‘I have lived long enough. My way of life is fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf ‘-I’ve always loved that rumination by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but I never thought there would come a time when it might be self-applicable. Not the ‘I have lived long enough’ part, of course -I haven’t; nor even the ‘sere’ part -I don’t look at all withered in my mirror; but I suppose there comes a time when you should update your stock.
I have always been inordinately fond of my hair -I mean you shouldn’t get to my age without hoarding a few reassuring keepsakes. As a child, I never had a comfort blankey to drag from room to room -just my hair. In those days, as now, it was bedecked with curls like a lady’s wig, and it seemed a comfort just to know it was there if ever I felt a need to touch it. Apart from the occasional requisite haircuts, the only changes I can remember about it, were its colours. Although I was never privy to its colour at birth, I remember it as being a sort of an auburn shade when I was in lower school because the art teacher asked each of us to stand up and name our hair colour; I wasn’t sure what to call mine, so I remember hesitating until someone from the back of the class shouted out that it should be auburn. I’d never heard the word before and started crying because I thought he’d said it should be ‘all burned’.
Anyway, by the time I was in high school it had mutated into a rather common brown -a much easier word to manage. It stayed curly, though, so I thought that was pretty well that -until I decided to grow a beard in university after a miserable try as a teenager. As I aged, however, my facial genes, clearly protective of their particular redoubt, refused to go along with their headstrong neighbour and stayed resolutely auburn.
But why am I going into personal details, let alone cosmetic trivia at my age? Well, perhaps because of the recalcitrant nature of my face -regretting its adult rebellion it sought redemption with what it probably saw as a predeparture exculpation in its dotage: my curls stayed brown, in situ, and curly; my beard turned to straw.
It seemed unusual when it happened, and it still does. My life has already had its fill of disparities; I thought I had earned a pre-expiry reprieve, but I suppose if that happens, you’re already dead. At least it got me thinking about grey hair -I mean why does it happen? The hair is still growing; it’s not dead -although I’m pretty disappointed with the sample on my face.
At any rate, I had long ago relegated knowledge of grey hair to the locked room in Bluebeard’s house that I was reluctant to enter. Until, that is, I happened upon an article in Nature entitled ‘How the stress of fight or flight turns hair white’. Okay, I was also attracted by the inadvertent rhyming and the alliteration. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03949-8
In an explanation of a study published in the scientific journal Nature by Bing Zhang, Shayla A. Clark and Christopher D. Deppmann both from the University of Virginia, start out by writing about Marie Antoinette’s hair suddenly turning grey the night before her beheading.
In fact, she is the reason for the eponymous Marie Antoinette syndrome.
I was not fooled for a moment, however. Whatever the literature says, I’m just an aging bachelor who goes to shopping malls and food courts for his social life so I’m pretty sure my face does not fear beheading -or even befacing, for that matter.
But even so, I was intrigued by the explanation for grey-hairing. ‘Hair colour is determined by cells called melanocytes, which produce different combinations of light-absorbing melanin pigments. Melanocytes are derived from melanocyte stem cells (MeSCs), which are located in a part of the hair follicle called the bulge… As people age, the pool of MeSCs is gradually depleted — and so pigmented hair becomes ‘salt and pepper’ coloured, and then turns to grey and finally to white after a complete loss of pigment in all hair follicles.’ It occurred to me that maybe only my beard knows my real age, and the knowledge never diffused any further up the chain. Not surprising, actually -my face never liked my head.
Even more interesting, however, was the mechanism by which stress might cause sudden greying of hair. It would seem that ‘Normally… stem cells are maintained in a dormant state until hair regrowth is required… MeSCs express β2-adrenergic receptors, which respond to noradrenaline — a neurotransmitter molecule involved in the ‘fight or flight’ response to stress… noradrenaline released from active sympathetic neurons triggers MeSC depletion.’
Clear on that? Stress-produced noradrenaline depletes MeSCs, so no pigment. Uhmm, I’ve always thought my brain and I handled stress pretty well, and hair covers my brain I guess, so that fits. It’s my face I’m wondering about, though. Has it been soaking up all the scowls and sidelong glances all these years? Has it been secretly protecting the rest of me like a tithe hidden in an envelope on the collection plate?
Or, malevolent to the end, it may have guessed ‘what possible evolutionary advantage might be conferred by stress-induced greying. Because grey hair is most often linked to age, it could be associated with experience, leadership and trust’ -trust that my face is reluctant to share. I mean, ‘Perhaps an animal that has endured enough stress to ‘earn’ grey hair has a higher place in the social order than would ordinarily be conferred by that individual’s age.’
That might sit well with a face that had so much trouble growing a beard in high school. A face that was forced to endure sniggers as stray hairs struggled to grow around the pimples and pocks that peppered its surface like the skin on a salmonberry. And, again back to Macbeth, a face that hoped for ‘that which should accompany old age, as honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, [it] must not look to have, but in their stead, curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not…’
Or have I overstated it? Maybe tonight, in anticipation of some sort of mental beheading, my curly locks will join it in its monochromal exile and I can let them both grow riotously together and damned be him who first cries ‘Hold, enough!’
I wonder if Macbeth had a beard…