Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/December 1872/How the Feelings Affect the Hair

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THE influence of grief or fright in blanching the hair has been generally recognized.

"For deadly fear can Time outgo,
And blanch at once the hair."—Marmion.

It has been a popular rather than a physiological belief that this can occur "in a single night." No one doubts that the hair may turn gray, gradually, from moral causes, and this is sufficient proof of the mind's influence upon the nutrition of the hair. I have known alternations in the color of the hair (brown and gray) corresponding to alternations of sanity and insanity. Some entertain doubts as to sudden blanching of the hair, but I do not believe them well founded, and can vouch for the truth of the following interesting cases:

"Thomas W., about twenty years of age, the son of a milkman, was tall, fleshy, good looking, slightly bronzed, hair intensely black, stiff, wiry, and rather inclined to curl. His general appearance was that of a healthy and well-formed man, used to light work, but much exposure in the open air. In the year 18—one of his thoughtless companions told him (what was not true) that a girl in the town was going before the magistrate on the morrow to swear him father of her child. Poor W. was dumfounded. The announcement had given his whole frame a severe shock; the gall of bitterness had entered his heart, and the mind was under the baneful influence of its power. He hastened home, and sought relief in his bedroom. Sleep was denied him, for his brain was on fire. He saw nothing but disgrace coming from every angle of the room. Such was the mental agitation produced by a silly trick. Early morning brought no relief; he looked careworn, distressed, and his hair was changed from its natural tint to that of a light 'iron-gray color.' This, to him, was a great mystery. In the course of the following day the stupid trick was explained, but the ill effects of it lasted for a long period. Nearly twenty years after, although his health was fair, the mental powers retained signs of the severe shock they had received; his hair was perfectly gray, and a medical friend of mine who met him received the impression that he would carry the marks of this folly to his grave.

"I know of a captain of a vessel, under forty years of age, who suffered shipwreck twice. On the first occasion (in which he lost all hope) his hair quickly turned gray; and on the second, some considerable time afterward, his hair became still further blanched. He resolved never to go to sea again, and kept his resolution.

"A lady, travelling in France subsequently to the Franco-Prussian War, heard of a considerable number of cases of hair blanching (more or less marked) in consequence of fright."

Dr. Laycock, in speaking of pigmentation of the hair, asks whether grayness and baldness are due to loss of tone of the hair-bulbs solely, or are ultimately associated with trophic nervous debility of certain unknown nerve-centres. He points out that the regional sympathy which characterizes trophesies is well marked, and that, as regards baldness, it extends from two points, the forehead and the vertex, ending at a line which, "carried round the head, would touch the occipital ridge posteriorly, and the eyebrows anteriorly." So with the beard, etc. In connection with a succeeding remark, that the eyebrows are a clinical region in brow-ague, herpes, and leprosy, the case already referred to, of a woman who suffered in the night from a severe attack of tic, and found in the morning that the inner half of one eyebrow and the corresponding portion of the eyelashes were perfectly white, may be mentioned. Laycock points out the fact that the hair over the lower jaw is almost always gray earlier than that over the upper jaw, and that tufts on the chin generally turn white first.—(Op. cit., May 13.)

"Mr. Paget, in his 'Lectures on Nutrition,' has recorded the case of a lady with dark-brown hair, subject to nervous headache, who always finds, the morning afterward, patches of her hair white, as if powdered with starch. In a few days it regains its color. Dr. Wilks says he has on more than one occasion had a lady visit him with jet-black hair, and on the morrow, when seen in bed, it had changed to gray. Bichat, opposing the skepticism of Haller, asserted that he had known at least five or six examples in which the hair lost its color in less than a week; and that one of his acquaintance became almost entirely blanched in a single night, on receiving some distressing news. There is no reason to call in question the statement that Marie Antoinette's hair rapidly turned gray in her agony. We have it on the authority of Montesquieu himself that his own hair became gray during the night, in consequence of receiving news of his son which greatly distressed him. Dr. Laudois, of Griefswalde, reported not long ago a case in 'Virchow's Archives,' in which the hair rapidly turned white. But I have not any particulars at hand beyond the fact that, on carefully examining the hair, he found that there was 'an accumulation of air-globules in the fibrous substances of the hair.' Erasmus Wilson read a paper at the Royal Society in 1867 on a case of much interest, a résumé of which I subjoin in a note."[1]

