hot. This seems to depend, chiefly, on the face and adjoining parts of the skin having been habitually exposed to the air, light, and alternations of temperature, by which the small arteries not only have acquired the habit of readily dilating and contracting, but appear to have become unusually developed in comparison with other parts of the surface. It is probably owing to this same cause, as M. Moreau and Dr. Burgess have remarked, that the face is so liable to redden under various circumstances, such as a fever-fit, ordinary heat, violent exertion, anger, a slight blow, &c.; and on the other hand that it is liable to grow pale from cold and fear, and to be discoloured during pregnancy. The face is also particularly liable to be affected by cutaneous complaints, by small-pox, erysipelas, &c. This view is likewise supported by the fact that the men of certain races, who habitually go nearly naked, often blush over their arms and chests and even down to their waists. A lady, who is a great blusher, informs Dr. Crichton Browne, that when she feels ashamed or is agitated, she blushes over her face, neck, wrists, and hands,—that is, over all the exposed portions of her skin. Nevertheless it may be doubted whether the habitual exposure of the skin of the face and neck, and its consequent power of reaction under stimulants of all kinds, is by itself sufficient to account for the much greater tendency in English women of these parts than of others to blush; for the hands are well supplied with nerves and small vessels, and have been as much exposed to the air as the face or neck, and yet the hands rarely blush. We shall presently see that the attention of the mind having been directed much more frequently and earnestly to the face than to any other part of the body, probably affords a sufficient explanation.

Blushing in the various races of man.—The small vessels of the face become filled with blood, from the emotion of shame, in almost all the races of man, though in the very dark races no distinct change of colour can be perceived. Blushing is evident in all the Aryan nations of Europe, and to a certain extent with those of India. But Mr. Erskine has never noticed that the necks of the Hindoos are decidedly affected. With the Lepchas of Sikhim, Mr. Scott has often observed a faint blush on the cheeks, base of the ears, and sides of the neck, accompanied by sunken eyes and lowered head. This has occurred when he has detected them in a falsehood, or has accused them of ingratitude. The pale, sallow complexions of these men render a blush much more conspicuous than in most of the other natives of India. With the latter, shame, or it may be in part fear, is expressed, according to Mr. Scott, much more plainly by the head being averted or bent down, with the eyes wavering or turned askant, than by any change of colour in the skin.

The Semitic races blush freely, as might have been expected, from their general similitude to the Aryans. Thus with the Jews, it is said in the Book of Jeremiah (chap. vi. 15), “Nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush.” Mrs. Asa Gray saw an Arab managing his boat clumsily on the Nile, and when laughed at by his companions, “he blushed quite to the back of his neck.” Lady Duff Gordon remarks that a young Arab blushed on coming into her presence.

Mr. Swinhoe has seen the Chinese blushing, but he thinks it is rare; yet they have the expression “to redden with shame.” Mr. Geach informs me that the Chinese settled in Malacca and the native Malays of the interior both blush. Some of these people go nearly naked, and he particularly attended to the downward extension of the blush. Omitting the cases in which the face alone was seen to blush, Mr. Geach observed that the face, arms, and breast of a Chinaman, aged 24 years, reddened from shame; and with another Chinese, when asked why he had not done his work in better style, the whole body was similarly affected. In two Malays he saw the face, neck, breast, and arms blushing; and in a third Malay (a Bugis) the blush extended down to the waist.

The Polynesians blush freely. The Rev. Mr. Stack has seen hundreds of instances with the New Zealanders. The following case is worth giving, as it relates to an old man who was unusually dark-coloured and partly tattooed. After having let his land to an Englishman for a small yearly rental, a strong passion seized him to buy a gig, which had lately become the fashion with the Maoris. He consequently wished to draw all the rent for four years from his tenant, and consulted Mr. Stack whether he could do so. The man was old, clumsy, poor, and ragged, and the idea of his driving himself about in his carriage for display amused Mr. Stack so much that he could not help bursting out into a laugh; and then “the old man blushed up to the roots of his hair.” Forster says that “you may easily distinguish a spreading blush” on the cheeks of the fairest women in Tahiti. The natives also of several of the other archipelagoes in the Pacific have been seen to blush.

Mr. Washington Matthews has often seen a blush on the faces of the young squaws belonging to various wild Indian tribes of North America. At the opposite extremity of the continent in Tierra del Fuego, the natives, according to Mr. Bridges, “blush much, but chiefly in regard to women; but they certainly blush also at their own personal appearance.” This latter statement agrees with what I remember of the Fuegian, Jemmy Button, who blushed when he was quizzed about the care which he took in polishing his shoes, and in otherwise adorning himself. With respect to the Aymara Indians on the lofty plateaus of Bolivia, Mr. Forbes says, that from the colour of their skins it is impossible that their blushes should be as clearly visible as in the white races; still under such circumstances as would raise a blush in us, “there can always be seen the same expression of modesty or confusion; and even in the dark, a rise of temperature of the skin of the face can be felt, exactly as occurs in the European.” With the Indians who inhabit the hot, equable, and damp parts of South America, the skin apparently does not answer to mental excitement so readily as with the natives of the northern and southern parts of the continent, who have long been exposed to great vicissitudes of climate; for Humboldt quotes without a protest the sneer of the Spaniard, “How can those be trusted, who know not how to blush?” Von Spix and Martius, in speaking of the aborigines of Brazil, assert that they cannot properly be said to blush; “it was only after long intercourse with the whites, and after receiving some education, that we perceived in the Indians a change of colour expressive of the emotions of their minds.” It is, however, incredible that the power of blushing could have thus originated; but the habit of self-attention, consequent on their education and new course of life, would have much increased any innate tendency to blush.

