“Thank goodness this picture is black and white, otherwise you’d be able to see me blushing!” Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Why do we blush?

Why should an emotional response take this particular form and does it serve any purpose?

Awkward and embarrassing, the human act of blushing raises many difficult psychological and physiological questions. Why should an emotional response take this particular form and does it serve any purpose? Signs of fear such as pallor, trembling and “butterflies in the stomach” seem to make sense in terms of the body’s preparation for action – but the utility of face reddening and increased skin temperature is not so evident.

Blushing seems to increase our visibility when we would least like to be seen. Making generalisations about its function is also made difficult by the fact that blushing is more noticeable on certain skin types. This raises the question of whether or not it is always the same or if there are distinct types, with different meanings. Scientific research is beginning to address these questions although there is still no consensus on answers.

A source of embarrassment

Where there does seem to be consensus is that most of us dislike our blushing. It is associated with unpleasant social predicaments, mental confusion and uncertainty over how to behave. It creates an impression of incompetence and lack of poise. The involuntary and uncontrollable nature of the blush contributes to a sense of being unable to cope.

In psychiatric diagnoses, fear of blushing is considered to be a symptom of social anxiety disorder. Many sufferers are prepared to undergo surgery on their sympathetic nervous system in order to prevent reddening – this involves cutting or clamping the nerve tissue that causes sweating and blushing. But this procedure can have unpleasant side effects such as compensatory sweating, as blushing is part of the body’s way of cooling itself down.

Benefits of blushing

But are we right to think of the blush in solely negative terms? This brings us back to the question of its function. Bodily reactions that give rise to unpleasant experiences can serve vital protective purposes, for example in the case of fear, shame or pain.

Social psychologists argue that embarrassment serves valuable social functions. At a societal level, it can prove a relatively painless means of enforcing social norms. As an unpleasant experience, we are keen to avoid it and this motivates us to regulate our own conduct without the necessity of externally imposed sanctions.

In specific encounters, a blush can allow participants to overcome temporary difficulties that might otherwise disrupt or dissolve relationships in the same way as a spontaneous and sincere verbal apology offered by someone at fault can forestall any aggression and enable the encounter to continue smoothly. And for individuals, by indicating to others their acknowledgement of social norms and willingness to adhere to them, outward signs of embarrassment can enhance their acceptability to the group.

From this perspective, if there was no embarrassment, then aggression might result or social rejection – the shameless, brazen, “unblushing” person is not someone whose company we would necessarily seek out. Is this where the functions of the blush are to be found?

Betraying innocence

Research shows that participants who are seen to blush after having infringed a social norm, for example by knocking over a pile of cans in a supermarket, tend to be judged less harshly than those who carry out the same action but do not blush. A visible blush seems to enhance the observer’s impression that the blusher is ashamed, embarrassed and concerned about others’ good opinion – indeed, the inadvertent nature of the blush may contribute to this judgement.

Yet this is not always the case. Research carried out by Peter de Jong and colleagues in The Netherlands finds that in ambiguous circumstances, where people’s motives are unclear – for example they cannot produce a ticket when the collector requests it – their blush tends to be perceived as a sign of guilt and they are not viewed more positively. Clearly the social context influences observers’ interpretations of reddening.

My current research interest is in blushing in the absence of a transgression or mishap, notably when some cue induces anxiety that something is likely to be revealed about us that we would prefer not to become known. In these circumstances the blush might actually produce the predicament or negative judgements that we fear.

Evolutionary origins

Some theorists locate observations on blushing within an evolutionary framework. Evolutionary explanations of shame regard its expression and actions that accompany it – gaze aversion, shrinking posture, hiding, fleeing – as “appeasement displays”. These act as signals to dominant individuals that they aren’t posing a threat and accept a subordinate position in the group.

Appeasement displays are common among primates and the blush might be an equivalent in humans, serving as a nonverbal form of apology or offer of remediation. It can be all the more effective because the involuntary nature of the signal means that it will be judged as sincere.

We have no direct evidence for this and no indication whether the blush serves similar functions across cultures or among people of different skin types. Perhaps the transient unpleasantness of the blush is a price worth paying for the wider and longer-term benefits for society and indeed for the individual blusher.

The ConversationWalter Raymond Crozier does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage