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The Hair of Samson

Is there any truth to the belief that long hair can provide great strength?  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Health, Religion

Skeptoid Podcast #393
December 17, 2013
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Also available in Russian

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Yogi Bhajan was the wealthy Indian emigrant and guru who introduced Kundalini Yoga to the United States. On the topic of cutting one's hair, he said: "Our hair fashions might be just a trend, but if we investigate, we may find that we have been depriving ourselves of one of the most valuable sources of energy for human vitality... When the hair on your head is allowed to attain its full, mature length, then phosphorous, calcium, and vitamin D are all produced, and enter the lymphatic fluid, and eventually the spinal fluid through the two ducts on the top of the brain. This ionic change creates more efficient memory and leads to greater physical energy, improved stamina, and patience... Your hair is not there by mistake. It has a definite purpose, which saints will discover and other men will laugh at."

Most everyone has heard the tale of the Biblical strongman Samson, who became powerless when his hair was treacherously cut. We also know that even today, quite a few cultures maintain a tradition of never cutting their hair. For some cultures, the act of keeping the hair symbolizes a religious covenant. Sikhs are one of the most common examples. Some Christian groups, such as Pentacostals, refrain from cutting their hair in deference to literal Bible interpretations. Orthodox Jewish men never cut their hair on the sides of their heads, and Rastafarians never cut their dreadlocks. Many Native American men, especially prior to modern times, never cut their hair. Today, we simply want to ask... Why?

Many groups have traditional hairstyles. Often, rival tribes will adopt differing styles of dress and appearance. But the groups we want to focus on today are not those who simply follow tradition or look to blend in with their peers; we're going to study the cultures that truly believe their hair confers a power. For there are plenty of people who firmly believe that hair length has a direct, physical, measurable impact on their health, strength, talent, or wisdom.

Yogi Bhajan made the assertion that hair is a living part of the body's metabolism, and that's demonstrably false by even the most basic observation. Hair has no channels by which any of the nutrients he described could be transported, being made of solid keratin. It's trivial to cut a hair in half and study it in cross section microscopically, and it's a solid slab of dead cells. They're nicely arranged in layers formed when they were extruded by the root, but they're dead cells. Human hair contains no structures capable of any metabolism or other activity. Yogi Bhajan didn't say hair transports some mystical unknown energy flow; he said it transports physical substances like vitamins and minerals. That's simply not true. It's wrong. By any describable method of study that can be applied, Yogi Bhajan didn't know what he was talking about.

His followers say that after about 3 years, uncut hair follicles develop an antenna at the end that collects cosmic energy, thus a haircut condemns one to a 3-year drought of magnetism. Everything about that is silly, and even bizarrely childish. Surely some of these of these cultures must have more cogent reasoning that this?

One of the more popular modern stories of the importance of uncut hair is an urban legend, often copied and pasted from one web site to another, so many times that I tried and tried but could not find the original source. It tells the story of native American trackers who were recruited for the Vietnam War, but once given military haircuts, they lost their ability to track, and became useless to the war effort. So formalized testing was instituted, and it was confirmed that only trackers whose hair had not been cut were able to perform, and that cutting their hair caused them to score lower on tests where they had previously scored high. The story goes that the military then exempted native American trackers from regulation haircuts, and that some of the experimenters even chose to do the same. So far as I've been able to tell, the story is purely apocryphal. I found no citations for any such research ever having been performed. Nor does it seem very likely, as tracking is something at which very few people in the United States had occasion to develop skill in the 1960s and 70s, nor would such skills translate very well from the American southwest to the Vietnamese jungles.

So this story about the native American trackers and their skill being physically tied to their hair length can't stand up as evidence that a relationship has ever been shown to exist between hair length and some ability. But we do know that hair is connected to one particular bodily sense: that of touch. Run your hand through your hair — or even flick the tiniest body hair — and you'll see what I mean. Hair is a very good conductor of the sense of touch. This is why so many animals rely upon it for getting around, one example being whiskers.

There are more than 20 classes of sensory nerve cells in the skin, some of which detect heat, touch, pain, and so on. Every one of your hair follicles is attached to sensory nerves. Given the vastness, the complexity, and the sensitivity of this system, it seems clear that the hair is a very important part of our sensory system. However, it's only the root of the follicle that's sensitive. If you pull on a hair, the signal you generate is the same whether that hair is a centimeter long or a meter. In fact, the longer a hair is, the less likely that movement at its tip will be detectable at its root. Imagine a person with long hair sitting in front of you at a theater, their hair resting on their shoulders, you could flick the end of it without their knowing. But what if it's someone with a crew cut? Any touch of a head hair would be instantly detected. Longer hair is not necessarily any sensory advantage at all.