Several trustworthy observers have assured me that they have seen on the faces of negroes an appearance resembling a blush, under circumstances which would have excited one in us, though their skins were of an ebony-black tint. Some describe it as blushing brown, but most say that the blackness becomes more intense. An increased supply of blood in the skin seems in some manner to increase its blackness; thus certain exanthematous diseases cause the affected places in the negro to appear blacker, instead of, as with us, redder. The skin, perhaps, from being rendered more tense by the filling of the capillaries, would reflect a somewhat different tint to what it did before. That the capillaries of the face in the negro become filled with blood, under the emotion of shame, we may feel confident; because a perfectly characterized albino negress, described by Buffon, showed a faint tinge of crimson on her cheeks when she exhibited herself naked. Cicatrices of the skin remain for a long time white in the negro, and Dr. Burgess, who had frequent opportunities of observing a scar of this kind on the face of a negress, distinctly saw that it “invariably became red whenever she was abruptly spoken to, or charged with any trivial offence.” The blush could be seen proceeding from the circumference of the scar towards the middle, but it did not reach the centre. Mulattoes are often great blushers, blush succeeding blush over their faces. From these facts there can be no doubt that negroes blush, although no redness is visible on the skin.

I am assured by Gaika and by Mrs. Barber that the Kafirs of South Africa never blush; but this may only mean that no change of colour is distinguishable. Gaika adds that under the circumstances which would make a European blush, his countrymen “look ashamed to keep their heads up.”

It is asserted by four of my informants that the Australians, who are almost as black as negroes, never blush. A fifth answers doubtfully, remarking that only a very strong blush could be seen, on account of the dirty state of their skins. Three observers state that they do blush; Mr. S. Wilson adding that this is noticeable only under a strong emotion, and when the skin is not too dark from long exposure and want of cleanliness. Mr. Lang answers, “I have noticed that shame almost always excites a blush, which frequently extends as low as the neck.” Shame is also shown, as he adds, “by the eyes being turned from side to side.” As Mr. Lang was a teacher in a native school, it is probable that he chiefly observed children; and we know that they blush more than adults. Mr. G. Taplin has seen half-castes blushing, and he says that the aborigines have a word expressive of shame. Mr. Hagenauer, who is one of those who has never observed the Australians to blush, says that he has “seen them looking down to the ground on account of shame;” and the missionary, Mr. Bulmer, remarks that though “I have not been able to detect anything like shame in the adult aborigines, I have noticed that the eyes of the children, when ashamed, present a restless, watery appearance, as if they did not know where to look.”

The facts now given are sufficient to show that blushing, whether or not there is any change of colour, is common to most, probably to all, of the races of man.

Movements and gestures which accompany Blushing.—Under a keen sense of shame there is a strong desire for concealment. We turn away the whole body, more especially the face, which we endeavour in some manner to hide. An ashamed person can hardly endure to meet the gaze of those present, so that he almost invariably casts down his eyes or looks askant. As there generally exists at the same time a strong wish to avoid the appearance of shame, a vain attempt is made to look direct at the person who causes this feeling; and the antagonism between these opposite tendencies leads to various restless movements in the eyes. I have noticed two ladies who, whilst blushing, to which they are very liable, have thus acquired, as it appears, the oddest trick of incessantly blinking their eyelids with extraordinary rapidity. An intense blush is sometimes accompanied by a slight effusion of tears; and this, I presume, is due to the lacrymal glands partaking of the increased supply of blood, which we know rushes into the capillaries of the adjoining parts, including the retina.

Many writers, ancient and modern, have noticed the foregoing movements; and it has already been shown that the aborigines in various parts of the world often exhibit their shame by looking downwards or askant, or by restless movements of their eyes. Ezra cries out (ch. ix. 6), “O, my God! I am ashamed, and blush to lift up my head to thee, my God.” In Isaiah (ch. I. 6) we meet with the words, “I hid not my face from shame.” Seneca remarks (Epist. xi. 5) “that the Roman players hang down their heads, fix their eyes on the ground and keep them lowered, but are unable to blush in acting shame.” According to Macrobius, who lived in the filth century (‘Saturnalia,’ B. vii. C. 11), “Natural philosophers assert that nature being moved by shame spreads the blood before herself as a veil, as we see any one blushing often puts his hands before his face.” Shakspeare makes Marcus (‘Titus Andronicus,’ act ii, sc. 5) say to his niece, “Ah! now thou turn’st away thy face for shame.” A lady informs me that she found in the Lock Hospital a girl whom she had formerly known, and who had become a wretched castaway, and the poor creature, when approached, hid her face under the bed-clothes, and could not be persuaded to uncover it. We often see little children, when shy or ashamed, turn away, and still standing up, bury their faces in their mother’s gown; or they throw themselves face downwards on her lap.

