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The Hair of Samson

by Brian Dunning, Dec 22 2011

We’ve all heard of the code talkers, primarily Choctaw and Navajo native Americans deployed during both World Wars to simply speak over the radio — their language was sufficiently unintelligible to others that true encryption was unnecessary. Here is an article that reports on another group of native Americans employed during the Vietnam conflict for a different purpose: tracking.

I had never heard of this before, so I read the story with interest (and, of course, a touch of skepticism). It begins with a woman who reported that her husband, a psychologist, learned something extraordinary from his patients in the military:

I remember clearly an evening when my husband came back to our apartment on Doctor’s Circle carrying a thick official looking folder in his hands. Inside were hundreds of pages of certain studies commissioned by the government. He was in shock from the contents. What he read in those documents completely changed his life. From that moment on my conservative middle of the road husband grew his hair and beard and never cut them again. What is more, the VA Medical center let him do it, and other very conservative men in the staff followed his example.

Why should psychologists and other professional men suddenly decide to stop cutting their hair? Surely there must be some compelling reason. I read on with interest.

The native American trackers, renowned for an almost supernatural ability to track anyone over anything, were recruited and sent into action in Vietnam. But:

Once enlisted, an amazing thing happened. Whatever talents and skills they had possessed on the reservation seemed to mysteriously disappear, as recruit after recruit failed to perform as expected in the field.

How could that be? Evidently, the trackers themselves offered the answer:

When questioned about their failure to perform as expected, the older recruits replied consistently that when they received their required military haircuts, they could no longer ‘sense’ the enemy, they could no longer access a ‘sixth sense’, their ‘intuition’ no longer was reliable, they couldn’t ‘read’ subtle signs as well or access subtle extrasensory information.

No skeptical red flag yet. It’s not surprising at all that people might attribute a skill to something that’s got nothing to do with it. I know very little about whatever culture these men may have come from (the tribe was not specified in the article) and it’s perfectly plausible that they might attribute much to a hairstyle. The hair is probably not actually doing anything, but that wouldn’t stop the men from believing that it would.

So the testing institute recruited more Indian trackers, let them keep their long hair, and tested them in multiple areas. Then they would pair two men together who had received the same scores on all the tests. They would let one man in the pair keep his hair long, and gave the other man a military haircut. Then the two men retook the tests.

Time after time the man with long hair kept making high scores. Time after time, the man with the short hair failed the tests in which he had previously scored high scores.

And, apparently, based on that, the psychologist decided to stop cutting his hair. This struck me as odd. I was intrigued by the idea that some testing had found that hair length affected tracking ability, and was curious to learn more. Perhaps the testing methodology was weak (which happens all the time) or perhaps there was some unknown, uncontrolled factor (also common), or perhaps there’s something there: a very exciting thought. But none of this suggests a reason why a psychologist should let his hair grow, unless he’s planning to become a tracker. Reading a little further gives the answer:

Hair is an extension of the nervous system, it can be correctly seen as exteriorized nerves, a type of highly evolved ‘feelers’ or ‘antennae’ that transmit vast amounts of important information to the brain stem, the limbic system, and the neocortex.

Ummmm… no, hair is not correctly seen as “exteriorized” nerves or antennae. Hair is dead tissue that has no metabolism, yet hair can also sense air vibration, like it does in the ear. Could this article perhaps be woo?

Not only does hair in people, including facial hair in men, provide an information highway reaching the brain, hair also emits energy, the electromagnetic energy emitted by the brain into the outer environment. This has been seen in Kirlian photography when a person is photographed with long hair and then rephotographed after the hair is cut.

Unfortunately the answer seems to be yes, the article is simple woo. Kirlian photography merely shows a corona discharge when any conductive object is connected to an electrode. Whether your head hair has been cut would not affect the conductivity of your hand if you place it on a plate for a Kirlian photograph.

Are any other miraculous benefits claimed?

Cutting of hair is a contributing factor to unawareness of environmental distress in local ecosystems. It is also a contributing factor to insensitivity in relationships of all kinds. It contributes to sexual frustration.

Ah! I see they are. Big surprise.

But whether this article’s author is a woo-believer or not says nothing about the validity of the research with the native American trackers. That’s interesting regardless, and I still wanted to know more. So I scrolled to the bottom of the article hoping to find the references. Instead I found this:

Comment: SOTT can’t confirm this story or the research it suggests took place, however, we have wondered on many occasions, what is the use of hair and why so many legends refer to hair as being a source of strength, from Samson, to Nazarenes, to the Long Haired Franks.

