2 - Psychophysiology of the blush  pp. 15-38

Psychophysiology of the blush

By Peter D. Drummond

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In Darwin’s view, blushing was ‘the most peculiar and most human of all expressions’ (1872/1965, p. 309). However, over the past twenty-five years an accumulating body of programmatic research has begun to shed light on the psychophysiological mechanisms and emotional correlates of blushing. This research is reviewed below.

Physiological mechanisms that may contribute to blushing

Blushing refers to reddening of the face in emotionally charged situations, typically in association with feelings of embarrassment, guilt or shame. The reddening is due to an accumulation of red blood cells in the superficial venous plexus in the facial skin. This appears to involve an active dilatation of the arterial supply because vascular pulsations increase markedly during blushing (Figure 2.1). In addition, as facial veins are supplied with β-adrenoceptors (Mellander et al., 1982), a β-adrenergic mechanism that contributes to the dilatation of veins may increase their capacity to hold blood.

The neural regulation of blood flow is more complex for the face than for most other regions of the body, because facial blood vessels supply the sensitive membranes of the eyes, nose and mouth in addition to the skin. Thus, broadly distributed sympathetic vasoconstrictor and dilator reflexes, locally distributed parasympathetic reflexes and vasodilator reflexes mediated by sensory nerves all influence facial blood flow. In addition, substances that arrive in the bloodstream (e.g., hormones, vasoactive peptides, dietary products and drugs), or that are produced locally by the vascular endothelium, add an extra level of control over facial blood flow. Potentially, each of these influences could contribute to blushing, although some of these influences clearly are more important than others.

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