Confusion of mind.—Most persons, whilst blushing intensely, have their mental powers confused. This is recognized in such common expressions as “she was covered with confusion.” Persons in this condition lose their presence of mind, and utter singularly inappropriate remarks. They are often much distressed, stammer, and make awkward movements or strange grimaces. In certain cases involuntary twitchings of some of the facial muscles may be observed. I have been informed by a young lady, who blushes excessively, that at such times she does not even know what she is saying. When it was suggested to her that this might be due to her distress from the consciousness that her blushing was noticed, she answered that this could not be the case, “as she had sometimes felt quite as stupid when blushing at a thought in her own room.”

I will give an instance of the extreme disturbance of mind to which some sensitive men are liable. A gentleman, on whom I can rely, assured me that he had been an eye-witness of the following scene:—A small dinner-party was given in honour of an extremely shy man, who, when he rose to return thanks, rehearsed the speech, which he had evidently learnt by heart, in absolute silence, and did not utter a single word; but he acted as if he were speaking with much emphasis. His friends, perceiving how the case stood, loudly applauded the imaginary bursts of eloquence, whenever his gestures indicated a pause, and the man never discovered that he had remained the whole time completely silent. On the contrary, he afterwards remarked to my friend, with much satisfaction, that he thought he had succeeded uncommonly well.

When a person is much ashamed or very shy, and blushes intensely, his heart beats rapidly and his breathing is disturbed. This can hardly fail to affect the circulation of the blood within the brain, and perhaps the mental powers. It seems however doubtful, judging from the still more powerful influence of anger and fear on the circulation, whether we can thus satisfactorily account for the confused state of mind in persons whilst blushing intensely.

The true explanation apparently lies in the intimate sympathy which exists between the capillary circulation of the surface of the head and face, and that of the brain. On applying to Dr. J. Crichton Browne for information, he has given me various facts bearing on this subject. When the sympathetic nerve is divided on one side of the head, the capillaries on this side are relaxed and become filled with blood, causing the skin to redden and to grow hot, and at the same time the temperature within the cranium on the same side rises. Inflammation of the membranes of the brain leads to the engorgement of the face, ears, and eyes with blood. The first stage of an epileptic fit appears to be the contraction of the vessels of the brain, and the first outward manifestation is, an extreme pallor of countenance. Erysipelas of the head commonly induces delirium. Even the relief given to a severe headache by burning the skin with strong lotion, depends, I presume, on the same principle.

Dr. Browne has often administered to his patients the vapour of the nitrite of amyl, which has the singular property of causing vivid redness of the face in from thirty to sixty seconds. This flushing resembles blushing in almost every detail: it begins at several distinct points on the face, and spreads till it involves the whole surface of the head, neck, and front of the chest; but has been observed to extend only in one case to the abdomen. The arteries in the retina become enlarged; the eyes glisten, and in one instance there was a slight effusion of tears. The patients are at first pleasantly stimulated, but, as the flushing increases, they become confused and bewildered. One woman to whom the vapour had often been administered asserted that, as soon as she grew hot, she grew MUDDLED. With persons just commencing to blush it appears, judging from their bright eyes and lively behaviour, that their mental powers are somewhat stimulated. It is only when the blushing is excessive that the mind grows confused. Therefore it would seem that the capillaries of the face are affected, both during the inhalation of the nitrite of amyl and during blushing, before that part of the brain is affected on which the mental powers depend.

Conversely when the brain is primarily affected; the circulation of the skin is so in a secondary manner. Dr. Browne has frequently observed, as he informs me, scattered red blotches and mottlings on the chests of epileptic patients. In these cases, when the skin on the thorax or abdomen is gently rubbed with a pencil or other object, or, in strongly-marked cases, is merely touched by the finger, the surface becomes suffused in less than half a minute with bright red marks, which spread to some distance on each side of the touched point, and persist for several minutes. These are the cerebral maculae of Trousseau; and they indicate, as Dr. Browne remarks, a highly modified condition of the cutaneous vascular system. If, then, there exists, as cannot be doubted, an intimate sympathy between the capillary circulation in that part of the brain on which our mental powers depend, and in the skin of the face, it is not surprising that the moral causes which induce intense blushing should likewise induce, independently of their own disturbing influence, much confusion of mind.

The Nature of the Mental States which induce Blushing.—These consist of shyness, shame, and modesty; the essential element in all being self-attention. Many reasons can be assigned for believing that originally self-attention directed to personal appearance, in relation to the opinion of others, was the exciting cause; the same effect being subsequently produced, through the force of association, by self-attention in relation to moral conduct. It is not the simple act of reflecting on our own appearance, but the thinking what others think of us, which excites a blush. In absolute solitude the most sensitive person would be quite indifferent about his appearance. We feel blame or disapprobation more acutely than approbation; and consequently depreciatory remarks or ridicule, whether of our appearance or conduct, causes us to blush much more readily than does praise. But undoubtedly praise and admiration are highly efficient: a pretty girl blushes when a man gazes intently at her, though she may know perfectly well that he is not depreciating her. Many children, as well as old and sensitive persons blush, when they are much praised. Hereafter the question will be discussed, how it has arisen that the consciousness that others are attending to our personal appearance should have led to the capillaries, especially those of the face, instantly becoming filled with blood.

My reasons for believing that attention directed to personal appearance, and not to moral conduct, has been the fundamental element in the acquirement of the habit of blushing, will now be given. They are separately light, but combined possess, as it appears to me, considerable weight. It is notorious that nothing makes a shy person blush so much as any remark, however slight, on his personal appearance. One cannot notice even the dress of a woman much given to blushing, without causing her face to crimson. It is sufficient to stare hard at some persons to make them, as Coleridge remarks, blush,—“account for that he who can.”

With the two albinos observed by Dr. Burgess, “the slightest attempt to examine their peculiarities invariably caused them to blush deeply.” Women are much more sensitive about their personal appearance than men are, especially elderly women in comparison with elderly men, and they blush much more freely. The young of both sexes are much more sensitive on this same head than the old, and they also blush much more freely than the old. Children at a very early age do not blush; nor do they show those other signs of self-consciousness which generally accompany blushing; and it is one of their chief charms that they think nothing about what others think of them. At this early age they will stare at a stranger with a fixed gaze and un-blinking eyes, as on an inanimate object, in a manner which we elders cannot imitate.

It is plain to every one that young men and women are highly sensitive to the opinion of each other with reference to their personal appearance; and they blush incomparably more in the presence of the opposite sex than in that of their own. A young man, not very liable to blush, will blush intensely at any slight ridicule of his appearance from a girl whose judgment on any important subject he would disregard. No happy pair of young lovers, valuing each other’s admiration and love more than anything else in the world, probably ever courted each other without many a blush. Even the barbarians of Tierra del Fuego, according to Mr. Bridges, blush “chiefly in regard to women, but certainly also at their own personal appearance.”

Of all parts of the body, the face is most considered and regarded, as is natural from its being the chief seat of expression and the source of the voice. It is also the chief seat of beauty and of ugliness, and throughout the world is the most ornamented.The face, therefore, will have been subjected during many generations to much closer and more earnest self-attention than any other part of the body; and in accordance with the principle here advanced we can understand why it should be the most liable to blush. Although exposure to alternations of temperature, &c., has probably much increased the power of dilatation and contraction in the capillaries of the face and adjoining parts, yet this by itself will hardly account for these parts blushing much more than the rest of the body; for it does not explain the fact of the hands rarely blushing. With Europeans the whole body tingles slightly when the face blushes intensely; and with the races of men who habitually go nearly naked, the blushes extend over a much larger surface than with us. These facts are, to a certain extent, intelligible, as the self-attention of primeval man, as well as of the existing races which still go naked, will not have been so exclusively confined to their faces, as is the case with the people who now go clothed.

We have seen that in all parts of the world persons who feel shame for some moral delinquency, are apt to avert, bend down, or hide their faces, independently of any thought about their personal appearance. The object can hardly be to conceal their blushes, for the face is thus averted or hidden under circumstances which exclude any desire to conceal shame, as when guilt is fully confessed and repented of. It is, however, probable that primeval man before he had acquired much moral sensitiveness would have been highly sensitive about his personal appearance, at least in reference to the other sex, and he would consequently have felt distress at any depreciatory remarks about his appearance; and this is one form of shame. And as the face is the part of the body which is most regarded, it is intelligible that any one ashamed of his personal appearance would desire to conceal this part of his body. The habit having been thus acquired, would naturally be carried on when shame from strictly moral causes was felt; and it is not easy otherwise to see why under these circumstances there should be a desire to hide the face more than any other part of the body.

The habit, so general with every one who feels ashamed, of turning away, or lowering his eyes, or restlessly moving them from side to side, probably follows from each glance directed towards those present, bringing home the conviction that he is intently regarded; and he endeavours, by not looking at those present, and especially not at their eyes, momentarily to escape from this painful conviction.

Shyness.—This odd state of mind, often called shamefacedness, or false shame, or mauvaise honte, appears to be one of the most efficient of all the causes of blushing. Shyness is, indeed, chiefly recognized by the face reddening, by the eyes being averted or cast down, and by awkward, nervous movements of the body. Many a woman blushes from this cause, a hundred, perhaps a thousand times, to once that she blushes from having done anything deserving blame, and of which she is truly ashamed. Shyness seems to depend on sensitiveness to the opinion, whether good or bad, of others, more especially with respect to external appearance. Strangers neither know nor care anything about our conduct or character, but they may, and often do, criticize our appearance: hence shy persons are particularly apt to be shy and to blush in the presence of strangers. The consciousness of anything peculiar, or even new, in the dress, or any slight blemish on the person, and more especially, on the face—points which are likely to attract the attention of strangers—makes the shy intolerably shy. On the other hand, in those cases in which conduct and not personal appearance is concerned, we are much more apt to be shy in the presence of acquaintances, whose judgment we in some degree value, than in that of strangers. A physician told me that a young man, a wealthy duke, with whom he had travelled as medical attendant, blushed like a girl, when he paid him his fee; yet this young man probably would not have blushed and been shy, had he been paying a bill to a tradesman. Some persons, however, are so sensitive, that the mere act of speaking to almost any one is sufficient to rouse their self-consciousness, and a slight blush is the result.

