Friday, May 11, 2007

The Morning Shower

Researchers at the Center for Neuropharmacology and Nueroscience at Albany Medical College have discovered that it feels good to take a shower. In their published report, they observe that the water stimulates nerve endings in the skin. Nor is it just any part of the skin. These scientists have determined that it’s the epidermis, the outer layer, that receives the stimulation. I suppose, though the report doesn’t probe quite so deeply, that this is because the stream of water that strikes us when we take a shower is coming from outside the body, and the outer layer is the one with which it makes contact.

The cells of the epidermis contain beta-endorphins, which are similar in chemical composition to opium. These researchers are suggesting that the pleasure we experience when taking a shower can be attributable to the release of such chemicals, which have a soothing effect on the nerve endings. In other words, it isn’t the sensation of little drops of water pounding our skin that makes showering pleasurable, but a chemical reaction that’s set off by the experience. But isn’t this just another way of saying that showering feels good?

Dr. Frank Rice, who did the study, seems to be hedging beyond the conclusions justified by the data when he goes on to report, “Just the stimulation itself raises the awareness level of the brain. That triggers activity that can lead to something that is a new thought.”

Dr. Rice and his colleagues have failed to explain whether it’s the stimulation itself, or the beta-endorphins released by the stimulation, that raises the brain’s awareness level. Nor have they made it clear if the brain’s awareness level become higher because the opium-like substance released by the skin actually travels to the brain, or because the nerves on the epidermis send an electronic message that says to the brain, “Hey, we’ve got some opium down here!”

And no where in the report is it explained why it is that many people don’t like to take a shower.

I've submitted quite a few grant proposals to study the issue, but none have been accepted. Yet years of personal experience have led me to the conclusion that the key elements in showering are the neck and scalp. If for some reason or another, you are prevented from taking a morning shower, simply dousing your head under a stream of running water in the sink will have almost the same effect. Such a theory has the virtue of solving the mystery of the elevation in brain awareness that we associate with shower-taking. The skull has an epidermis too, after all. The beta-endorphins released in that area are only a hop-skip-and-jump from the thought-generating zones of the brain.

This theory also explains, I think, why many people don’t like to take showers. For them, the momentary pleasure associated with the release of beta-endorphins is far outweighed by the lingering discomfort of having wet hair.

One troubling aspect of the situation was driven home to me a few weeks ago when we retiled our shower and installed a new shower head. The new head uses less water than the one we had before, but it fails to pound the skin with any degree of force. The base of the neck, in particular, gets much less of a workout than it had been getting. Can this explain why I haven’t had any good ideas lately?

They say that Rome fell because of the lead in the pottery. Will researchers one day report that Western civilization took a tumble when everyone installed water-saving shower heads in their bathrooms and the font of stimulating, innovative ideas simply dried up?

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