Nice. Willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, I spent a few moments asking Professor Google if he knew anything about this research, but he didn’t. Though many native Americans served in Vietnam, I found no record of any special “tracker” units, or anything remotely suggestive of the research mentioned in this article. Every indication is that someone just made it up to support their woo belief in not cutting hair.

Note: Since 1972 the Immigrations and Customs services have maintained a tiny unit of 15 native American trackers called the Shadow Wolves who follow drug smugglers across the border in a law enforcement capacity, but this was not formed until after Vietnam, and I’ve seen no reference to hair length being a tool they employ. If anyone has more information about the alleged Vietnam test unit and their long hair, please let me know.

33 Responses to “The Hair of Samson”

  1. Chris Howard says:

    I’m guessing the story was put out for immediate release by the Big Hair Care lobby.

    • Richard Smith says:

      Are you suggesting it’s a sham? Pooh! Given the proper conditioning, I’m sure anyone could develop these talents on a permanent basis.

      • tmac57 says:

        You are just splitting hairs. This is nothing to wig-out about.

      • Chris Howard says:

        Now, now. Let’s not get all lathered up over this! I rinse my hands of the whole thing! I repeate. I rinse my hands of the whole thing… hairbrained. I couldn’t figure out how to work “hairbrained” in there, so I’m just saying.

  2. pete says:

    Maybe those guys just threw the test so they wouldn’t have to look like dorks in military haircuts? :)

  3. Kenn says:

    In a Vietnam-ear test (1969), an estimated 500,000 young people with long hair were commissioned to track Jimi Hendrix. Incredibly, all 500,000 showed up simultaneously at a New York dairy farm where Hendrix was staying.

  4. Kenn says:

    ear? era.

    “Your comment was a bit too short. Please go back and try again.”

    Okay, I’ll try again.

    ear? era.

  5. Trimegistus says:

    Wow, a type of crackpottery I’ve never seen before. Nice to see the quacks and kooks are still coming up with new material.

    This one, at least, seems to be pretty harmless. It’s hard to see how the promoters can get rich by encouraging people to stop cutting their hair, and it’s also hard so see how anyone could die from it, so that’s good.

    Keep up the good work, Mr. Dunning!

  6. Phea says:

    Excellent example of how to weave truth with lies to produce complete horseshit. The only things missing are the all important, scientific, “statistics”.

  7. The correct answer is likely simple. Assuming at least some of the trackers were Sioux, going by the reference to Black Elk, the difference between the high plains of the Dakotas and the rice paddies and jungles of Vietnam, based on specific tracking skills and instincts needed, is huge.

    Second, how many of these “trackers,” confined to reservations, actually did that much tracking any more before going over to Nam?

    Third, the stress of being just drafted into the Army and shipped 10,000 miles away would cause stress that would further diminish any actual tracking skills.

  8. steelsheen11b says:

    I wonder if the inverse can hold true, If I let me hair grow out will I lose my ability to track? Tracking is a learned ability so I am not sure what the length of ones hair has to do with anything.

  9. The best trackers in the world in the last century or so have probably been Australian Aborigines. One of them found a murderer by finding his distinctive tracks 30 or so years after he had disappeared. The guy was 30 years older and in a different part of the country, but he recognised his gait. There was no suggestion ever that hair had anything to do with it :-). Just observation. This is shown by the fact that people who learn tracking in adult life never get nearly as good as those who learn as they grow up.

  10. Retired Prof says:

    Maybe the bullshitter who wrote that story should have drawn an analogy between human hair and feline whiskers. With their facial hairs, cats sense obstacles and openings in the cover while keeping their eyes, ears, and nose focused on their prey. However, the sensory organs are not in the hairs themselves, but in the follicles they grow from.

    In other words, cats’ whiskers really are “‘feelers’ or ‘antennae’ that transmit . . . important information,” but all through mechanical contact with the surroundings. There is no evidence they either receive or emit any mystical radiation. Furthermore, though the information is important to the cat’s attempt to approach its prey, it does not come in vast amounts and does not seem to help in the tracking itself. So maybe the cat/Samson analogy would not work after all. Not enough woo involved.

    As for me, instead of letting my hair grow, I plan to enlist the help (when needed) of the best tracker of wounded deer I know, a lawyer born and raised in an academic family in Purdue, IN, who took up hunting as an adult. His only connection with Indian trackers is that his mother-in-law grew up on a Lakota reservation in SD, but out in the woods he has no opportunity to consult with her. And his hair is short.

