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This is Your Brain on Santa

Santa on the Brain

ASHLAND, Va. — I’LL never forget that December day 12 years ago, and the family holiday crisis I so narrowly averted. I had spent the morning at my office writing a neuroscience textbook, and was looking forward to returning home to spend some time with my 3- and 7-year-old daughters, Skylar and Lara. But the news I received from my husband as I walked through the door was devastating. The girls had been exploring in the attic — a space I’d thought was the perfect hiding place for Santa’s gifts. It was more than a week before Christmas and they had just seen their presents!

I’m not sure where it came from but some maternal lobe in my brain immediately became activated, and I morphed into Santa’s legal counsel. “I was afraid this would happen!” I told the girls. I went on to explain that Santa had contacted all the parents whose kids were expecting bulky gifts that year and shared that he was having back problems. Mrs. Claus had insisted that Santa send some of those gifts ahead of time via U.P.S. so he wouldn’t be in so much pain delivering them on Christmas Eve.

But there was a condition to this agreement. I had to sign a contract stating that I would not, under any circumstances, let my children see the gifts before Santa had a chance to set them out on Christmas Eve. If the children saw the gifts, they would have to be sent back.
“NO! NO!” cried my girls. “We ... we only saw a few of them. We don’t even remember them.”
I told them that I was probably going to get in legal trouble but I would send only a few back and keep those they hadn’t seen. After serious consultation, we all agreed this was a good plan. I took a deep breath and continued decorating the house.
In addition to being a mom, I am a behavioral neuroscientist, a professor and a generally serious-minded, reality-based person. So what in the world had I just done? Why did I invent this incredible story in a desperate bid to protect my daughters’ belief in Santa, instead of seizing it as a teachable moment to tell them the truth?
While it may seem that I had abandoned my scientific training, nothing could be further from the truth.
Although children are born with a full set of 86 billion brain cells, or neurons, the connections between these neurons are relatively sparse during these early years. As their brains develop — as more and more micro-thread extensions form between neurons, and neurochemicals zap across the tiny gaps — children slowly learn about the rules of the physical world, and the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. Eventually, they learn that reindeer can’t fly, that Santa can’t visit every child’s home in one single night and, even if he could make such a trip, there’s no way he could eat all those cookies. Magical beliefs are pruned away as mature neural circuits reflecting real-world contingencies become solidified.
Luckily, however, we don’t completely lose those old ways of thinking, because the brain appears to retain a mechanism for neural time travel. By this, I don’t simply mean that adults have warm memories of having believed in Santa Claus. Pascal Boyer, a professor of memory at Washington University in St. Louis, differentiates between what he refers to as episodic memories — the first time we sat on Santa’s knee or the year a blizzard knocked out the electricity — and mental time travel memories, or M.T.T. These come closer to re-experiencing a remembered event. Professor Boyer describes how neuroimaging evidence indicates that, when certain events are recalled — presumably after being triggered by familiar sights, smells or sounds — emotional brain areas are activated as well as visceral responses. You relive the feelings you experienced in the past. These recollections can be thought of as full body and brain memories.
This can be traumatic, as it is likely to be for people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Or it can be more mundane. Imagine that someone had a chili dog before riding a roller coaster and then got sick. For years, he may be overcome by nausea whenever he encounters a chili dog — even if he knows perfectly well it was the motion of the ride that made him ill. When the brain considers something to be important, it is difficult to extinguish its responses to conditioned memories. Thankfully, it can happen for happy memories as well.
This notion of mental time travel tells me it was right to try to keep Santa alive for my daughters. For every year I layered another set of Christmas memories into their brains, the easier it would be for them to relive those feelings.
From my own childhood, all those years of reciting “ ’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” smelling fir trees, and going to bed with all the anticipation of a cocaine addict about to get the biggest hit of her life have become a part of my brain’s permanent holiday infrastructure.
(Incidentally, neuroscience confirms another bit of Christmas wisdom: that the anticipation of the holiday can be as exhilarating as receiving the actual gifts. Rodent research suggests that addicted rats experience pleasure, neurologically speaking, when they anticipate receiving cocaine, even if they don’t actually consume it.)
Today, I am so reality-based that my daughters jokingly refer to me as Bones, after Fox’s stoic, almost Aspergerish forensic anthropologist. Even so, because my holiday memories were consolidated at a time when my brain effortlessly conjured up images of flying reindeer, I still feel a bit of that Christmas magic when I encounter holiday sights, smells and sounds. Like Pavlov’s slobbering dogs, my “Christmas spirit” is the result of conditioned responses that have been consolidated in various areas of my brain, and the right sensory cocktail of sights and smells can still give me a holiday high.
So, although I was in mom-mode and not neuroscience-mode when I came up with that cockamamie story about Santa’s bad back, neuroscience research confirms the benefits of trying to assure that my girls have an emotional holiday portal for their future adult brains. I believe this is just as important as their childhood vaccinations — as it is for all children, whether their memories are of Christmas or of other celebrations and traditions. Throughout their adulthood, even when I’m no longer around, the sight of Santa will allow my daughters, once again, to see the world as a child would, if only for a few fleeting moments.
Kelly Lambert is a professor of neuroscience at Randolph-Macon College and the author of “The Lab Rat Chronicles: A Neuroscientist Reveals Life Lessons From the Planet’s Most Successful Mammals.”

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