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The skeptics guide to life, cosmetic chemistry and everything.

August 5, 2015

I’m skeptical.

But then again I also have pretty strong convictions about things.

Sometimes I even feel those two opposing emotions in the same sentence when someone is talking to me or as I read or write.

It’s weird.

Confusing even.

and very, very time-consuming.

And is the reason why I’ve allowed a third state of being into my mind garden – the pause of  fascination.


Basically when I come across a new piece of information I, like pretty much everyone else on the planet have a ‘gut reaction’ to it.

This gut reaction is something that logic and a bit of thinking time would call ‘bias’

  • Have I heard about this sort of thing before and do I feel comfortable with it?  Yes, OK well therefore I’ve no reason to be skeptical about this new information then so I start to accept it.
  • This information is all new or is similar to stuff I’ve rejected before. It doesn’t fit very closely (if at all) to my current view of the world and so I feel justifiably skeptical and mentally start finding ways in which it must be wrong.

I don’t seem to be able to intervene with this nano-second rationalisation process, a process that can lead me to pull my ‘you can’t be serious’ face, my ‘what the flip are you talking about’ or the ‘I can’t believe you believe that dude’ forehead wrinkle.  I’ve lots of forehead wrinkles just to prove this.

On the flip side I also find it hard to contain my ‘my goodness, that really is quite something’,  ‘wow’ or ‘really’  when I come across information that I instantly fall in love with, want to marry and have its babies.

And you know what, both of the above are what makes life so amazing.

To be a good (or great) scientist I feel it is absolutely imperative that one can recognise these ‘gut’ reactions, step back and pause.

I come across all kinds of people with all kinds of world views in my work as a cosmetic chemist and I would have a very, very bad business if I let my initial ‘and which planet did you say you were from’ gut reactions tie up my brain cell and flood out of my mouth.

I started practicing the ‘pause of fascination’ about four years ago when I was going through a very, very tough time personally and felt like my whole life was out of control.

I was always tense and physically sore because I was carrying so much mental anguish that I’d clench my teeth together when thinking and would clench my hands so tightly around the steering wheel when driving that I swear I’d nearly pull it right off.

I became aware of what I was doing to myself quite by accident really (how is another story) but once I’d recognised that I was blocking myself I found a way of coping with it, of working it to my advantage and that’s where the pause of fascination was born.

and it’s been my friend ever since.

The pause of fascination has taught me that gut reactions are not always right or helpful in the long run, in fact they are only really useful for keeping you where you already are and who want’s that? This pausing time has allowed me to challenge my own gut, to hold the new and somewhat un-comfortable ideas or believes that people I meet might have aloft and see them from all angles.  It has allowed me to carry on thinking and examining an idea or piece of information long after other people have written it off or jumped to a conclusion about it.  OK that has sometimes meant that I’ve played with bad ideas a little too long but on the flip side it has meant that in many, many cases I’ve learned heaps of new and exciting stuff, stuff that has enhanced my life and my consulting a thousand fold.

The pause of fascination is where I do my best lab work, research and collaborating.  It is a mindset that allows me to bring people in, to brainstorm and to explore.  It is by far and away the best ‘place’ I’ve ever been to and as time goes on this mindset or place unlocks more doors, more ideas and more exciting solutions.

But it isn’t always a comfortable place, to get to the pause of fascination you have to get past the compulsion to just believe or dismiss and be done, move on.  Even if you want to do this, finding the time and space these days is surprisingly hard, not least because everyone wants you to have an opinion on something instantly,  be with or against them and be able to offer a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer whereas we are talking about a thought process that might lead you to more grey than black or white.  There are many times when I’ve taken on an idea to play with then got half way through un-picking it only to find that I’m now exhausted, out of time, more confused than ever and totally unsure of something that before I was convinced about.

I’ll help you by giving you some examples:

  • Last week I saw a letter in a professional journal that once again looked to be linking lavender oil exposure to pre pubescent breast development in a child.  My gut reaction was ‘OMG, another case, there must be something in this’. I shared it on Linked in, got some feedback from others in this industry, re-read the original letter and saw it differently.  By the time I’d paused and played with the letter for a few days what I now saw was almost the complete opposite of what my gut would have me believe.  It wasn’t that I now dismissed this as nothing but I could see more clearly that while there was something interesting happening in this case, the ‘interesting’ wasn’t a lavender-breast tissue link. It was something altogether more fascinating but harder to sum up in a neat, short, punchy soundbite.
  • A while ago a client came to me wanting to develop vibrational essences using stones in a spritzer.  My initial gut reaction was ‘as if that’s gonna work’ but I opened my mind chakras (see what I did there) and allowed fascination to open myself up to the possibilities of stone spritz therapy.  What I found in that pause was a link back to my uni chemistry. To atoms, molecules and vibrational thermodynamics of materials.  Who am I to question the power of real, measurable crystals and minerals in a water based spritzer when I am the same person who puts 0.1% extract in a formula and allows clients to market it as soothing?
  • I’m frequently told about how good hand-made soap is for eczema and how it is ‘different’ to other types of soap (other types being implied as being inferior).  Once again my gut reaction tells me that this is a load of rubbish as being a first-hand (hands are often sore) eczema sufferer I’ve experienced soap from all shapes and sizes of suppliers on said skin and suffered the consequences.  But anyway, I fight my compulsion to say ‘no, you are wrong’ and let fascination take over.  What I discover upon further reading and practical experimentation is that it is possible to make soap with a large lye discount so it contains an excess of fats and that these fats are moisturising,  that once saponification is complete it is possible to reduce the pH of a bar of soap from the standard 8-9.5 to a more skin-friendly 7 making it less drying. I am also reminded through my own research that hand-made soaps are not under the same shelf-life and uniformity-of-look restrictions of the mass market and as such can use less ingredients which for some means less likelihood of irritation.  I reach the new conclusion that while to some degree soap is still soap it can be modified to make it substantially less likely to irritate than I first thought.  My jury is still out on whether that makes it ‘good’ for eczema prone skin but at least I have a deeper appreciation for the many ways that soap can be customised to suit different needs.

I guess what I’m saying and what I’ve learned is that as humans we can’t always help feeling initially skeptical or convinced of an idea when it is first presented to us but we need to recognise that is just our mind trying to make things easy and neat for us.  We need to appreciate that easy and neat doesn’t necessarily do us any favours and that in order to beat our own internal bias and grow we should cultivate our own ‘pause of fascination’ and allow others to cultivate theirs too.

An open mind is a healthy mind.



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