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    damonisherwood's picture
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    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 onblushing, 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 ofthat 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 aseither 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’steam 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 ofthe 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 knowledgethat we are fundamentally, irrevocably good. Understanding the human condition is not only the key to blushing, it is the key to everything. 

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    damonish

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    Joe Blow's picture
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    The blush is not such a big mystery, nor does it require Jeremy Griffith's unscientific theory to make it understandable.

    The blush is an involuntary biological response which acts as a form of communication. Because the face is our primary location for communication - it is where we smile and the place from which we talk - when we are self-conscious in the presence of others blood may rush to it causing it to redden. This communicates to others that we are feeling self-conscious.

    But shame is not the only reason why we might blush. Some of us blush when positive attention is paid to us, when we receive an embarrassing amount of praise. And very shy individuals tend to blush more often because they have greater social anxiety and feel self-conscious to a greater degree.

    The fact that we might place greater trust in someone who blushes is a reflection of the fact that honest communication is a basis for trust. A blush is an honest form of communication. The same is true for an unforced smile or even a spontaneous expression of anger. Where we are not liable to trust someone is if they have a poker face, that is if they do not communicate their emotions.

    Love is open, honest, spontaneous and generous communication, so a blush is a limited, involuntary expression of love. If we have done someone an injustice, a blush is a confession, the appropriate loving response when we have done this, albeit one over which we have no control.

    To talk about blushing in evolutionary terms implies that some individuals could be born with the ability to blush and others without the ability to blush. Blushing requires certain physical characteristics. Can a very black man blush? I don't know. Blushing is certainly far more obvious in a person with pale skin. However, if a person has pale skin and the blood flow is not restricted to the face, then how can they have an inborn inability to blush? Therefore a person who does not blush is someone whose thinking makes them less prone to feelings of self-consciousness. Some of us are very prone to feelings of shame or embarrassments, others are very secure in themselves and don't really care whether others approve of their behaviour or not.

    Jeremy Griffith arrived at his theories by a very unscientific method. In the author note of Beyond the Human Condition he says that his writing "grew out of my desperate need to reconcile my extreme idealism with reality". A true scientist doesn't start with an a priori assumption and then try to make the facts fit it. This is what Griffith has done. A truly scientific, i.e. objective, approach would have had to allow for the possibility that his extreme idealism was itself pathological. An unwillingness to allow this possibility leads him to talk of an "innocent" state which combines unconditional love with extreme idealism. This is a logical impossibility since idealism is the placing of conditions. Idealism is not love. The essence of love is acceptance. The essence of idealism is lack of acceptance of what is not the way we feel it should be.

    I began studying Jeremy Griffith's theories in about 1989. I met him a few times and did some voluntary work for him. I introduced him to the works of R. D. Laing and sent him a copy of Soren Kierkegaard's The Sickness Unto Death with key passages underlined. I transcribed several hours of tapes for him. I wanted to believe he had the answers. But there were too many things which ended up not making sense.

    Today so much is loaded onto the genes. Some say that homosexuality is in someone's genes. Others say schizophrenia is in the genes. Cancer is in the genes. Genetic determinism has been a major theme in biology, psychology and medicine. And Jeremy Griffith says that even our sense of morality is in our genes. Well, someone is going to have to show us how a bunch of chemicals which tell our cells what kind of proteins to make can be responsible for all of this.

    My experience during my life has been that my idea of what is right or wrong has been based on one of two things. Now it is based on reason. If I can reasonably understand that something is against my own best interests (and something which is against the deepest interests of others around me is against my own best interests) then it is to be avoided if at all possible. But there was a time before I learned the art of unconditional self-acceptance when my self-acceptance was dependent on what others thought of me. In this state, another person's belief that something I was doing was wrong might influence my feelings, not because there was any logical reason to believe that it was wrong, but only because I felt dependent on social acceptance.

    The conscience is a part of our ego. It is the part of our ego where we store our expectations about ourselves. It is something we develop only after our self-acceptance becomes conditional, due to "taking on board" the criticisms or other negative responses of others towards us. The conscience is a codification of conditions for self acceptance. Guilt is the pain which comes when our ability to maintain our self-acceptance collapses.

    Jeremy Griffith believes that our conscience is hereditary. Interestingly, however, the kind of behaviour he sees it as dictating corresponds to the social norms of the rural Australian community of the 1950s in which he grew up.

    Liberation from the human condition is very easy. It consists in re-learning the art of unconditional self-acceptance with which we were born. All unhealthy forms of human behaviour arise from insecurity (i.e. lack of self-acceptance) and are defensive. There is a general principle. If something is positive and we accept it it will increase. If something is positive and we don't accept it it will decrease. If something is negative and we don't accept it it will increase. If something is negative and we accept it it will decrease. This is because the negative is defensive and thus increases with criticism. The fully self-accepting individual is motivated by love to help others, to problem solve and to create.

    The concept of selflessness is a problematic one. It is often used to make people feel guilty and thus decrease their self-acceptance and make them more exploitable. Our behaviour is inescapably motivated by self-interest. The self is the medium in which motivation takes place. In general our behaviour is motivated by the pleasure principle - we seek out what feels good and avoid what feels bad - but this is made more complex in humans because of the sophistication of our minds and imaginations. A religious person may take a path which involves a great deal of suffering in this life on the expectation that it will lead to eternal pleasure in Heaven. This is still the pleasure principle. Where things get more complicated is in a situation like that of Giordano Bruno who was burned alive rather than deny a truth. We are not simply our bodies, we are also our actions and our ideas. In some cases the action or idea self takes precedence over the body self. It seems likely that when Bruno was killed he was more interested in being the truth then being the body of Giordano Bruno. And the same is true when someone runs into a burning building to save someone - to die as someone who would do that is less unpleasant to them than to live as someone who wouldn't.

    My interpretation of what Jeremy Griffith does with his "confronting" but "dignifying" "explanation of the human condition" is to rob his readers of their self-acceptance (the "confronting" bits) and then attempt to "sell" it back to them (the "dignifying" bits) on his own terms.
    Dogma is a defence against the mind's capacity for free thought based on the fear that such thought might lead to a scary place.

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