Full text of neuroscientist Claudia Aguirre’s talk: The Hidden Brain in Your Skin at TEDxUCLA conference.
Claudia Aguirre – Neuroscientist, Skincare Expert, Spokesperson and Lecturer
So, take a look at these behaviors: Does Math… Gets High… Gets Stressed Out… And Rocks Out To Music… What’s the first that comes to mind? Does it sound like – I heard “college,” yeah.
I was thinking more of a teenager. It does sound like a teenager. But what if I told you that your skin — take a look at it, that very colorful sheath covering your body — that your skin can perform all of these behaviors.
Now, before I give you the “skinny” on the teenage-like behavior of skin, I want to show you how I got to examining the radical behavior of skin.
It started during the economic recession, which is where I found myself in my first job — an unlikely time for a first job.
So how did this happen?
Well, there was an alarming trend: There was a rise in skin sensitivity. And that meant more people in the dermatologists’ office and more people in the facialists’ chair.
And there was a rise in skin conditions like inflammatory conditions, like eczema and psoriasis. And we didn’t know exactly why, but a lot of people in the industry thought maybe it was the rise in stress; maybe it was a lifestyle thing; maybe it was pollution.
But I wanted to know how. So when I started working in the skincare industry, I asked myself: How does something as globally extreme like the economy, how does that translate to something like a skin rash?
You see, I’m a neuroscientist, and in studying the skin, I found that there was just as much neuroscience in studying the skin as there was in studying the brain. And that was actually surprising to me.
So I want to show you some stories today that are going to explain how this connection between the mind and body interact and hopefully surprise you with some of the ideas that came about in understanding the connection between the brain and the skin.
So I want to share with you first some examples of the curious ways in which our minds are represented on our exterior.
This is Jack. Jack is a veteran pilot. He has been through it all. He’s been through wind gusts and locked landing gear. He can keep his cool in just about any situation.
But every time he flies over a particular canyon, his forehead breaks out in herpes blisters, every single time he flies over that canyon. Naturally, he goes to the doctor, gets a medicine, and it treats his symptoms, but it just keeps coming back every time he flies over that canyon.
And this is Sophie. Sophie is a senior in high school, and she’s a dancer. And, of course, as any senior in high school, she’s trying to decide what she’s going to do with her life:
“Am I going to go to college?”
“Will I continue to dance?”
“Will I dance in college?”
“What college am I going to go to?”
So as she battles with her indecision, she develops a wart on the bottom of her foot. Of course, like Jack, she goes to try to get some medical treatment, and it does treat the symptoms here and there, but it always comes back. She can’t get rid of this wart. And in the end, the wart makes the decision for her. She can no longer pursue dancing because of the pain in her foot.
And this is Danny. Danny is ten years old, and he was born with eczema, so he was used to the medications, he was used to the rashes that came and went, but the medications always kept his skin rashes at bay.
But one day, they stopped working. The medicine was no longer good. The medicine stopped working the day his mother tragically died in a car accident.
Cases like these are not few and far between. In fact, they simply highlight the interdependence between our emotional state and our body state.
A blush inadvertently reveals our mind’s secrets. Goose bumps warn us when something is wrong. And we feel crawling skin when we’re paralyzed with fear. Our skin has the machinery, the same machinery as the brain.
And it’s only been a decade or so of research that shows that the skin has the most intricate and sophisticated systems that were once under the sole domain of the brain.
So for instance, the stress axis – the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis – found in our central nervous system is also found in the skin, and it’s theorized that this stress pathway actually evolved in the skin first to avoid pathogens from entering the skin.
But stress is more than skin deep. You don’t have to know anything about this man to know that something happened to him between the first picture and the last picture on the right.
This is a photograph from a series by photographer Claire Felicie, who took picture of Dutch marines before, during, and after deployment to Afghanistan. You can see the changes from the first picture to the last picture, and this is only in one year. This is not due to the effects of normal chronological aging.
So whether it’s war, divorce, losing your job, any stressful situation, this often shows up on our skin first. But we so often dismiss that as unimportant and superficial.
And when we miss these cues that our bodies are desperately trying to tell us, it’s tantamount to repressing emotion. So I want you to close your eyes for a second and imagine that you’re blind. Okay.
Now you can open your eyes, and plug your nose, and imagine that you can’t smell. Okay, I think we can all kind of do that.
Now, sit there with your bottoms firmly pressed against the chair, feet flat on the ground, and imagine you can’t feel. That’s pretty tough.
So what is that?
Our sense of touch begins in the womb. It’s nearly impossible to not feel, even when you try. So touch began in the womb; it’s the first sensory system to develop.
And as psychology has taught us, Maslow taught us that monkeys, in fact, baby monkeys preferred mechanical mothers covered in terry cloth. But today we know that scientific research is showing that this particular mother’s touch, this caress, actually changes her child’s epigenetic programming.
So that kind of research shows us that there has to be something more to this touch, in particular, this gentle touch.
So recently, Swedish neuroscientists discovered a new set of nerve fibers in the skin that respond to only the most gentle of touches.