31|12|2017

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON CHRISTMAS

... and on all the other holidays

Ah the holidays, the most wonderful time of the year are coming to a close! Eating delicious food, singing songs, more eating, drinking to excess and PRESENTS! In what should be the gloomiest and darkest time of winter, we often find ourselves looking forward to these few days with the utmost excitement. So why would we have so much to look forward to? Well let’s take a look using neuroscience to see why the holidays mean so much to us. 

#1: FOOD

Let’s be honest, to many, the holidays are all about the food! Whether your family eats duck, turkey, ham or tofurkey etc. Christmas foods usually contain a high amount of fat and sugar and salt. This is also the food we tend to crave. Turns out when we eat the food we crave, excite the pleasure centers of our brains. In particular one area called the nucleus accumbens, fires when we get rewarded, like when we win a game or get paid. When we activate this area, and others attached to it, we feel good through releases of chemicals called dopamine and serotonin. We often want to have as much dopamine and serotonin in our brains as possible, leading people to become addicted to these behaviours. These can start off as cravings, but can lead to full blown addictions. We want to eat more and feel good. Secondly, we usually have fond associations with food from past holidays. Our pleasure center is linked to the brain region that encodes memories (the hippocampus). That’s why certain memories can make us feel happy or sad. So, when we have fond memories, and we revisit those, we can feel EVEN happier. Lastly, evolutionary-speaking, our little mammal brains tends to equate cold times with hibernating. Like bears and squirrels, we have this compulsion to pack on the pounds and sleep away the winter… at least, that’s how I feel. 

#2: GIFTS

I shouldn’t have to explain why receiving gifts makes us feel good. Our pleasure centers (that nucleus accumbens again) go HAYWIRE when we get something that we have been desiring for the past few weeks/months/years! But recently, scientists have been looking into the pleasure of gift GIVING. Strange no?  If we think like cave-men, our brains evolutionarily speaking are hardwired to enjoy gift giving. Psychologists have found that the complex ritual of gift giving strengthens bonds, and often the gift giver can get more satisfaction than the one receiving the gift. Not only do we get prestige from gift giving, but men tend to give more practical gifts and women tend to give more emotionally-minded gifts. Once these gifts are received, and the person responds happily to their new gift, that little area in our brain goes off again, and bam, some more serotonin and dopamine flood our brains. Scientist believed it was through gift giving and the joy of feeding and caring for others, led us to become a community based species.

#3: MUSIC

Christmas music. Is there anything as lovely and infuriating as the endless drone of holiday music. Some people I know LOVE Christmas music and on December 1st - Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas’ blasts on repeat for 25 days. Others bury their heads in pillows and retch at the sound of anything related to caroling. So why the difference? This time, the music is all down to association. If we had nice experiences paired with the music, then we will often look bad with happy memories - and our pleasure circuit, memory regions and regions connected to emotions will fire positively. Music in general has been known to make us feel happy and have powerful emotional associations. Its further compounded by the overwhelmingly positive vibes that these songs give out. However, if you’re a retail worker, and the sounds of ‘frosty the snowman’ are associated with screaming customers, you may not love Christmas songs.

#4: FAMILY TIME

Well this one can be a mixed bag. Family togetherness has often been touted as the real reason for the holidays. Social bonding can often be the most satisfying things for our brains. Scientists have shown that physical human interaction trumps all other forms of connections. Especially when we spend time with those that are our family members. This has been explained through evolutionary traits of trying to solidify our tribes. We as a species often succeed in our small groups, and our brains know this and make us happiest and safest when we are in our little units. Be they our biological or chosen families. Oddly enough, these chemicals and opioids that our body can naturally produce flood the brains of parents when looking at their children. 

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But for some, these songs, dinners and gifts merely conjure up cold nights, being alone and none of the holiday cheer they are supposed to imbue. The fact is, some people do not get along with their families, or even have people to call relatives. The holidays for some can be associated with pain and loneliness. So, this year, now that we are finished celebrating and eating our fill with those we love, let’s give some time to spread some happiness to those that need it most. Give an elderly relative a call or a visit. Donate to those that need it most. Give others a happy holiday season that you have, or wish you had. In the end, as we know, giving can often be more rewarding than receiving. The holiday season is a time for love, kindness and sharing. From my family to yours, I wish you the very best during the Christmas season and lots of love and happiness in the new year!

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