  11. cat says:

    I beleive hair does give some sensory input, i.e. you can feel which way the air is moving, if the breeze is changing direction. Combined with sound, and perhaps smell, you could get better directionality of where those other inputs are coming from.

    You can also use it as a handy sun shade (compared to a crewcut) thus be able to see details a bit better, if they don’t give you a sunhat in the army.

    And the placebo effect of feeling closer to nature, feeling like your capable ancestors would have, being comfortable in your body, individual = confident in your skill, etc.

  12. Badger3k says:

    Samson may have originally been a sun god, and his hair representing the rays of the sun. Haven’t seen any evidence of this hypothesis, yet it is plausible that the story was originally a canaanite myth rewritten when monotheism took over. Just a possibility I heard.

  13. LovleAnjel says:

    This sounds like another myth about the magical, mystical Native Americans and their super-senses. No, it had nothing to do with hair. It was all training & practice.

    Plus the Amerindian in Predator had short hair, and he tracked the alien just fine.

  14. Nyar says:

    I have heard that no one should cut their pubic hairs because hormones that arouse the opposite sex sticks to them(assuming that one wants to arouse the opposite sex). Just thought I would throw that out there.

    • Kenneth Polit says:

      Yeah, but my girlfriend gives me more oral sex when I trim back my pubes. Just throwing that out there

  15. noen says:

    Aside from the fact that tracking skills used in the plains of America are unlikely to translate to the jungles of Vietnam it seems likely to me that the mere act of having your head shorn would affect your *beliefs* about your ability to track.

    Shaving the head is a ritualistic induction into an elite group. That might shake up someone’s confidence so that they no longer trust themselves and affect their performance. Also, it seems telling to me that Native Americans who were allowed to keep their long hair, an important part of their cultural identity, would feel validated and respected by an official part of the US government. Recognition they have not had, and so boost their confidence and possibly increase their performance.

    It’s a theory….. and seems as likely as any to me.

  16. arjun says:

    This is the stupidest thing i’ve ever wasted 2 minutes of my life for. There wasn’t any explanation whatsoever as to why the woman’s psychologist husband let his hair grow long. It wasn’t even a good tale of woo!

  17. Emma says:

    I saw the original article and was highly skeptical myself. Even if this story is true (although it is written in such a way I tend to think it’s untrue), the factors which affected the ‘trackers’ with short hair may be contributed to stress in an environment in which they lost part of their identity, their hair, as opposed to the magical ability of, as you so aptly put it, dead tissue that has no metabolism.

  18. Katherine Smith says:

    Well yeah, the original article was pretty corny and tried to sound mystical when really there is no mysticism at all. However, I do believe the article cites pretty true principles, as mentioned by commenters above me. I think that the Native Americans did, in fact, view their hair as a crucial extension of themselves. Without this, I would imagine it would make them feel “out of whack” and lessen their confidence, thus their tracking abilities. I also do believe that hair FOLLICLES are an extension of the nervous system. One time I shaved the hair on my forearms, and was outside and looked down and saw a fly on my arm. I didn’t even feel it. But when the hairs are there, I always feel any kind of bug and swat it away. Just like what another commenter mentioned about cat-whiskers. However, a military cut doesn’t shave their hair down to the skin. There are still hairs there that can help feel wind, bugs, etc. Also, the longer that hair gets, the less it will move in the follicle due to wind, because of the weight of it. Also, they didn’t use shampoo and let their natural sebum build up on the hair, so that the hair was shiny, waxy, and much less mobile. So I would think that longer hair would have even less “sensory” abilities than short hair does.

  19. Marcus Vallerius says:

    I’d rather use other criterion to understand it: It makes sense. Our body has invisible waves not only connected to heat, but to other different sources. In the Bible, the ancient prophets seemed to know about it. The recorded verses, despite their original authorship, show something like a natural connection to what is around us. Samson, Samnuel and John, the Baptist were men that made use of this gift. Hair is like Mathematics, so it has lines, lenght, mesure and dimension: ““Mathematics expresses values that reflect the cosmos, including orderliness, balance, harmony, logic, and abstract beauty.” (Deepak Chopra). The Book of Mormon introduced western civilization the nephites and lamanites as ancient native americans second conquerers that also sported long hair – it claims their hebrew origin -, and had a special reason for it: the Moses code obedience yet found through its verses. It seemed that the more those ancient Book of Mormon civilizations were “aligned” in the Moses rules (inherited from the old Israel), the more they succeeded. The lenght of their hair were part of it, as it considered full of “spiritual connections” for Sikhs too. So, if we listen to what modern native americans are claiming, it is easy to see that hair is not only a “piece of adorning thing”. It can play more than a physical role, working like an anthen. I think somehow it allows us to be more clever or “old hand”. Jim Morrison once sad:“Some of the worst mistakes in my life were haircuts”
    The scholar Raj Singh also wrote about it: “Why do those in authority want men to shave their faces and cut their cranial hair short? It has been posited that the hair of prison inmates and soldiers is kept cut as a reminder that “you are not a free person and cannot do as you please with your own body.” (Rabinowitz, 1984) Shaving produces effects like other means of fostering a youthful appearance because a “clean-shaven” face mimics the surface quality of the pre-pubertal face. Therefore, requiring a man to shave can have the effect of reducing his status, and his self-perception (…)”.