Disapprobation or ridicule, from our sensitiveness on this head, causes shyness and blushing much more readily than does approbation; though the latter with some persons is highly efficient. The conceited are rarely shy; for they value themselves much too highly to expect depreciation. Why a proud man is often shy, as appears to be the case, is not so obvious, unless it be that, with all his self-reliance, he really thinks much about the opinion of others although in a disdainful spirit. Persons who are exceedingly shy are rarely shy in the presence of those with whom they are quite familiar, and of whose good opinion and sympathy they are perfectly assured;—for instance, a girl in the presence of her mother. I neglected to inquire in my printed paper whether shyness can be detected in the different races of man; but a Hindoo gentleman assured Mr. Erskine that it is recognizable in his countrymen.

Shyness, as the derivation of the word indicates in several languages, is closely related to fear; yet it is distinct from fear in the ordinary sense. A shy man no doubt dreads the notice of strangers, but can hardly be said to be afraid of them, he may be as bold as a hero in battle, and yet have no self-confidence about trifles in the presence of strangers. Almost every one is extremely nervous when first addressing a public assembly, and most men remain so throughout their lives; but this appears to depend on the consciousness of a great coming exertion, with its associated effects on the system, rather than on shyness; although a timid or shy man no doubt suffers on such occasions infinitely more than another. With very young children it is difficult to distinguish between fear and shyness; but this latter feeling with them has often seemed to me to partake of the character of the wildness of an untamed animal. Shyness comes on at a very early age. In one of my own children, when two years and three months old, I saw a trace of what certainly appeared to be shyness, directed towards myself after an absence from home of only a week. This was shown not by a blush, but by the eyes being for a few minutes slightly averted from me. I have noticed on other occasions that shyness or shamefacedness and real shame are exhibited in the eyes of young children before they have acquired the power of blushing.

As shyness apparently depends on self-attention, we can perceive how right are those who maintain that reprehending children for shyness, instead of doing them any good, does much harm, as it calls their attention still more closely to themselves. It has been well urged that “nothing hurts young people more than to be watched continually about their feelings, to have their countenances scrutinized, and the degrees of their sensibility measured by the surveying eye of the unmerciful spectator. Under the constraint of such examinations they can think of nothing but that they are looked at, and feel nothing but shame or apprehension.”

Moral causes: guilt.—With respect to blushing from strictly moral causes, we meet with the same fundamental principle as before, namely, regard for the opinion of others. It is not the conscience which raises a blush, for a man may sincerely regret some slight fault committed in solitude, or he may suffer the deepest remorse for an undetected crime, but he will not blush. “I blush,” says Dr. Burgess, “in the presence of my accusers.” It is not the sense of guilt, but the thought that others think or know us to be guilty which crimsons the face. A man may feel thoroughly ashamed at having told a small falsehood, without blushing; but if he even suspects that he is detected he will instantly blush, especially if detected by one whom he reveres.

On the other hand, a man may be convinced that God witnesses all his actions, and he may feel deeply conscious of some fault and pray for forgiveness; but this will not, as a lady who is a great blusher believes, ever excite a blush. The explanation of this difference between the knowledge by God and man of our actions lies, I presume, in man’s disapprobation of immoral conduct being somewhat akin in nature to his depreciation of our personal appearance, so that through association both lead to similar results; whereas the disapprobation of God brings up no such association.

Many a person has blushed intensely when accused of some crime, though completely innocent of it. Even the thought, as the lady before referred to has observed to me, that others think that we have made an unkind or stupid remark, is amply sufficient to cause a blush, although we know all the time that we have been completely misunderstood. An action may be meritorious or of an indifferent nature, but a sensitive person, if he suspects that others take a different view of it, will blush. For instance, a lady by herself may give money to a beggar without a trace of a blush, but if others are present, and she doubts whether they approve, or suspects that they think her influenced by display, she will blush. So it will be, if she offers to relieve the distress of a decayed gentlewoman, more particularly of one whom she had previously known under better circumstances, as she cannot then feel sure how her conduct will be viewed. But such cases as these blend into shyness.

Breaches of etiquette.—The rules of etiquette always refer to conduct in the presence of, or towards others. They have no necessary connection with the moral sense, and are often meaningless. Nevertheless as they depend on the fixed custom of our equals and superiors, whose opinion we highly regard, they are considered almost as binding as are the laws of honour to a gentleman. Consequently the breach of the laws of etiquette, that is, any impoliteness or gaucherie, any impropriety, or an inappropriate remark, though quite accidental, will cause the most intense blushing of which a man is capable. Even the recollection of such an act, after an interval of many years, will make the whole body to tingle. So strong, also, is the power of sympathy that a sensitive person, as a lady has assured me, will sometimes blush at a flagrant breach of etiquette by a perfect stranger, though the act may in no way concern her.

