Musings on the Coast: Pavlovian Skin

By Michael Ray.
By Michael Ray.

My friend, Laguna’s blithe spirit January Olds, created her own skincare line January Labs.  She rolled out the line about 18 months ago and now has gained national distribution.  Last summer she gave me several bottles of her product and insisted I prominently display them in my bathroom for immediate use.

There they stayed for months, unused. Men do not “do” skincare creams.   They are greasy and mess up your shirts.

Then came winter and the dry coldness set in. Driving down Laguna Canyon Road at night set off a buzzer in my car and an accompanying light indicating the ground temperature was so low the road could be icy. This season seems particularly cold and dry.  My skin started cracking.

It hurt. My skin wrinkled up and ached. To stop the pain, I was willing to experiment with January’s moisturizer. At the time it was a big step, actually using icky female cream for myself.

The emulsion worked. The cold dryness continued, but by slathering myself with cream my flesh stopped hurting. Dare I say it, my skin even felt soft and supple.

Then I noticed a phenomenon. One evening after a workout and a shower, I was towel drying myself while listening to music.  I was humming and having a good time.   By chance I glanced at the bottle of moisturizer.   That is when it happened.  My skin began itching like crazy. In a flash, I went from smiling and humming to severe scratching.

Then I saw my hand reaching for the moisturizer with the fine little January Labs label.  I saw myself picking it up, unscrewing the top, dipping for a dab, applying it.  I felt my skin saying, “ahhhhh.” My skin was talking to me.  I am not making this up.   Everything was in slow motion and automatic, like I was watching a movie.

My skin was having a Pavlovian reaction similar to a dog trained to bark after seeing a bone. It was at a molecular level. It was synapses in my brain reacting to a visual clue and sending electrical signals to my skin.  Sensors in my skin were sending back signals to my brain screaming, “it hurts; put on cream!” It was me, without thinking, immediately reaching for the balm and obeying the pulses.

This got me to thinking. Skin is the largest organ in our body, but it is only an organ. Do all organs act similarly? Are all of them subject to Pavlovian reactions? Are human beings simply a whole bunch of trained reactions?

Do we have free will?

Oh boy, it was getting away from me. I told myself it was merely cold, dry weather and dry skin and a nice moisturizer that works.  I told myself that.

Not that I questioned any of that nonsense about free will or lack thereof.   Not me.  I know who is in charge.


Michael Ray grew up in Corona del Mar and now lives in Laguna Beach.  He makes a living as a real estate entrepreneur and is involved in many non-profits.

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