The neuroscience of Christmas


Traditionally Christmas is a time when we wish “Peace on Earth” and “goodwill to all mankind”. The neuroscience of wishes shows that the moment we articulate something that is, essentially, a form of fantastical thinking, we’ve actively taken a step towards its materialization – at least in thought if not in deed.

Christmas, however, is a special time of the year. At a neurobiological level it establishes a bridge between a cultural event (i.e. Christmas) and a neurobiological response which manifests itself in analyzable neurochemical and physiological responses. The magic however (and believe it or not there is, indeed, a magical thing that happens here) lies in the neuroscience of team building with its attendant emotional contagion and neurological mirroring.

This is a truly complex thing. Mirror neurons may help with our internal modelling of external, observed events but their exact role is still being debated. As with everything that takes place in the brain the picture that will emerge is more than likely to have parts from everywhere: culture and data, mirroring and internal modelling, cognitive structures and perception, beliefs and knowledge.

All of which brings to Christmas. The magic (and the power of our wishes) happens because we all want about the same universal things (like peace, prosperity and goodwill) at about the same time. It is the time when the transformational collisions we engage in happen to be on roughly the same wavelength. It becomes hard for us to then think of how something is impossible. Things that are perceived to be at least partially attainable lead to direct actions that reflect our desire to achieve them.

That’s why charitable giving increases over Christmas. We feel more altruistic. We are prepared to be more open to experiences (and spending). We are more grateful, generous and empathic.

The common wavelength we find ourselves sharing with others; makes for some very interesting side effects with some incredible results such as a reduction in terrorism and the reaching of better political understanding, as Jose Miguel Sokoloff explains in his TED talk.

What is intriguing in all this, what should be intriguing is the fact that shared cultural events lead to shared cultural experiences that held the development of shared cultural understandings. Today, in our admittedly complicated, fragmented multi-faceted world such events and such experiences are few and far between. In our distant past however they were the norm. They were the temporal landmarks that gave us our shared identity and our shared understanding of the world and our destiny.

Christmas then is a shared time of reflection and awareness. A fact made possible by a cultural event whose external signals are hard to miss. It is, sadly, also as much a time of inclusion as it is of exclusion. It should then be as much a time for looking in as a time for reaching out. Like everything else we’ve created; it now is, very much, what we are prepared to make of it.

Coffee. (Say yes!). Donuts, croissants, cookies and some chocolate cake (at the very least). Plus maybe chocolate Santas, Cadbury’s crème eggs and maybe, even, some gingerbread cookies. You know I know that you know how to put all this together. Have an awesome Sunday, wherever you are.

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