Modesty.—This is another powerful agent in exciting blushes; but the word modesty includes very different states of the mind. It implies humility, and we often judge of this by persons being greatly pleased and blushing at slight praise, or by being annoyed at praise which seems to them too high according to their own humble standard of themselves. Blushing here has the usual signification of regard for the opinion of others. But modesty frequently relates to acts of indelicacy; and indelicacy is an affair of etiquette, as we clearly see with the nations that go altogether or nearly naked. He who is modest, and blushes easily at acts of this nature, does so because they are breaches of a firmly and wisely established etiquette. This is indeed shown by the derivation of the word modest from modus, a measure or standard of behaviour. A blush due to this form of modesty is, moreover, apt to be intense, because it generally relates to the opposite sex; and we have seen how in all cases our liability to blush is thus increased. We apply the term ‘modest,’ as it would appear, to those who have an humble opinion of themselves, and to those who are extremely sensitive about an indelicate word or deed, simply because in both cases blushes are readily excited, for these two frames of mind have nothing else in common. Shyness also, from this same cause, is often mistaken for modesty in the sense of humility.

Some persons flush up, as I have observed and have been assured, at any sudden and disagreeable recollection. The commonest cause seems to be the sudden remembrance of not having done something for another person which had been promised. In this case it may be that the thought passes half unconsciously through the mind, “What will he think of me?” and then the flush would partake of the nature of a true blush. But whether such flushes are in most cases due to the capillary circulation being affected, is very doubtful; for we must remember that almost every strong emotion, such as anger or great joy, acts on the heart, and causes the face to redden.

The fact that blushes may be excited in absolute solitude seems opposed to the view here taken, namely that the habit originally arose from thinking about what others think of us. Several ladies, who are great blushers, are unanimous in regard to solitude; and some of them believe that they have blushed in the dark. From what Mr. Forbes has stated with respect to the Aymaras, and from my own sensations, I have no doubt that this latter statement is correct. Shakspeare, therefore, erred when he made Juliet, who was not even by herself, say to Romeo (act ii. sc. 2):—

“Thou know’st the mask of night is on my face;
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek,
For that which thou hast heard me speak to-night.”

But when a blush is excited in solitude, the cause almost always relates to the thoughts of others about us—to acts done in their presence, or suspected by them; or again when we reflect what others would have thought of us had they known of the act. Nevertheless one or two of my informants believe that they have blushed from shame at acts in no way relating to others. If this be so, we must attribute the result to the force of inveterate habit and association, under a state of mind closely analogous to that which ordinarily excites a blush; nor need we feel surprise at this, as even sympathy with another person who commits a flagrant breach of etiquette is believed, as we have just seen, sometimes to cause a blush.

Finally, then, I conclude that blushing,—whether due to shyness—to shame for a real crime—to shame from a breach of the laws of etiquette—to modesty from humility—to modesty from an indelicacy—depends in all cases on the same principle; this principle being a sensitive regard for the opinion, more particularly for the depreciation of others, primarily in relation to our personal appearance, especially of our faces; and secondarily, through the force of association and habit, in relation to the opinion of others on our conduct.

Theory of Blushing.—We have now to consider, why should the thought that others are thinking about us affect our capillary circulation? Sir C. Bell insists that blushing “is a provision for expression, as may be inferred from the colour extending only to the surface of the face, neck, and breast, the parts most exposed. It is not acquired; it is from the beginning.” Dr. Burgess believes that it was designed by the Creator in “order that the soul might have sovereign power of displaying in the cheeks the various internal emotions of the moral feelings;” so as to serve as a check on ourselves, and as a sign to others, that we were violating rules which ought to be held sacred. Gratiolet merely remarks,—“Or, comme il est dans l’ordre de la nature que l’être social le plus intelligent soit aussi le plus intelligible, cette faculté de rougeur et de pâleur qui distingue l’homme, est un signe naturel de sa haute perfection.”

The belief that blushing was SPECIALLY designed by the Creator is opposed to the general theory of evolution, which is now so largely accepted; but it forms no part of my duty here to argue on the general question. Those who believe in design, will find it difficult to account for shyness being the most frequent and efficient of all the causes of blushing, as it makes the blusher to suffer and the beholder uncomfortable, without being of the least service to either of them. They will also find it difficult to account for negroes and other dark-coloured races blushing, in whom a change of colour in the skin is scarcely or not at all visible.

No doubt a slight blush adds to the beauty of a maiden’s face; and the Circassian women who are capable of blushing, invariably fetch a higher price in the seraolio of the Sultan than less susceptible women. But the firmest believer in the efficacy of sexual selection will hardly suppose that blushing was acquired as a sexual ornament. This view would also be opposed to what has just been said about the dark-coloured races blushing in an invisible manner.

The hypothesis which appears to me the most probable, though it may at first seem rash, is that attention closely directed to any part of the body tends to interfere with the ordinary and tonic contraction of the small arteries of that part. These vessels, in consequence, become at such times more or less relaxed, and are instantly filled with arterial blood. This tendency will have been much strengthened, if frequent attention has been paid during many generations to the same part, owing to nerve-force readily flowing along accustomed channels, and by the power of inheritance. Whenever we believe that others are depreciating or even considering our personal appearance, our attention is vividly directed to the outer and visible parts of our bodies; and of all such parts we are most sensitive about our faces, as no doubt has been the case during many past generations. Therefore, assuming for the moment that the capillary vessels can be acted on by close attention, those of the face will have become eminently susceptible. Through the force of association, the same effects will tend to follow whenever we think that others are considering or censuring our actions or character.