The falling off of the hair is too frequent a result of anxiety, or other depressing emotion, to escape common observation. A case reported in the Lancet, of May 4, 1867, forms an excellent illustration:

"A man of nervous temperament began business as a draper in 1859. At that time he was twenty-seven years of age, in good health, though not very robust, unmarried, and had the usual quantity of (dark) hair, whiskers, and beard. For two years he was in a state of perpetual worry and anxiety of mind, and his diet was very irregular. Then his hair began to come off. He declares that it literally fell off, so that when he raised his head from his pillow in the morning, the hair left on the pillow formed a kind of cast of that part of his head which rested on it. In a month's time he had not a single visible hair on any part of his body—no eyebrows, no eyelashes; even the short hairs of his arms and legs had gone; but on the scalp there could be seen, in a good light, patches of very fine, short down. This was in 1861. Medical treatment proved of no avail, and he was finally advised to do nothing. So long as his anxiety continued, the hair refused to grow, but by the latter part of 1865 his business became established, and, coincidently, his hair reappeared; and when Mr. Churton, of Erith, reported the case, he had a moderately good quantity of hair on the head, very slight whiskers, rather better eyebrows, and the eyelashes pretty good."

The influence of painful emotions in causing gray or white hair and alopecia has been sufficiently illustrated, and it would have been interesting to adduce a reverse series showing the opposite effects of joy. But it is a very different thing to restore to its healthy habit the function of a tissue whose pigment has been removed by slow mal-nutrition, or by sudden shock. I may adduce such a circumstance as the following, however, to show that hair, which has turned gray in the natural course of life, may, by the stimulus of specially-favorable events, become dark and plentiful again:

"An old man (aged seventy-five), a thorough out-and-out radical—even the cancelli of his bones were so impregnated with a thorough disgust of the Government of George IV. that he threw up a lucrative situation in one of the royal yards, and compelled his youngest son to follow his example—insisted that his wife, also aged (about seventy), toothless for years, and her hair as white as the snow on Mont Blanc, should accompany them to the land where God's creatures were permitted to inhale the pure, old, invigorating atmosphere of freedom.

About six or seven years after their departure, a friend living in New York gave an excellent account of their proceedings. Not only could the old man puff away in glorious style, and the son do well as a portrait-painter, but old Mrs. —— had cut a new set of teeth, and her poll was covered with a full crop of dark-brown hair!"

Journal of Mental Science.

  1. Every hair of the head was colored alternately brown and white from end to end. The white segments were about half the length of the brown, the two together measuring about one-third of a line. Mr. Wilson suggested the possibility of the brown portion representing the day-growth of the hair, and the white portion the night-growth, and this opinion was corroborated by the remarks of Dr. Sharpey and others of the Fellows who took part in the discussion. Under the microscope, the colors of the hair were reversed, the brown became light and transparent, the white opaque and dark ; and it was further obvious that the opacity of the white portion was due to a vast accumulation of air-globules, packed closely together in the fibrous structure of the hair, as well as in the medulla. There was no absence of pigment, but the accumulation of air-globules veiled the normal color and structure. Mr. Wilson observed that, as the alteration in structure which gave rise to the altered color evidently arose in a very short period, probably less than a day, the occurrence of a similar change throughout the entire length of the shaft would explain those remarkable instances, of which so many are on record, of sudden blanching of the hair; and he ventured to suggest that, during the prevalence of a violent nervous shock, the normal fluids of the hair might be drawn inward toward the body, in unison with the generally contracted and collapsed state of the surface, and that the vacuities left by this process of exhaustion might be suddenly filled with atmospheric air.—Lancet, April 20, 1867.