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.
To give you a little bit of perspective, in the body, the nerve impulses can outrace a Ferrari. That means they can travel at speeds faster than 250 miles per hour. That’s pretty fast.
But these touch fibers in the skin, they’re slow, they take their time. They travel at a leisurely stroll of about two miles per hour to reach the brain. And, unlike their quick signals that reach the somatosensory cortex and tell us what we’ve touched, the details of what we’ve touched, these slow signals travel to a different part of the brain that processes emotions and tells us what we feel when we touch. And this part of the brain is called the posterior insular cortex.
And so we know that this gentle touch gives us a sense of who we are, and it also gives us a sense of who we are in the greater world.
So if you stimulate another part of the brain called the angular gyrus – this part of the brain is also stimulated by gentle touch – if you stimulate this in somebody, you will trigger an out-of-body experience in that person. And that means that the gentle touch fiber is somehow reflected in our personal sense of self, and our sense of culture and who we are in the community.
And so we wear our culture on our hands.
And on to my final point – and I saved this for last because I thought it was a cool story. So, let me tell you a little bit about touch and sound.
The story started about 15 years ago, and there was a mixer for new faculty at Rice University. And at Rice University, there were new faculty, some of them were from all departments, and there was a neuroscientist. And the neuroscientist struck up a conversation with a philosopher about things like the fallibility of science and the way that the brain organizes and orchestrates all of the flood of sensory information that goes into the brain and puts it into a coherent perception.
You know, simple things like that.
So it turns out that the philosopher had suffered a stroke, and that had left her with a strange mixing of her senses. And at this point, the neuroscientist said, “Yeah, let’s look at your brain.”
So in one experiment, she sat with her hands on the table and two rings, and the rings were dotted with electrodes. And these electrodes were transmitting some electrical pulses that followed a beep or a tone. And she had these in each of her middle fingers.
So she had her hands down, and she was to hear the tone and then feel a little tingle on either hand. And she was to say which hand she felt the tingle in.
But here’s the rub: She kept feeling tingles even when they didn’t deliver any electrical shock. And so, of course, the neuroscientist was very confused and said, “We shock; she feels. We don’t shock; she still feels. What is going on?”
So after a while, and I mean a while, I think it was over a year, he kind of had an idea: Could she possibly be reacting to the tone that came before the shock?
And so he did another very scientific experiment. He simply asked her. “Do you feel sounds? Can you feel and sense sounds?”
And she said, “Oh yeah. All the time. Ever since the stroke.”
So, fast forward ten years, and Dr. Rowe’s research found that her mixing of senses was due to the fact that her auditory area had gone over the somatosensory cortex, which was its neighbor in the brain. And so her sound and touch senses were mixed.
And so that shows us that, of course, there’s brain plasticity, but that there’s a very deep connection between sound and touch. In fact, some scientists today believe that the sense of hearing actually evolved from the sense of touch.
Think about the hair cells in your inner ear. So, imagine what it feels like to sense so many sounds in such a loud and busy world. How did she deal with it?
Well, she took up the bass guitar. Because the soft, deep sounds felt like a massage over her body.
Not too long ago, we thought that the brain function was hard-wired, localized, and that damage to the brain was pretty much permanent. We know that’s not true today.
The paradigm shift that occurred was neuroplasticity in the brain. And skin is this very thin and seemingly disposable tissue.
But I want to flip this inside out. If the brain has plasticity, and if the skin is like the brain, could the skin also have plasticity? And does that mean that the skin has untapped potential that we are not aware of?
Could we sense extrasensory things like infrared through our skin? Actually, mouse research suggests that we can. And could we maybe get superhuman hearing by sending vibrations to our fingertips? Forget the Apple watch; your skin has a clock of its own, and it can keep time.
We actually have an incredible, wearable sensor that can tell time, and it’s a shield and a communicator, and we don’t even know it.
So, how did these stories end?
Now, they all came from different walks of life, and they did share one common theme: They had one problem that was unresolved. So their unresolved emotion led to something on the skin. And fortunately for these people, who are real people, by the way, they’re patients… some of them are patients of a psychologist in Boston.
Jack, for example, went to see a hypnotherapist. And in that, he revealed that his friend had actually died in that canyon. But his friend was a pilot, and Jack was supposed to be the one flying that day, but he called in sick, and instead his friend flew over that canyon, and he died.
So Jack felt extremely, extremely guilty.
And it wasn’t until he was able to speak about his feelings in this way that his breakouts on his forehead never came back.
Sophie also underwent hypnosis and revealed that her wart had been giving voice to something that she was afraid to do herself, which was to say, “I no longer want to dance.” And after she understood that, her wart went away for good.
And Danny went to see a psychodermatologist, and he also had a different form of therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and through this he was able to battle with the fact that his mother had died and that made his skin worse. And after the therapy, three weeks later, his lesions healed.
So conventional medicine did not treat these people in the right way, in a way where they fully, fully recovered. Conventional medicine treated the symptoms for a little bit, but it did nothing for the long term.
Now, we can continue to put out little fires here and there, but it’s not until you find the source of the problem where you can really get rid of your issue.
So, I love the idea of the hummingbird effect. The hummingbird effect is something where an idea in one place strikes another idea, completely unrelated sometimes, in a totally different field.
And in this case, do ideas and innovations unfold in this matter, and if they do, does the idea that the skin has a brain of its own unfold in this way, and could that trigger new discoveries in other areas? Especially if we know that the skin could have untapped potential that we know nothing about yet.
And so imagine how understanding these discoveries could change technology and medicine.
Twenty years ago, Dr. Michael Gershon revealed that there was a brain in the gut. Today, if you go to a grocery store, difficult to find a grocery store without probiotic drinks or probiotic supplements.
And today, I’m telling you that the skin also has a mind of its own. And so, for decades we’ve known that the brain controls the body, but if we now know that the body greatly influences the mind, and we see these in cases like the person that develops an actual clinical depression or anxiety due to a very visible disorder, or the anorexia patient that gets better after wearing a tight body suit, or the power one feels when they’re wearing a white lab coat.
Embodied cognition is not a new idea, but it’s finally gaining steam in ways that doctors and therapists can finally implement. And so many people live disembodied nowadays. They tell you that they disconnect themselves from the body.
But when we mind the body, we know our sense of self. And so, as these ideas unfold, it’ll take some time for them to reach an everyday life.
So I want to leave you with this: to listen to your skin.
Resources for Further Reading:
- Why Politicians Shouldn’t Appoint Judges: Aziz Huq (Transcript)
- Human Complexity Simplified: Jennifer Sorensen (Transcript)
- How Sci-Fi Informs Our Climate Future — and What to Do Next: Zainab Usman (Transcript)
- Phobia Relief: From Fear to Freedom – Kalliope Barlis (Transcript)
- A Reframing of Masculinity, Rooted in Empathy: Gary Barker (Transcript)