As the basis of this theory rests on mental attention having some power to influence the capillary circulation, it will be necessary to give a considerable body of details, bearing more or less directly on this subject. Several observers, who from their wide experience and knowledge are eminently capable of forming a sound judgment, are convinced that attention or consciousness (which latter term Sir H. Holland thinks the more explicit) concentrated on almost any part of the body produces some direct physical effect on it. This applies to the movements of the involuntary muscles, and of the voluntary muscles when acting involuntarily,—to the secretion of the glands,—to the activity of the senses and sensations,—and even to the nutrition of parts.

It is known that the involuntary movements of the heart are affected if close attention be paid to them. Gratiolet gives the case of a man, who by continually watching and counting his own pulse, at last caused one beat out of every six to intermit. On the other hand, my father told me of a careful observer, who certainly had heart-disease and died from it, and who positively stated that his pulse was habitually irregular to an extreme degree; yet to his great disappointment it invariably became regular as soon as my father entered the room. Sir H. Holland remarks, that “the effect upon the circulation of a part from the consciousness suddenly directed and fixed upon it, is often obvious and immediate.” Professor Laycock, who has particularly attended to phenomena of this nature, insists that “when the attention is directed to any portion of the body, innervation and circulation are excited locally, and the functional activity of that portion developed.”

It is generally believed that the peristaltic movements of the intestines are influenced by attention being paid to them at fixed recurrent periods; and these movements depend on the contraction of unstriped and involuntary muscles. The abnormal action of the voluntary muscles in epilepsy, chorea, and hysteria is known to be influenced by the expectation of an attack, and by the sight of other patients similarly affected. So it is with the involuntary acts of yawning and laughing.

Certain glands are much influenced by thinking of them, or of the conditions under which they have been habitually excited. This is familiar to every one in the increased flow of saliva, when the thought, for instance, of intensely acid fruit is kept before the mind. It was shown in our sixth chapter, that an earnest and long-continued desire either to repress, or to increase, the action of the lacrymal glands is effectual. Some curious cases have been recorded in the case of women, of the power of the mind on the mammary glands; and still more remarkable ones in relation to the uterine functions.

See Gratiolet on this subject, De la Phys. p. 287. Dr. J. Crichton Browne, from his observations on the insane, is convinced that attention directed for a prolonged period on any part or organ may ultimately influence its capillary circulation and nutrition. He has given me some extraordinary cases; one of these, which cannot here be related in full, refers to a married woman fifty years of age, who laboured under the firm and long-continued delusion that she was pregnant. When the expected period arrived, she acted precisely as if she had been really delivered of a child, and seemed to suffer extreme pain, so that the perspiration broke out on her forehead. The result was that a state of things returned, continuing for three days, which had ceased during the six previous years. Mr. Braid gives, in his ‘Magic, Hypnotism,’ &c., 1852, p. 95, and in his other works analogous cases, as well as other facts showing the great influence of the will on the mammary glands, even on one breast alone.

When we direct our whole attention to any one sense, its acuteness is increased; and the continued habit of close attention, as with blind people to that of hearing, and with the blind and deaf to that of touch, appears to improve the sense in question permanently. There is, also, some reason to believe, judging from the capacities of different races of man, that the effects are inherited. Turning to ordinary sensations, it is well known that pain is increased by attending to it; and Sir B. Brodie goes so far as to believe that pain may be felt in any part of the body to which attention is closely drawn. Sir H. Holland also remarks that we become not only conscious of the existence of a part subjected to concentrated attention, but we experience in it various odd sensations as of weight, heat, cold, tingling, or itching.

Lastly, some physiologists maintain that the mind can influence the nutrition of parts. Sir J. Paget has given a curious instance of the power, not indeed of the mind, but of the nervous system, on the hair. A lady “who is subject to attacks of what is called nervous headache, always finds in the morning after such an one, that some patches of her hair are white, as if powdered with starch. The change is effected in a night, and in a few days after, the hairs gradually regain their dark brownish colour.”

We thus see that close attention certainly affects various parts and organs, which are not properly under the control of the will. By what means attention—perhaps the most wonderful of all the wondrous powers of the mind—is effected, is an extremely obscure subject. According to Müller, the process by which the sensory cells of the brain are rendered, through the will, susceptible of receiving more intense and distinct impressions, is closely analogous to that by which the motor cells are excited to send nerve-force to the voluntary muscles. There are many points of analogy in the action of the sensory and motor nerve-cells; for instance, the familiar fact that close attention to any one sense causes fatigue, like the prolonged exertion of any one muscle. When therefore we voluntarily concentrate our attention on any part of the body, the cells of the brain which receive impressions or sensations from that part are, it is probable, in some unknown manner stimulated into activity. This may account, without any local change in the part to which our attention is earnestly directed, for pain or odd sensations being there felt or increased.

If, however, the part is furnished with muscles, we cannot feel sure, as Mr. Michael Foster has remarked to me, that some slight impulse may not be unconsciously sent to such muscles; and this would probably cause an obscure sensation in the part.

In a large number of cases, as with the salivary and lacrymal glands, intestinal canal, &c., the power of attention seems to rest, either chiefly, or as some physiologists think, exclusively, on the vaso-motor system being affected in such a manner that more blood is allowed to flow into the capillaries of the part in question. This increased action of the capillaries may in some cases be combined with the simultaneously increased activity of the sensorium.