  20. Edgar A. P. Wright says:

    The hair doesn’t have to be alive to act as an antenna. Hair is an extension of the nervous system in the same sense that an antenna is an extension of a coaxial cable…

  21. Scienceminded says:

    This article has a little more meat, but it reproduces the same rumor with no citation about Nam trackers. The real meat is in the fact it outlines the uses of hairs in our auditory and olfactory senses which are extremely sensitive and we cannot be unconscious to their stimuli. The question I want to know is that if nerves are triggered at extremely low thresholds in body hair, what would that information mapping to our brain look like? How does it change our behavior, can it really trigger responses like the sense of danger purported in the rumor? Real testing is required. There might be something to it, but it will remain mere speculation until science asks the tough questions.

    So polar bear hair is fiber optic to UV light. I wonder if blond people have better vitamin D production in their head? I wonder if human hair is too dark or not the right composition to conduct light as a means to transmit information about our surroundings. Interesting stuff. I wouldn’t put it past nature to encode dozens of information gathering systems that we aren’t consciously aware of in our body.

    On a tangent, as far as extrasensory perception goes, I’m quite interested in quantum nonlocality being a possible explanation for why our brains, leveraging the properties of electron interactions in a quantum mechanical universe, could interact over vast distances instantaneously. Recently some physicists have come up with a counterpart to space-time called momentum-space. If we actually understood the underpinnings of reality, we would get a better idea of how nonlocal information transmission could work. Something about an 8 dimensional universe seems right to me

    I know I’m on skepticblog, but I think the amount of experimental evidence on dream telepathy and precognition has shown since Frued’s time (who eventually considered telepathy nearly self evident in the field of psychoanalysis) is substantial enough to warrant more experimental testing. Scientists have already invented cybernetic telepathy with technology. Our brains are far more complicated. If nature has a way for electron interactions in our brain to resonate and manifest in other brains, that would be a HUGE selective advantage to social species, becoming aware of dangers other members of the species experience. Check out the Maimonides dream laboratory studies with Robert Van de Castle for instance. We get something like a 750,000,000 to 1 chance of the statistical data for successful telepathy that Van de Castle exhibited being produced arising by chance. In a triple blind study. It is not woo, it is hard data. Which demands new theories to describe the mechanism by which nature is producing the phenomena. Food for thought.

  22. Little Big Hair says:

    The danger of skepticism is that it refutes everything, while proving nothing.

  23. kag says:

    as someone who has always had long hair…it was extremely traumatic to me to have it cut when i went in the military. I had too much to braid and fit under my hat, so my drill sargeant cut it off.

    A few things….if u go without shampoo, amazingly hair balances out and in time is not at all oily.

    In tracking, it might be relevant that long hair will pick up a lot of pollen and environmental scents.

    plus i lose so much i could follow my own trail back i bet. When you have really long hair, man you shed normal and it will fill a brush in a day.

  24. Rob says:

    I used to volunteer at a VA hospital in western Massachusetts back in 2007, and there was an old man there that was extremely paranoid. He had pretty bad PTSD or whatever you want to call it. He used to talk about how he was recruited in the Army as a hunter and tracker in a unit mainly composed of Native Americans, and he said that they single handedly won the war (WWII) for America, but you’ll never read about it. I thought it was pretty crazy but I’ve always kind of believed him in the back of my mind cause it was such a cool story I wanted it to be true. This reminded me of him.

  25. Heath says:

    I’m also sick of cutting my hair and shaving. This story is perfect to make it okay to look like a homeless person.

  26. Tobie Openshaw says:

    The San people of the Kalahari are some of the best trackers in the world, and were employed by the South African military in that capacity – but they have only sparse peppercorn hair.

  27. mathew says:

    I just cut my hair and I regret it