This New Agey habit of assigning mysticism to things has also permeated modern expressions of older cultures. In the Sikh religion, leaving the hair long is simply a sign of respect for the perfection of God's creation. This is how God made you, with hair that grows, so leave it alone. This practice, called Kesh, is one of the "five K's" for observing Sikhism. It's pretty simple, and is not intended to mean anything more or less than it says. However, some modern Sikhs, particularly those who have come into the religion from outside seeking an alternative to Christianity, re-interpret Kesh to have some New Age meaning, saying that hair is a source of mystical energy. I've not found any authoritative source describing this, probably since it's outside of Kesh; so I can't conclude that Sikhism offers any claim that long hair gives you any sort of quantifiable advantage, Samson-like.

The same goes for Orthodox Judaism. The practice of letting the sidelocks and/or beard grow is not, in any way, supposed to confer any benefit upon the grower. The authorities for the practice come mainly from the Torah and the Mishnah. Digging for the original intended purposes of the idea for not cutting this hair is quite interesting, as there's no one reason. One of the reasons comes from a desire to simply have an appearance distinctive from other ethnic groups. Other reasons have to do with practices for dealing with the dead; there have been various traditions that involved giving offerings to the dead in the form of human hair, and not cutting your hair would demonstrate your rejection of this practice. But throughout the history of Judaism, there have been (and continue to be) a wide variety of regulations concerning hair. People in certain positions might be expected to have one type of hairstyle; some should shave on the Sabbath, some every 30 days; some should have particular treatment for their sidelocks or for their head hair or for their beards; sometimes razors should be used, sometimes only scissors. Hair in Judaism is far more complicated than simply "Orthodox Jews don't cut their hair," but in none of the traditions are any claims made for strength or power or any other tangible benefit.

Rastafarianism comes closest to belief that hair confers strength, but it's neither an organized religion nor a codified belief. The former King of Ethiopa, Haile Selassie, was revered by Rastafarians as the second coming of Christ, and he was known as the Conquering Lion of Judah. Lions have manes, and so the dreadlocks are symbolic of a lion's mane. By wearing dreadlocks, Rastafarians show their respect for Selassie. Some Rastafarians also cite Samson, who is sometimes depicted with dreadlocks, as an example of the strength conferred by long hair. However it's an informal belief, and probably not literally believed by any significant number of Rastafarians.

Seeking answers, I turned to that most authoritative of sources, Long Hair forums on the Internet. It does appear that a significant number of people who are sufficiently obsessed with their hair length that they go on the Internet to talk about it do believe there is a causal relationship between strength and hair, but in the other direction: long hair does not cause strength, but a strong, healthy person will have long, healthy hair. Some say that it shows strength to be willing to buck trends. Some regard it as a shield. Some say it gives them more self esteem. Some say it makes them appear physically larger and stronger.

And so, with apologies to Yogi Bhajan, there are no physiological mechanisms by which hair makes you stronger. Hair need not be an antenna for collecting cosmic energy. Hair need not be a conduit for vitamins or minerals or solar power or cosmic rays or anything else. Samson's hairstyle of choice need not have actually been the source of physical strength for it to have been a source of strength to him. There is no need to seek a physiological explanation here. People who want and have long hair feel better about themselves, as do people who want and have short hair, curly hair, no hair, red hair, or blue hair. To each his own, and may each of us make our own choices for our own sense of what we like about ourselves.


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Hair of Samson." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 17 Dec 2013. Web. 3 Dec 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4393>

 

References & Further Reading

Bartlett, R. "Symbolic Meanings of Hair in the Middle Ages." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society. 1 Jan. 1994, Series 6, Number 4: 43-60.

Gossai, H., Murrell, N. Religion, Culture, and Tradition in the Caribbean. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. 181-190.

Hinsz, V., Matz, D., Patience, R. "Does women's hair signal reproductive potential?" Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 1 Jan. 2001, Volume 37, Number 2: 166.

Joseph, S., Najmabadi, A. Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures: Family, Body, Sexuality and Health, Volume 3. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005. 35.

Leach, E. "Magical Hair." Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 1 Jul. 1958, Volume 88, Number 2: 147-164.

Li, L., Rutlin, M., Abraira, V., Cassidy, C., Kus, L., Gong, S., Jankowski, M., Luo, W., Heintz, N., Koerber, H., Woodbury, C., Ginty, D. "The Functional Organization of Cutaneous Low-Threshold Mechanosensory Neurons." Cell. 1 Jan. 2011, Volume 147, Number 7: 1615.

Young, C. "The Truth About Hair and Why Indians Would Keep Their Hair Long." Signs of the Times. SOTT.net, 8 Sep. 2011. Web. 16 Oct. 2013. <http://www.sott.net/article/234783-The-Truth-About-Hair-and-Why-Indians-Would-Keep-Their-Hair-Long>

 

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