The Neurological Infrastructure of Christmas

I’ve been thinking for the last few days about believing in Santa Claus.  You might think that “neurological infrastructure” is a little too much for a piece about Christmas, but hold that thought until you are done.  If you still feel that way, read Kelly Lambert’s piece by clicking on the hypertext link.  And if you STILL feel that way, I say “Bah.  Humbug!”

The reference to “infrastructure” in the title, on the other hand, points to something a little less superficial.  I got to thinking about this when I read Kelly Lambert’s piece (here) in the New York Times.  Lambert is a mother whose young children still believe in Santa Claus.  She is also “a behavioral neuroscientist, a professor and a generally serious-minded, reality-based person.”

In the column she tells the story of an enormous and inventive lie she told her children the year they discovered their presents in the attic and then reflects, as a neurologist, on how glad she was that she told that lie. 

I’ll start with something we all know, beginning with “eventually, they learn that reindeer can’t fly…” The issue Lambert raises is the value of the experiences you have before you learn that.

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.

Christmas 3So what’s the advantage?  By preserving a “Santa Claus era,” she assured “that my girls have an emotional holiday portal for their future adult brains.”  So what’s an emotional portal?  It’s the same mechanism that provides the infrastructure for post-traumatic stress disorder.  Neuroimaging evidence shows that going through that portal—experiencing the past in its full cognitive and emotional power—is different from simply remembering an event.  Everyone knows that about battlefield stress.  Lambert is arguing that it’s true about Christmas memories, too.

Her children, as adults—knowing about the material world and its laws—will still retain access to those earlier times.  They will still have access to that portal.  It might be worth calling it a “post-tradition experiential benefit” just to keep the order of ideas in the same pattern as PTSD and thus to remind us that the same infrastructure underlies both.

I liked Lambert’s piece on its own merits, but I probably wouldn’t have written about it myself if several other dialogues had not been available.  Here is one.  It is from one of the many remakes of the movie Miracle on 42th Street.[1]  Susan Walker is a little girl who has had Santa Claus stripped away from her too early.  We know it is too early when she asks her mother, Dorey Walker, “Do I have to not believe in Santa Claus all at once?”  Here’s the way the discussion goes.

Dorey:             “…believing in myths and fantasies just makes you unhappy.”Christmas 1

Susan:             Did you believe in Santa Claus when you were my age?

Dorey:             Yes.

Susan:             Were you unhappy?

Dorey:             Well, when all the things I believed in turned out not to be true…yes, I was unhappy.

This is not the world neurologist Kelly Lambert gives us.  In her world, we learn what the world is really like but we retain access to a portal that leads us back to those magical pre-scientific times.  Dorey Walker ran into a wall at full speed.  A “portal” back to those times would be more like PTSD for her and she wants to spare her daughter that awful experience.  Lambert wants to keep her daughters’ access to those wonderful experiences.  “For every year I layered another set of Christmas memories into their brains,” Lambert says, “the easier it would be for them to relive those feelings.”

Christmas 2The neurology works the same way in either case.  That’s why I have been leaning on the notion of infrastructure.  And it isn’t really about Santa Claus.  I didn’t believe in Santa Claus as a young child, but I got “the magic of Christmas” completely.  I got the sights and the smells and the events of excitement and anticipation.  And that is the same kind of experience I wanted for my own kids, who also, if memory serves, didn’t believe in Santa Claus.

They got something, though.  Here is a Facebook note from my younger son Doug, put up on his page on Christmas day this year.

Remember that sense of wonder, that whole-body excitement you felt for Christmas as a child? Everything about today was special and felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It wasn’t just the presents, and it wasn’t just being together, there was something more, something . . . different, as though the air itself contained something extra, and light had properties it only had that day. The effect was intoxicating.  I wish that for you today. May you and all those you care about experience that on this most wondrous day.

“Intoxicating” is the word that reminded me of the portal back to the magic of Christmas, so on this third day of Christmas—the “three French hens day”—I wish you at least nine more wonderful days of vividly remembered pleasure.


[1] Not the 1947 version or the 1959 version or the 1973 version or the 2013 version, but the 1994 version.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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