The manner in which the mind affects the vasomotor system may be conceived in the following manner. When we actually taste sour fruit, an impression is sent through the gustatory nerves to a certain part of the sensorium; this transmits nerve-force to the vasomotor centre, which consequently allows the muscular coats of the small arteries that permeate the salivary glands to relax. Hence more blood flows into these glands, and they secrete a copious supply of saliva. Now it does not seem an improbable assumption, that, when we reflect intently on a sensation, the same part of the sensorium, or a closely connected part of it, is brought into a state of activity, in the same manner as when we actually perceive the sensation. If so, the same cells in the brain will be excited, though, perhaps, in a less degree, by vividly thinking about a sour taste, as by perceiving it; and they will transmit in the one case, as in the other, nerve-force to the vaso-motor centre with the same results.

To give another, and, in some respects, more appropriate illustration. If a man stands before a hot fire, his face reddens. This appears to be due, as Mr. Michael Foster informs me, in part to the local action of the heat, and in part to a reflex action from the vaso-motor centres. In this latter case, the heat affects the nerves of the face; these transmit an impression to the sensory cells of the brain, which act on the vaso-motor centre, and this reacts on the small arteries of the face, relaxing them and allowing them to become filled with blood. Here, again, it seems not improbable that if we were repeatedly to concentrate with great earnestness our attention on the recollection of our heated faces, the same part of the sensorium which gives us the consciousness of actual heat would be in some slight degree stimulated, and would in consequence tend to transmit some nerve-force to the vaso-motor centres, so as to relax the capillaries of the face. Now as men during endless generations have had their attention often and earnestly directed to their personal appearance, and especially to their faces, any incipient tendency in the facial capillaries to be thus affected will have become in the course of time greatly strengthened through the principles just referred to, namely, nerve-force passing readily along accustomed channels, and inherited habit. Thus, as it appears to me, a plausible explanation is afforded of the leading phenomena connected with the act of blushing.

Recapitulation.—Men and women, and especially the young, have always valued, in a high degree, their personal appearance; and have likewise regarded the appearance of others. The face has been the chief object of attention, though, when man aboriginally went naked, the whole surface of his body would have been attended to. Our self-attention is excited almost exclusively by the opinion of others, for no person living in absolute solitude would care about his appearance. Every one feels blame more acutely than praise. Now, whenever we know, or suppose, that others are depreciating our personal appearance, our attention is strongly drawn towards ourselves, more especially to our faces. The probable effect of this will be, as has just been explained, to excite into activity that part of the sensorium, which receives the sensory nerves of the face; and this will react through the vaso-motor system on the facial capillaries. By frequent reiteration during numberless generations, the process will have become so habitual, in association with the belief that others are thinking of us, that even a suspicion of their depreciation suffices to relax the capillaries, without any conscious thought about our faces. With some sensitive persons it is enough even to notice their dress to produce the same effect. Through the force, also, of association and inheritance our capillaries are relaxed, whenever we know, or imagine, that any one is blaming, though in silence, our actions, thoughts, or character; and, again, when we are highly praised.

On this hypothesis we can understand how it is that the face blushes much more than any other part of the body, though the whole surface is somewhat affected, more especially with the races which still go nearly naked. It is not at all surprising that the dark-coloured races should blush, though no change of colour is visible in their skins. From the principle of inheritance it is not surprising that persons born blind should blush. We can understand why the young are much more affected than the old, and women more than men; and why the opposite sexes especially excite each other’s blushes. It becomes obvious why personal remarks should be particularly liable to cause blushing, and why the most powerful of all the causes is shyness; for shyness relates to the presence and opinion of others, and the shy are always more or less self-conscious. With respect to real shame from moral delinquencies, we can perceive why it is not guilt, but the thought that others think us guilty, which raises a blush. A man reflecting on a crime committed in solitude, and stung by his conscience, does not blush; yet he will blush under the vivid recollection of a detected fault, or of one committed in the presence of others, the degree of blushing being closely related to the feeling of regard for those who have detected, witnessed, or suspected his fault. Breaches of conventional rules of conduct, if they are rigidly insisted on by our equals or superiors, often cause more intense blushes even than a detected crime, and an act which is really criminal, if not blamed by our equals, hardly raises a tinge of colour on our cheeks. Modesty from humility, or from an indelicacy, excites a vivid blush, as both relate to the judgment or fixed customs of others.

From the intimate sympathy which exists between the capillary circulation of the surface of the head and of the brain, whenever there is intense blushing, there will be some, and often great, confusion of mind. This is frequently accompanied by awkward movements, and sometimes by the involuntary twitching of certain muscles.

As blushing, according to this hypothesis, is an indirect result of attention, originally directed to our personal appearance, that is to the surface of the body, and more especially to the face, we can understand the meaning of the gestures which accompany blushing throughout the world. These consist in hiding the face, or turning it towards the ground, or to one side. The eyes are generally averted or are restless, for to look at the man who causes us to feel shame or shyness, immediately brings home in an intolerable manner the consciousness that his gaze is directed on us. Through the principle of associated habit, the same movements of the face and eyes are practised, and can, indeed, hardly be avoided, whenever we know or believe that, others are blaming, or too strongly praising, our moral conduct.

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